Thursday, August 12, 2010

Many Bothans died to bring us this information

George Lucas has made no secret that the overarching theme of his original Star Wars trilogy was inspired by classical mythology and studies about it (PBS, 2004). What the filmmaker may not have realized is that the organizations within the saga also reflect several examples of classic organizational theory.

Right: The Ewoks, proponents of open systems theory.

The last film of the original trilogy (sixth in the internal chronology), Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (hereafter as “RotJ”), features three organizations which appear to operate according to historic organizational theories espoused by pioneers in the field. One example is the much-maligned Galactic Empire — a classic example of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy. The Rebel Alliance closely follows Henri Fayol’s theory of general management. Finally, the Ewok clan on the forest moon of Endor operates in some form of an open systems model. Return of the Jedi provides a compelling comparative study of these theories in action.

Circumstances leading up to the climactic Battle of Endor, where two great (and one not-so-great) cultures clashed in a conflict that would help decide the fate of a galaxy far, far away may not have resulted from differences in organizational culture. But organizational culture — particularly the adaptability of the Ewoks and the better motivation of the Rebellion — arguably helped decide the outcome of that battle. It should be noted that there is one organization featured prominently in the film that does not fit well into any classical management theory: the criminal gang headed by Jabba the Hutt. That group utilizes elements from numerous theories and is featured in the sidebar.

Emperor Palpatine and Max Weber, peas in a pod(racer): The Galactic Empire, as headed by Emperor Palpatine and his iron grip, is a classic example of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy in action.

The parallels become readily apparent in the opening moments of the movie. First, we see the parade of workers, neatly lined up by function and uniform (stormtroopers, speeder-bike troopers, Death Star crewmen, etc.) to honor a visiting dignitary, demonstrating Weber’s hierarchy of authority. Then, starting at 00:04:00 the condescending conversation between Darth Vader and the construction foreman simply drips a “spirit of formal impersonality” (Tompkins, 2005, p. 48). Vader expands a bit from Weber into McGregor’s “Theory X” seconds later when he speaks of finding “new ways to motivate” the construction workers — an inherent threat to coerce and control the crews under the tight direction of a Dark Lord of the Sith. The foreman’s reply of “We shall double our efforts” seems very much in tone with Herzberg’s “negative psychological KITA” — the implied cruelty being sufficient motivation to proceed (Ott, Parkes & Simpson, 2008, p. 174) — as well as Fredrick Taylor’s obsession with control (Tompkins, 2005, p. 84).

Discipline, as is typical in a Weberian bureaucracy (Ott, Parkes & Simpson, 2008, p. 50), is tight, with no room for insubordination. This is illustrated at 1:41:00 into the film (time marks in this paper are based upon the 2004 Special Edition DVD release of RotJ) when the Imperial admiral orders the fleet to hold in place despite being told his ships were in attack position. His subordinate accepts the answer without question, just as the admiral had accepted it from the Emperor. But — like Weber’s idea, when put into practice — the Empire also falls victim to the irrationality of workers who put their own political needs ahead of the company’s at 1:57:00 when Vader turns on the Emperor, who is in the process of making Force fricassee out of his son. The Empire, like Weber’s ideas, falls quickly out of style soon thereafter.

Fayol and Mon Mothma, revolutionaries: Just as the Rebel Alliance was a reaction to the heavy-handed policies of the Empire, the Administrative Management Theory of Fayol, Mooney and Gulick was a rebellion against the heavy-handedness of Weber and (to some extent) Taylor’s scientific management. The more people-oriented structure of the Rebels reflects especially well on Fayol’s Fourteen Administrative Principles (Tompkins, p. 100).

Some of the policies espoused by the Rebellion come straight from the 14 principles: for example, authority and responsibility are earned together, there is unity of command and unity of direction (Mon Mothma leads the Alliance, but assigns one leader for a group of activities having the same objective — i.e., Han Solo leading the ground assault on the shield generator). Members subordinate their individual interests to the general interests — a prime example being Luke Skywalker turning himself in to the Imperial garrison when he realizes Darth Vader’s obsession with him might endanger the mission.

Lando Calrissian, savior of the Rebellion.

One primary principle helped lead the Rebels to a narrow victory in the skies above Endor. Fayol’s 13th administrative principle is “initiative,” valued even at the expense, sometimes, of the scalar chain. At 1:35:00 into RotJ, Admiral Ackbar realizes the Rebellion has been led into a trap and begins preparations to withdraw. Lando Calrissian, moments later, notes that the Star Destroyers of the massive Imperial Fleet have stayed back to let the Death Star do the dirty work of destroying the fleet (as noted in the previous section) and sends the Rebel fleet into the midst of the Imperials to buy time. Using his own initiative and over-ruling the admiral, Calrissian was able to initiate a strategy that kept the Rebel fleet intact long enough for his compatriots on the Endor moon to shut down the shield generator protecting the Death Star.

Finally, there is room for emotions within the Rebellion and this helps develop esprit de corps, Fayol’s 14th point. When the Death Star blows up 2:02:00 into the film, Nein Numb (co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon) is just one of many who were cheering. Such celebration would be discouraged in the Weberian Empire — it takes away from time that could be used for production.

Ewoks, the open systems wild card: It could be argued that it was only with the intervention of the Ewoks that the Rebels were able to defeat the Empire at Endor. By the 1:37:00 mark of RotJ, the Rebel raiding force had failed to shut down the shield generator and been captured (save for the droids). Then an Ewok counter-attack helped the Rebels get free, overpower their opponents and blow up the shield generator — resulting in the space victory moments later. The Ewoks’ flexibility in being able to come to a relatively quick decision to help the Rebels and being able to adapt to an uncertain environment puts the Ewoks firmly into the open systems model of the competing values framework (Tompkins, p. 263).

The Ewoks seem to have an organic management system which helps them deal with the adversity they find on Endor’s forest moon. As put forth by Tom Burns (Tompkins, p. 253), workers are given broad, loosely defined roles and are expected to contribute their knowledge and experience to the common task if the group as a whole. When Wicket, a young Ewok, finds a dazed Princess Leia in the woods, he uses his own initiative to take her back to the Ewok village. This proves critical in building trust between the Ewoks and Rebels later.

Elements of other organizational theories are evident studying the small hunter gatherers. When the Ewoks have to conference over what to do with their new “god” C-3PO and his less-golden friends, there definitely seems to be a depersonalized authority, ala Mary Parker Follett. Moreover, the Ewoks demonstrate a form of cooperative decision making as they, in the words of Threepio, make the Rebel raiding force “a part of the tribe” (1:17:00 in RotJ).

In another illustration of the Ewokian flexibility, by the 1:47:00 mark of the movie, the furry beings are attacking Imperial AT-ST walkers with whatever means they have at their disposal. To wit, the Ewoks use rolling logs, rocks dropped from primitive gliders and booby traps made from vines. Pfeffer and Salancik (as quoted in Tompkins, p. 262) note that in actual practice, performance is largely determined by environmental factors — and this is evident as the Ewoks know how to adapt to their environment much better than do the Imperial forces and their overbearing management style.

The people over the bureaucracy: Much as Weber eventually fell out of favor, done in by evolving ideas, so did the Empire. When faced with the spirited Rebellion and the adaptability of the Ewoks, Imperial forces failed despite having both superior numbers and technology. This is paralleled in the real-world example of Weber’s (and Taylor’s) theories not being able to deal with more educated and self-aware workers whose motivation come not from the threat of being choked from afar via the Force, but rather through a strong investment in the goals and ideals of the organization with which they are affiliated.
The curious case of Jabba’s Palace
One other, less formal, organization in Return of the Jedi deserves a brief mention — that which formed in the Tatooine “palace” of Jabba the Hutt. The entourage of this “vile gangster” (as labeled in the opening scrawl) shows elements stereotypical of many classical organizational theories. Jabba’s gang shows organizational structure without the rigid ranks of the Empire and Rebels and without the cooperating systems seen in the Ewok clan.

At first glance, the crime family appears to have a strict hierarchy straight out of Weber. You have Jabba, the powerful executive, ruling with an iron fist. He throws dancers he disapproves of to the Rancor and has all outside contact with him set up through his major domo, Bib Fortuna. When R2-D2 and C-3PO are put on Jabba’s “payroll” by the droid supervisor (0:12:10), the emphasis of their orientation is that they “will soon learn respect.”

Jabba is not one to be held to strict bureaucracy, however. Like Argyris, Jabba values interpersonal competence — which is reflected in a person’s ability to solve interpersonal problems in a way that they remain solved (Tompkins, 2005, p. 216) — and operates accordingly. This is demonstrated when a bounty hunter (actually Princess Leia in disguise) completes a difficult negotiation with Jabba by threatening him with a thermal grenade (0:16:10 in Jedi). The Hutt responds by raising his offer price and stating, “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum, fearless and inventive,” (which also indicates Jabba has a fondness for the rational goal model in the competing values framework: he is ends oriented and values efficiency).

This goal-attainment focus could be one reason why Jabba’s minions do not express Fayol’s esprit de corps, with the associated willingness to see the organization succeed at risk of personal costs. This lack is illustrated when panic breaks out aboard the Hutt’s sail barge during the abortive execution at the Sarlacc pit. Jabba is left alone and unprotected, allowing Princess Leia to strangle the crime lord with a giant pair of chains in the film’s 34th minute. A reverse corollary of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (as explained in Ott, Parkes and Simpson, 2008, p. 133) may explain this development: as higher-level motivators fall by the wayside, employees revert to protecting more basic needs — such as saving their own skins from a blond man with a lightsaber instead of their boss from a princess in a metal bikini.
Works Cited

Kasdan, L., Lucas, G. (Writers), & Marquand, R. (Director). (2004 (1983)). Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (2004 Special Edition DVD) [Motion Picture]. 20th Century Fox.

Ott, J. S., Parkes, S. J., & Simpson, R. B. (Eds.). (2008). Classic Readings in Organizational Behavior (4th ed.). Belmont: Thompson Wadsworth.

PBS. (2004, January 13). About George Lucas. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from American Masters:

Tompkins, J. (2005). Organization Theory and Public Management. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

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