We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
- Charlton Ogburn, “Merrill’s Marauders, the truth about an incredible adventure,” Harpers Magazine, January 1957
This quotation is often misattributed to one Greek philosopher or another, or to the Roman Petronius.
Ogburn’s magazine article became the basis for his book, The Marauders. In turn, that was the basis for a movie, Merrill’s Marauders. In the book, the quote is different:
As a result, I suppose, of high-level changes of mind about how we were to be used, we went though several reorganizations. Perhaps because Americans as a nation have a gift for organizing, we tend to meet any new situation by reorganization, and a wonderful method it is for creating the illusion of progress at the mere cost of confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.
- The Marauders (1959), chapter 2, page 60 (attributed)
My old friend Frank Hewlett had been a correspondent in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, including Burma, during World War II. Frank told me that he had been the first to call the American group “Merrill’s Marauders” in a war news dispatch on the progress the group made. He did not get any credit for the book or movie title, but he said it was great that any group of soldiers that worked that well got popular attention for their work. I’ve never found Hewlett’s dispatches from that period, but I’ve never found anything else he told me to be inaccurate.
In serious corporate reorganizations, or in corporate culture change operations, this quote is usually trotted out in opposition to whatever the proposed change may be. Generally reorganizers will dismiss the thing as fictional, in at least one case claiming that renegade corporate leader Bob Townsend made it up.
In our work at Committing to Leadership at American Airlines, CEO Bob Crandall actually read the full quote (misattributed at the time), and observed that it was probably true — but not a good reason to stop a needed reorganization. Crandall pointed to the last sentence, and said that a good manager’s job is to make sure that reorganization creates real success, not just an illusion of action, and that any good manager will recognize that reorganizations offer the danger of demoralization and confusion. Those are problems to be managed, Crandall said, not fates that cannot be avoided.
Do you find Ogburn’s snippet of wisdom to be true? So what?
- One of Merrill’s Marauders presented medals during ceremony at Fort Benning (warhistoryonline.com)
- Dudley Palmer Jones, 88 (kitsapsun.com)
- Robert L. Ireton, of Brooklawn, former First National Bank President, member of Merrills Marauders, Purple Heart and Silver Star Recipient (gloucestercitynews.net)
- More about United Press war reporter Frank Hewlett, a poet for the soldiers
- Update, December 2015: Our good friends at Quote Investigator sourced this back to Ogburn, in a couple of different places. Happy to have better researchers along on the quest to pin down who actually wizzed the wisdom of yore. (Apologies to Lascelles Abercrombie, or more likely, Kendrew Lascelles, via Jack Lemmon and John Denver.)
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