10 subversive takeaways for managers and consultants

When we invited the organizational sociologist Stefan Kühl for the CMW2021 to a dialogue, we knew he would be provocative: ” Management principles are like proverbs – the opposite is always just as true”, “The best purpose-driven organizations are sects and terror organizations” and “Don’t ask your employees to change their mindset.” In the practical dialogue with Stefan Kühl, 250 interested participants learned how to use the term agile organization without having to believe in it.

We have summarized and commented on the most interesting insights from the dialogue below. First of all, our 10 subversive take-aways.

10 subversive takeaways for managers and consultants

  1. Don’t just read the latest management books, read the old ones. Everything relevant to organization has already been thought of in the last century.
  2. Use the agility discourse without believing in it. Use the terms that are currently in vogue in the organization (usually no one notices).
  3. Don’t try to change the mindset of employees (it won’t work). To change behaviour, tweak the formal structures.
  4. Beware of the organization’s immune system: it kicks in uninhibited when confronted with a non-mainstream reality in the organization.
  5. Disappoint the organization’s hopes in simple solutions slowly and in homeopathic doses.
  6. When confronted with a proverbial management principle, think of the counter proverb. The combination creates exciting impulses.
  7. Management fads make managers and consultants “dumber”, but also more capable of acting. Use the fads and don’t just be “clever”.
  8. Shut off the critical brain every once in a while, and just do it. Even the unintended consequences of actions can be very functional.
  9. If you want to understand new organizational principles and their side effects, look at organizations that have implemented the principles idealistically. In terrorist organizations, for example, people are willing to give their lives for the “purpose”.
  10. There is no such thing as the ideal form of organization – look for what moves the organization forward now (or what will harm it the least).

Too simple? Not plausible? Too proverbial? Maybe only at first glance. For those who want to get to the bottom of the matter, it might be worth reading on from here.

“Agility” activates age-old organizational principles

Agility is understood as the ability of an organization to continuously adapt to its complex, turbulent and uncertain environment, that is one of the common definitions. “Well, what else?” asks Stefan Kühl. What else is the task of an organization? And if it is so obvious, what is the point of the definition? Due to the “sounding value formulas of the management fad agility”, however, one does not immediately notice that this is about the natural day-to-day business of organizations.

“Agile organization – a typical management fad?”


According to Kühl, the “Agile” label is mostly about three organizational principles:

  • The dissolution of departments (new swear word “silo”) so that everyone works together with everyone in all directions
  • The dismantling of hierarchies (“hierarchy” as the next swear word) to reduce the loss of information from top to bottom and back again
  • The withdrawal of formal control (“bureaucracy” as the third swear word) so that employees can decide for themselves how best to solve problems

“Nothing new under the sun” argues the organizational sociologist. These mechanisms have been propagated since the beginning of the 20th century and have been coming in waves ever since. The same wave is rolling under labels such as “Agility”, “Reinventing Organizations” and “New Work”. Or in the words of management pioneer Peter Drucker: In the 1920s, everything that we know in organizations today was already being thought of.

We also know the problems of these organizational principles

“Just look at organizations that have most radically implemented the management and organizational principles now being praised! advises Kühl. That would be terrorist organizations or political parties, for example, when it comes to agile ideals such as “purpose” and “freedom from hierarchy”. “Even the most progressive and agile company is in its infancy in this respect, compared to, for example, left-wing political organizations, which because of their beliefs (read “purpose”) do not want any hierarchy or formalization”. However, a look at these organizations also shows what problems arise as a result of the supposed solutions.

Kühl identifies three problems associated with the organizational principles mentioned above:

  • Identity problems: If you form units that are responsible for a certain goal, they develop their own identity, and this is not always compatible with the rest of the organization.
  • Politicization problems: Dissolving hierarchies does not reduce the unwanted power struggles. It even reinforces them, since each time it has to be negotiated who is allowed to decide how and where.
  • Complexity problems: The abolition of formal rules increases complexity and often requires new role clarifications in order to remain able to act.

But looking at different organizational types is difficult for many (managers or consultants are not excluded). These are often only trained for one type of organization (the company in a specific industry). Sociologists have a clear advantage here due to their broader concept of organization.

Organizational design with proverb and counter-proverb

“Management principles are like proverbs: for every principle there is also an equally plausible principle that expresses the opposite!” argues Stefan Kühl. This has to be the case, because every organizational principle has desired and undesired effects. Each of the euphonious “proverbs” is plausible on its own, which distracts from the fact that the opposite is also true.

If, for example, transparency and communication are propagated, it is easy to forget how beneficial and relieving it can be to prevent or channel communication. If you propagate more and better leadership as a solution, then it is easy to overlook the fact that in many areas it makes more sense to do without leadership and instead to consistently automate certain processes with technical solutions.

If you now think through “proverb” and “counter-proverb”, then you often generate interesting impulses: Where should the organization prevent communication instead of promoting it? And where should the organization spare itself leadership by “programming” certain processes?

management principles

“Management principles are like proverbs and counter-proverbs”

Our job: Balancing the side effects of structural decisions

Every change in a formal structure has functionalities and dysfunctionalities. Sociological organizational research focuses on these. Managers and counsellors can use knowledge of organizational theory to anticipate – in addition to the desired effects – especially the undesired side effects. You can then also prepare accordingly for the effects of introducing a matrix organization, switching to incremental development or eliminating hierarchical levels.

This is exactly what makes our job as managers and consultants so demanding and interesting: It’s not about finding and implementing the “ideal model”, but about finding the solution for the current problem one is facing, that can move the organization forward again in the next 1-2 years.

Management fads make you “dumber” – and that’s a good thing!

“Following management fads makes us stupid. We reduce reality to a proverb and hide the counter-proverb.” says Kühl. However: “It’s not about being clever all the time!” In organizations, there is a rationality of stupidity. If you don’t always consider all the side effects, if you don’t consider all the alternatives, then you are motivated to act. Doubts are avoided, and surprising effects that are meaningful and functional often emerge from the dynamics produced by apparent “stupidity”. In organizations, it is therefore important to sometimes “switch off one’s critical brain” and simply “do”. Because the longer one thinks about side effects and alternatives, the more one is blocked in the decision-making process.

As a manager as well as a consultant, you should even rely on the “dumbing down effect” of management fads in order to generate dynamics. For example, one can deliberately rely on the agility discourse to simplify the discussion. In the words of Kühl: “If you think something makes sense, just call it agile if that’s the trend in the organization. As a rule, no one notices.”

Enlightenment in homeopathic doses

“You shouldn’t uninhibitedly confront your organization with what we’re discussing here,” says Kühl finally. Indeed, it would be unwise to confront organizations with an organizational-sociologically informed reality “That would only lead to the immune system kicking in and trying to fight off the impulse.” Stefan Kühl advises instead to let observations flow into the organization in homeopathic doses. This is the only way the information can be processed in the organization.

As managers and consultants, we are therefore confronted with another balancing act: We have to constantly weigh up which disappointments are acceptable to the organization at which levels in order to be effective in terms of the desired changes. In addition to knowledge and experience from similar situations, this balancing act requires above all a high degree of empathy with the members of the organization.

Just change your mindset?

In organizational sociology, people are understood as a structural feature of an organization and as such are very difficult to change. Why? Because in adults the combination of self-expectation and expectation from others has long led to the formation of a “personality”. With this understanding, attempts to work directly on the “mindset” or on the basic “attitude” are usually in vain – if not even invasive and “equate to demanding a change in personality,” explains Kühl. Therefore, his plea is not to speak of “mindset” or “change of attitude”.

Instead, according to Kühl, “formal structural changes are an efficient way of changing behaviour in the organization”. The formal structures include the structural and process organization but also people in key positions and communication processes. Of course, new formal structures are also undermined here and there, and unwanted side effects arise. However, no matter how the behaviour changes, new experiences arise – and this is essential – that don’t fit into the old pattern. Eventually, everyone will rationalize their own behaviour and the new experiences. With a considerable time delay (sometimes years), this can lead to an adjustment of thinking styles and attitudes. A changed mindset is the effect – and not the trigger.

Agility disenchanted – So what?

If we take the impulses from organizational sociology seriously, what does this mean for us as consultants and managers? Do we ban the term “agile” from the vocabulary? Or according to the motto “now more than ever” demand “agile organization” even more urgently at every opportunity? Probably neither.

Instead, we can say that agility and the associated discourse have triggered developments and enabled changes in recent years that perhaps no one would have thought possible before. At the same time, we see that whenever new organizational principles are hyped into fashion, the unintended consequences and the counter-movement are inevitable. And that is what makes our job so exciting and challenging. In the future, too, we will have to seek the right balance and explore again and again what makes the next helpful steps in the development of an organization possible. From now on, we will always have the note with the 10 subversive take-aways with us!

Stefan Kühl, born in 1966, is a professor of sociology with a focus on organizational sociology at Bielefeld University. His books ” When the Monkeys Run the Zoo: The Pitfalls of Flat Hierarchies” and ” The Rainmaker Effect: Contradictions of the Learning Organization” are standard works in management literature. For the ICG Change Management Workshop 2021 we were able to win him for a keynote, a panel discussion and an intensive practical dialogue with 250 interested co-creators.