Category Archives: Gaius Petronius Arbiter

Reorganizing is a Wonderful Method for Creating the Illusion of Progress while Actually Producing Confusion, Inefficiency, and Demoralization

Gaius Petronius Arbiter? Robert Townsend? Charlton Ogburn Jr.? Apocryphal?

reorg08Dear Quote Investigator: A famous book about management titled “Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits” contains a very funny and insightful quotation about reorganization: 1

I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

I was surprised to find that a footnote attributed these words to Gaius Petronius Arbiter who was the ancient Roman author of the “Satyricon”. The footnote gave an approximate date of “circa A.D. 60”, but the statement sounds modern to me, and I have been unable to find any citations to ancient works. Would you examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Gaius Petronius Arbiter employed this quotation. Instead, QI believes the passage above was derived from words written by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in 1957.

Ogburn participated in the Burma Campaign in World War II, and wrote a piece about his experiences titled “Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth about an Incredible Adventure” that was published in the January 1957 issue of “Harper’s Magazine”. The article included a section that has been simplified and streamlined to yield the popular modern statement: 2

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. During our reorganizations, several commanding officers were tried out on us, which added to the discontinuity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1970, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits by Robert Townsend, Section: Reorganizing, Quote Page 162, Borzoi Book: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1957 January, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 214, Number 1280, Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth about an Incredible Adventure by Charlton Ogburn Jr., Start Page 29, Quote Page 32 and 33, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)