James G. March, the eminent interdisciplinary scholar of organizations, was interviewed in The Harvard Review of Business in October. For me, March and Karl Wieck are, respectively, the Monk and Coltrane of organizational behavior research. Well, they’re much more than researchers.
Here’s an excerpt.
You’ve written about the importance of a “technology of foolishness.” Could you tell us a little about it? That paper sometimes gets cited â€“ by people who haven’t read it closely â€“ as generic enthusiasm for silliness.
Well, maybe it is, but the paper actually focused on a much narrower argument. It had to do with how you make interesting value systems. It seemed to me that one of the important things for any person interested in understanding or improving behavior was to know where preferences come from rather than simply to take them as given.
So, for example, I used to ask students to explain the factual anomaly that there are more interesting women than interesting men in the world. They were not allowed to question the fact. The key notion was a developmental one: When a woman is born, she’s usually a girl, and girls are told that because they are girls they can do things for no good reason. They can be unpredictable, inconsistent, illogical. But then a girl goes to school, and she’s told she is an educated person. Because she’s an educated person, a woman must do things consistently, analytically, and so on. So she goes through life doing things for no good reason and then figuring out the reasons, and in the process, she develops a very complicated value systemâ€“one that adapts very much to context. It’s such a value system that permitted a woman who was once sitting in a meeting I was chairing to look at the men and say,”As nearly as I can tell, your assumptions. But your conclusions are wrong.” And she was right. Men, though, are usually boys at birth. They are taught that, as boys, they are straightforward, consistent, and analytic. Then they go to school and are told that they’re straightforward, consistent, and analytic. So men go through life being straightforward, consistent, and analyticâ€“with the goals of a two-year-old. And that’s why men are both less interesting and more predictable than women. They do not combine their analysis with foolishness.
How do you encourage people to be foolish?
Well, there are some obvious ways. Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive. It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that â€“ foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable. So there’s a nice tension between how much foolishness is good for knowledge and how much knowledge is good for foolishness.
Another source of foolishness is coercion. That’s what parents often do.They say,”You’re going to take dance lessons.” And their kid says, “I don’t want to be a dancer.” And the parents say, “I don’t care whether you want to be a dancer.You’re going to take these lessons.”The use of authority is one of the more powerful ways to encourage foolishness. Play is another. Play is disinhibiting. When you play, you are allowed to do things you would not be allowed to do otherwise. However, if you’re not playing and you want to do those same things, you have to justify your behavior. Temporary foolishness gives you experience with a possible new youâ€“ but before you can make the change