Sunday, January 23, 2011

Introductory Organizational Theory (and the Muppets)

So I've said something shocking several times recently, in public, in private, but never on this blog. So let me say it here as well: as far as new programs and presentations are concerned, the Muppets are dead to me. I was willing to overlook all of those supposedly heartwarming musical guest appearances with up-and-coming Disney Channel stars - Disney owns them now, so sure, I have to expect they'll use Kermit and pals to promote their more fashionable drek. I gave them a pass for the Muppet Wizard of Oz, which abandoned the franchise's normally adult-oriented humor to instead pursue silly songs, the two-year-old market, and a sad attempt to bolster the sagging career of an R&B singer with dubious acting qualities. I even got excited about the new Muppet special, "Letters to Santa", two Christmases ago. I reasoned that any new Muppet show couldn't be all that bad. But then within the first five minutes the Muppets were singing a silly song about how wonderful the United States Post Office is, in a show sponsored by the United States Post Office. Is this really what the home of Beaker and Animal has sunk to?

So although there are some great web videos floating around, for the most part the Muppets' mission has changed. They're not being used for great adult humor anymore, (with "adult" described here as 'marginally intelligent and easy to stomach by those over ten' rather than 'risque') but rather their mission has changed. Or maybe they're fighting to survive in a changing world with changing ownership. I'm really not sure.

This brings to mind some organizational perspectives I've used previously to discuss the Muppets. A 'rational' organizational approach assumes that the organization is laser-focused on accomplishing its goals and nothing else. For instance, from a rational viewpoint, the post office delivers mail: that's all they do. From a rational viewpoint, McDonald's sells convenience food: that's all they ever do. From a rational perspective, the Muppets no longer surprise and delight all age groups - they're now squarely targeted at the pre-teeny-bopper, Justin-Bieber-loving, someday-I'll-be-cool-like-those-kids-from-Twilight audience. Their mission is to distract youngsters while brainwashing them to enjoy all things new and Disney (not including old Disney, like Mickey, Goofy, and the classic movies - those were actually really good, but Disney seems content to ignore them).

A 'natural' organizational approach assumes that the organization gets distracted from its stated purpose and mission. Members don't spend all of their time furthering the organization's stated goals: they've got their own goals and preferences, too. What they are concerned about, though, is the preservation of the organization. So in this case, the Muppets are kind of sucking these days because (a) they feel their chances of surviving are better if they appeal to the lowest common denominator, and (b) they're distracted doing their own things. Which is possible: Kermit, Piggy, and Pepe have all published books recently, Animal has a line of T-shirts that seem to be doing pretty well, and Beaker and Bunsen are big hits on YouTube these days. Maybe with all of these sideline streams of activity, they're just too busy to put together the old quality?

An 'open' approach looks at how the organization relates and changes as its environment changes. So in the Muppets' case, as the tastes of America change and as its ownership changes, the Muppets change to react to it. Contingency Theory teaches us that the better a job they do at reacting to their environment, the more successful they'll be. This perspective actually makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that the only recent Muppet activities that have been anything close to successful have been their internet viral videos.

So according to contingency theory, organizations differ in how they're set up based on their environment. A more complicated environment may equal a more complicated structure. Take the Muppets back at their most successful: the classic Jim Henson days. They were a small company working out of a small theater with small budgets and big-name guest stars. They were able to keep things relatively simple: Kermit handled guest relations and show agenda, Piggy hired and fired the wardrobe and make-up teams, Fozzie headed up the show's comedy contingent (did this prove that you don't actually have to be good at something to lead it?), Gonzo handled special effects and stunts, Rowlf and Dr. Teeth supervised music, Scooter led the clipboard section, and Beauregard was in charge of mops and brooms.

As Hollywood became more complex, their founder passed away, and Disney took over, a new environment emerged, one the Muppets have been unable to successfully adapt to. Before you know it, they'll have Kenny Chesney as a guest teaching little Robin how to ignore his grandmother.

Sorry, this post is as good as I can do with all the baby distractions around here!


  1. Whew! For a bit, I was concerned Kenny Chesney wasn't be mentioned. Then, I reread the last two paragraphs and discovered I had simply blocked out his name, like a bad memory.

  2. This blog makes me sad. Unlike. :(

  3. OMG 2 MONTHS! UPDATE IT ALREADY!! at least give us baby pics! cuz surely they look different now :)