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The Problem with Exceptionalism – and Seeking Common Cause in Organizations

Submitted by on April 8, 2012 – 6:35 am5 Comments

I have been working mostly with (and for) large global organizations for the past many years.   I have found that, in business, size brings benefits but few virtues.

One problem that has caught my attention lately is what I would call “exceptionalism” – the belief held in a business unit, sector, or leader within an organization that their “case” or challenge (whatever it might be) requires its own unique solution.   This makes a degree of sense.   After all every situation and every person is, in the final analysis, exceptional.   So every thinking human being can build a rational argument to support the notion that they require their own team, their own resources, their own agency, their own methodology, tools and on it goes.   It is also not coincidental that a belief in exceptionalism is more often than not self-serving.  Being exceptional allows one more access to budget and authority.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that business, as merely an extension of the pattern exhibited by all organic life, is trending towards increasing complexity and specialization.   And specialization, by definition requires unique knowledge, talent and organizational structure.   In my field it is clear that you need specialists (i.e. “exceptional” talent) for many initiatives you might undertake; for example search, mobile, ecommerce, privacy issues, social media and so on.   No argument there.   The problem is that exceptionalism tends to be the default setting within organizations; we begin by thinking we know more than others, that our problem is unique, that we have special needs.

Exceptionalism fractures an organization into silos that spend time on problems and challenges that, more often than not in my experience, are actually not exceptional – but shared.     And this fracturing represents not only a waste of material resources through duplicated effort but more importantly the erosion of a culture of collaboration, shared language and meaning.    The latter is far more difficult to repair once broken and far more costly in the long-run.    And no coincidence,  exceptionalism breeds more exceptionalism and begins to look like a form of pathology.

So what if we switched our default setting?  What if we began, not with an answer (“I am dealing with an exceptional problem that requires an exceptional solution”)  but with a question (“what does this have in common with the challenges faced by the rest of the organization?”  “who else is working on this problem?”  “who else knows about this?”).

Changing the default setting; from exceptionalism to what I would term Common Cause shifts your starting point:

From To

Skepticism           Trust

Ownership            Partnership

I know best           We know better

Distilled into its simplest form of action this is about beginning any inquiry by seeking common cause.  Easier said than done, and certainly a trait that must be hardwired into the culture of an organization.   That said, Common Cause cultures will dominate “Exceptional” ones.


Digital transformation is steadily eroding the competitive benefits conferred by size.    It flattens the field of play by allowing online access to a global market and a host of plug-and-play services ( financial systems, shipping and logistics, on-demand manufacturing and so on) that were once the privilege of large, heavily capitalized companies.   In this type of a world the massive drag caused by exceptionalism can slow innovation and increase cost – a deadly combination.  So the benefits of size will be outpaced by the virtues of collaboration and common cause.

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  • I think that a good antidote to exceptionalism is the study of history and philosophy. It's too bad those disciplines aren't a bigger part of business-school curricula and ongoing managerial education.

    For example, a course I took on decision-making taught lessons from famous business and military decisions. It gave me the sense that there are very few fundamentally new problems in our everyday business life and that how well you manage people is more crucial than how much information or power you have. And research indicates that the best way to manage people is by creating teams that operate according to the values you describe.

    The practice of philosophy, if done properly, should leave us with a natural skepticism of our own certitude and a default openness to the experiences of others.

  • joshuamross says:

    Hastings – 
    Absolutely.    A great book on this subject is Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer.    You also remind me of one of my favorite quotes from Voltaire:  “Doubt is uncomfortable but certainty is absurd.”

    Concerning the thrust of your argument, the question for me is how do you get that type of philosophically inclined character built into a large (more than 20,000 employees) organization?  After all – the issue I have with exceptionalism is that it is taking place in this invisible middle-layer of the organizations that I work with.     

    This is just one of the issues that has led me to consider the viability of  many large institutions over the next 50 years.   The benefits conferred by size has historically been economy of scale (you can mass produce and object at lower cost), distribution (you have access to markets) and the capital to fund both research and development and marketing (costly TV ads, direct mail, point of sale materials etc.).

    Fast forward to our current day and age:   I can design a great new product,  send a CAD file to China (or many other locations) for manufacture at any number of on-demand manufacturing facilities.    In terms of distribution I can tap into social networks (Facebook has a billion connected people) etc. if my product is remarkable and I can market my product online and tap into the largest market ever (anyone online with the ability to purchase).  I can cheaply tap into a variety of services to handle back office stuff such as  shipping and logistics (Amazon, Yahoo, UPS etc.).   I can also do this with a very small, passionate team of people.    I realize that there are still many fields where you need serious size and capitalization (biotechnology, big budget entertainment, chip manufacturing, healthcare etc.) – but in the ones where you aren't as reliant on size anymore (say for example, consumer electronics, durable goods, low-fi entertainment etc.) what is to stop small passionate teams that share the same vision and beliefs from crushing those large companies that no longer can defend themselves with the old advantages? 

  • My favorite quote on the subject, from Carl Jung: “Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality and intelligence of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity.” (The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, p. 100-101 in The Portable Jung)

    To answer your question in a nutshell, I suggest the methods of metrics-driven organization development.

    I see two levels to this problem: individual and structural. Some mid-level managers can manage to transcend the problem on the individual level, but then they encounter cultural and structural incentives for exceptionalism. Unless change is driven from the top, it is nearly impossible to change a culture, especially when it has its roots in human psychology.

    An effective tool for mid-level managers and consultants to drive change is metrics, because numbers are hard to argue with. You mention examples of product concepting and design, marketing, and back-office services as possible areas where big may not necessarily be better. There must be a way to measure the ROI of using smaller teams for these activities and compare it to analogous functions in large organizations.

  • […] on April 10, 2012 by Fleishman-Hillard Digital specialist Joshua-Michéle Ross examines the business concept of exceptionalism, suggesting large companies need to consider “changing the default setting.” … ← […]

  • […] on April 10, 2012 by Fleishman-Hillard Digital specialist Joshua-Michéle Ross examines the business concept of exceptionalism, suggesting large companies need to consider “changing the default setting.” … ← […]

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