Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How to get a little dumb luck with ‘functional stupidity’

Published 13 August 2013 08:49, Updated 14 August 2013 08:55

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How to get a little dumb luck with ‘functional stupidity’

Peter Falk as Columbo, the detective who specialised in ‘functional stupidity’

If you want to be a success, it pays to be a little stupid. A new management theory posits that too much cleverness just gets in the way of an efficient business.

That’s me sorted then.

Just when you think you’ve heard every cockamamie idea to come out of a business school, there’s always just one more that will send your head reeling.

The theory of “functional stupidity” explains that really smart people spend a lot of time running around and questioning things, rather than just getting things done.

Mats Alvesson, Professor of Organisation Studies at the School of Economics and Management, Lund University, Sweden, says a lack of questioning can raise productivity.

“We see functional stupidity as the absence of critical reflection. It is a state of unity and consensus that makes employees in an organisation avoid questioning decisions, structures and visions,” he says in an article in Science Daily.

The solution, then, is to have enough clever people to be able to recognise risks and come up with new ideas, and a reasonable proportion of “stupids” (perhaps better known as the useful idiot Epsilons in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) who are happy just to get the job done.

Some industries are more stupid than others: parts of the mass media (I knew that), the fashion industry and consultancy firms were “particularly disposed” to develop functional stupidity, according to the article.

Clarity from foolishness

Another idea in the research, co-authored by André Spicer, is that a certain amount of foolishness can help clarify issues. It is the reasoning behind asking dumb questions or, for those old enough to remember the bumbling TV detective, the Columbo approach.

In an article about the theory (you can read the theory here, but it has a lot of words, long ones, and I couldn’t get to the end of it), author and editor Megan Hustad writes that you can act dumb to get your way.

“A New York-based property developer says that instead of constantly arguing with a partner who bi-weekly comes up with impossible schemes, he responds as if he has no objection with the proposed idea whatsoever,” she says.

“So the business partner wants to walk away from a $500,000 project? Sure! Let’s do that. Great idea. Then, he says, he quickly pivots into implementing the plan – asking which four employees they’d need to can, what orders should be cancelled, and so on down the list of implications. Invariably, the partner reconsiders.”

Anyway, being too clever can actually work against your career ambitions.

Ever heard of the Peter Principle? People will rise to their level of incompetence – often because people will not promote you out of a job you are doing superbly. They will promote the ones they want to get rid of.

You can be too good for your own good.

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