The most perceptive commentary on corporate culture I've ever read was in a book of British political satire Yes, Minister.

In the first chapter, the titular minister, who ran on a platform of "Open Government" receives on his first day at work a white paper entitled "Open Government," prepared by the civil service.

The minister is surprised because he assumed the civil service, accustomed to operating in secrecy, would be opposed to the entire concept. And yet, here in the document is apparent proof that they intend to help him implement his stated policy goals.

Later, a senior civil servant explains to a junior civil servant that the "Open Government" document was an example of the Law of Inverse Relevance: "The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it."

Once you understand the Law of Inverse Relevance, much of what might otherwise seem confusing or inconsistent in the business world suddenly becomes clear.

For example, suppose you're visiting a company's corporate headquarters for the first time and, while you're waiting to meet an executive, you read the framed mission statement hanging upon the lobby wall.

If you expect that mission statement to actually reflect what goes on inside the company, you will be disappointed, because mission statements reflect what the corporation wants the world to believe they're doing rather than what they're actually doing.

For example, not far from where I live there's a healthcare conglomerate that sports the following mission statement on their web page:

"Imagine a health system that focuses on health, not just health care. Imagine a system where care is based on value, not volume. Imagine a health system grounded in population based strategy, not market share. Imagine a health system that rewards quality, not quantity of procedures. Imagine a health system where patients, when well informed, receive only the care they want and need."

As it happens, I've had my primary care at that company for 25 years and have watched it degenerate from a patient-friendly practice to a move-em-in-and-move-em-out assembly line with wretched customer service and harried overwhelmed staff and doctors.

I'll bet at after writing and approving that mission statement, the executives felt free not just to ignore those high-minded words but to implement the exact opposite.

The Law of Inverse Relevance explains why you'll get ripped off if you buy an automobile at "Honest John's Used Car Lot." It explains why companies who insist they're "innovative" are full of risk-averse bureaucrats.

The Law of Inverse Relevance is why when you hear a CEO say "we're one big happy family," his company is full of miserable people who'd rather be working just about anywhere elsewhere.

The Law of Inverse Relevance is why companies have Corporate Ethics Officers, Diversity Policies, Environmental Standards, Empowerment Schemes, Customer-Focused Marketing, and so forth.

Talk isn't just cheap; it actually saves money! There's only one problem. All that talk keeps you from actually getting things done. Here's what I've observed:

  • Truly great companies don't have mission statements because they know where they're headed.
  • Truly innovative companies let their customers decide whether their new products are great.
  • Truly responsible companies act responsibly in the public interest rather than posture and preen.
  • Truly great leaders show leadership rather than spend mental energy claiming to great leaders.

The lesson of the Law of Inverse Relevance is simple: you either "talk the talk" or you "walk the walk." Contrary to popular belief, you can't do both.