The Vector View on Collective Incompetence: The Real Truth About Organizations

March 9th, 2016   •   no comments   

Why do business executives accept mediocre performance and ignore the telltale signs of collective dysfunction (incompetence) within their own organization? There are too many in the business community including those in management and those working from the outside as consultants who wear blinders restricting their view to only individual or small group performance. This goes to the old saw about “greasing the squeaky wheel” to get to desired results. The intention here is to address these issues at the enterprise level.

The modern world increasingly depends upon ever larger groups of people working effectively together but there is little written about improving group or enterprise-wide performance. This article raises the specter of what is necessary to change organizational dynamics to bring better returns to a business’ stakeholders.

Our View of Organizations

Organizations are complex entities that are living systems. This led us to the assertion that any organization composed of more than seven people is by definition, dysfunctional.

Think about that statement for a moment. Anytime there are more than seven people involved in anything, or more correctly five people plus or minus two—communication alone makes aligned clarity impossible. Even with well-trained and intelligent people, if there are more than seven people involved, all kinds of forces take hold to create dysfunction.

There is data about this in social psychology research, group dynamics research, and communications research. The interpersonal communications data alone show that getting anything crystal clear to a larger group of people so that they all view it in the same way, with the same understanding, same priorities, same assumptions, and same expectations is nearly impossible.

We look at organizations in terms of the culture (people and the way they behave) and the infrastructure (structure, systems, policies, procedures and so on) aligned or supporting the business strategy. Culture, infrastructure and strategy are the three main driving forces within an organization that impacts each and every human being within that organization each and every day. Businesses hire the best and the brightest their budgets can afford. So what causes highly talented individuals to bring only lukewarm results?

Collective incompetence or dysfunction is the phenomenon created by driving forces within the organization that causes highly competent individuals to become highly incompetent when placed in teams or work groups within organizations. In other words, the best and the brightest people with the best intentions can and usually will become dysfunctional and incompetent in a group setting.

How does Collective Incompetence Manifest Itself?

Examples of this resulting unconscious and unintentional behavior can be found in business, government and institutions of all kinds. The business literature and the business press abound with such examples. We see poor decision-making leading to not only poor performance but ethical debacles as well: Tyco, Anderson Consulting, Enron, BP, ad infinitum. Let’s not forget the US Congress in this election year.

Groupthink—There are variations in the definition of “groupthink” but it is a phenomenon where consensus is reached within a group that encourages conformity and cohesiveness over creative and critical thought. Conflict is unacceptable as is personal responsibility. The classic example of groupthink goes back to John F. Kennedy (1962) and the collective decision with the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Trips to Abilene—The Abilene Paradox is defined by a collective decision to take a particular course action by a group of people that goes counter to their individual wishes. In other words, if you find yourself and your colleagues in Abilene and you didn’t want to be there, THAT is the Abilene Paradox.

The Peter Principle—In a hierarchy a person rises to the level of his or her own incompetence. In other words people are promoted until they reach the level that they are no longer competent. Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull introduced this in their book, The Peter Principle back in 1969.

The Paul Principle—Paul Armer proposed this principle a year after The Peter Principle. His assertion was the people become more and more incompetent in jobs they were once highly qualified to do. In time with changes in priorities, technology, business scope or focus, workload demands and the rest, people can succumb to being overwhelmed in positions they once effectively managed.

Organizations tolerate all of these manifested behaviors consciously or unconsciously, purposefully or not for a variety of reasons. If it is not horribly bad, grossly inappropriate, or even blatantly unethical, it is good enough— an organization’s members expect and accept MEDIOCRITY.

Some Additional Key Drivers for Collective Incompetence

Within the three main driving forces of an organization—culture, infrastructure and strategic intent—there are a host of other key drivers that cause collective incompetence. We preface these factors with

  • Civil propriety
  • Desire to please the boss
  • 360° feedback both informal and formal
  • False starts in creating change
  • Unvoiced expectations
  • Assumptions
  • Off-the-shelf, generic solutions
  • Work flow dynamics
  • Quality initiatives
  • Upward communication & downward communication
  • Non-systemic thinking
  • Non-aligned reward systems
  • Leadership, management and supervision
  • Organizational design and structure
  • Benchmarking
  • ISO
  • Process systems
  • Process measurements
  • Functional groups
  • Strategic / organizational MISalignment

Three of the Most Egregious Drivers of Collective Incompetence

  • Employee surveys of any type where data is collected and nothing is visibly done with it
  • Management training out of context
  • Successful team building—which is almost always out of context

How to Combat Collective Incompetence

  • Systems thinking (focus on organizational performance)
  • Organizational alignment (culture, infrastructure and strategy)
  • Cross-Functional Feedback (feedback between functions)
  • Partnering (teamwork between teams)
  • 360° Feedback (appropriate in the context of the whole organization)


Strategic Alignment

Systems Thinking

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.  Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts . . . Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes.”

Russell L. Ackoff


(A partial list here; a more expanded list on change, leadership, organizations available upon request to [email protected])

On the dysfunction of organizations:

Peter, Laurence J. & Hull, Raymond, The Peter Principle, William Morrow and Company, 1969.

Townsend, Robert C. and Bennis, Warren. Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. John Wiley & Sons. 2007 (originally published in 1970)

Any Dilbert collection (Scott Adams)

Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, ca. 1513

Alternative media (film) on dysfunction of organizations – both based upon very real events (and quite entertaining):

Barbarians At The Gate – the story of the leveraged buyout of RJR-Nabisco

The Pentagon Wars – based on the book The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old

Guard describing the development of the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle.

A SERIOUS deep dive into Systems Theory, biological systems in particular:

Miller, James Grier, Living Systems, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1978 (Editor’s note: You REALLY GOTTA WANNA learn about living systems to read this tome)

General reference:

Ackoff, Russell L., Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management, Wiley and Sons, 1999

Ackoff, Russell L. Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or Be Planned For, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1981

Organizational systems:

Carleton, J. Robert, Implementation and Management of Performance Improvement Plans: Emphasizing Group and Organizational Interventions, HRD Press, 2010.

Carleton, J. Robert & Lineberry, Claude S. Analyzing Corporate Culture, Handbook of Human Performance Technology:  Improving Individual and Organizational Performance Worldwide, 2nd Edition, Stolovitch & Keeps (eds.), Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1999, pp.  335 – 350.

Carleton, J. Robert. Thinking and Working at the Enterprise Level: Personal Views from a Battle-Scarred Veteran and Some Points of Consensus, Performance Improvement Journal, Volume 45, No. 6, July 2006, pp. 23 – 27.

Carleton, J. Robert. HPT: Focused on Individuals or Focused on the Enterprise, Performance Improvement Journal, Volume 44, Issue 3, March 2005, pp. 5 – 11

Burke, W. Warner, Organization Change, Second Edition, Sage Publications, Los Angeles, 2008, pp. 187,  (the “Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change”)

Kotter, John P. Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1996

Vector Group_Collective Incompetence_Carleton & Craig_TheVectorView blog_PowerPoint (an updated short PowerPoint on this topic originally presented at the International Society for Performance Improvement international conference in 2011)


Gary & Bob

J. Robert “Bob” Carleton is a Founding Partner and current CEO of Vector Group, Inc. and an internationally recognized authority in organizational performance and effectiveness. He is a global thought leader and a pioneer in the emerging field of Cultural Due Diligence (CDD) its application in successful M & A’s. Based on his research and experience, he was the first to coin the term CDD in 1996.

He is the author of two books. He and Claude Lineberry published a “how-to” guide for assessing and integrating cultures that will create successful mergers and acquisitions (Achieving Post-Merger Success: A Stakeholder’s Guide to Cultural Due Diligence, Assessment, and Integration, Pfeiffer and Company, 2004) and published his second book, Implementation and Management of Performance Improvement Plans: Emphasizing Group and Organizational Interventions, HRD Press, 2010. He and Gary Craig are planning a revised edition of Achieving Post-Merger Success and another book, Achieving Organizational Intent: A Management Guide to Successfully Implementing Business Strategy.

The International Society for Performance Improvement honored Bob with its prestigious Geary Rummler Award for the Advancement of Performance Improvement at THE Performance Improvement Conference in Toronto, 2012. You may reach Bob at [email protected].

Gary W. Craig is the Managing Partner and COO for the Americas and Asia at Vector Group, Inc. You may reach him at [email protected]. Vector Group is a global consulting firm specializing in systematic organizational diagnosis and interventions to ensure that corporate strategy, culture, and infrastructure are aligned to achieve breakthrough success.  Please visit our website at or call us at (800) 566-0877.

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