Strategisation

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

Consider this statement:

Services will continue to make a growing contribution to economic activity in Australia. It is therefore important to remove unnecessary restrictions on service provision — particularly barriers to entry and expansion that impede competition.

This is strategisation. The passage proposes a prefered action in the context of some overarching development of strategic significance. But if you pay careful attention, the desirability of doing the proposed thing doesn’t hinge on the strategic context at all. This is usually a feature not a bug of economic policy – it’s highly modular. Competition is generally speaking a Good Thing (though there are important exceptions to this which we leave aside for the sake of the argument here). But it’s rare that the desirability of strengthening competition depends on whether something is a growing market or not. 1 It’s a little unfair to pick on this report – the Draft Harper Review of Competition Policy as this is pretty standard stuff. 2 Another more comical form of this kind of thing is “MoreThanEvering” which I wrote up here and here.

Anyway, the Harper Review Draft Report tells us that it “identifies three major forces affecting the Australian economy that will influence whether our competition policies, laws and institutions are fit for purpose”. They are

The rise of Asia and other emerging economies provides significant opportunities for Australian businesses and consumers, but also poses some challenges. A heightened capacity for agility and innovation will be needed to match changing tastes and preferences in emerging economies with our capacity to deliver commodities, goods, services and capital. We need policies, laws and institutions that enable us to take full advantage of the opportunities offered.

Our ageing population will give rise to a wider array of needs and preferences among older Australians and their families. Extending competition in government provision of human services will help people meet their individual health and aged care needs by allowing them to choose among a diversity of providers.

New technologies are ‘digitally disrupting’ the way many markets operate, the way business is done and the way consumers engage with markets. The challenge for policymakers and regulators is to capture the benefits of digital disruption by ensuring that competition policies, laws and institutions do not unduly obstruct its impact yet still preserve traditional safeguards for consumers.

The third item – digital technology – really is of strategic significance to how competition policy is crafted. But the other ones are pure strategisation. A good test is to rewrite the propositions in the negative. Do you think the Harper Review would have changed anything it thought or wrote if Asia and other emerging economies were not rising? “Harper review says competition policy much less important because [we’re not ageing/services contribution to GDP is falling] so things will be hunky.” Enough said.

Here’s some more – this time from Accenture.

The report says “seismic economic and demographic shifts are forcing ­governments around the world to re-imagine the way they design and deliver public services”. The challenge is acute in Australia where the cost of delivering public services at current ­levels will grow to an additional ­$54 billion a year by 2025 and the efficiency dividend – asking agencies to do more with less – has run its course.

Accenture believes the public sector must now undertake “a transformation that would require public service leaders to make a step change and adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset”.

The first paragraph isn’t pure strategisation because it’s making a factual claim – which may be true or false. The second paragraph is strategisation – or perhaps to make the word uglier it might be called ‘BurningPlatformisation’! And there’s lots of it about. That one about how the public sector is being subjected to ever increasing expectations with ever reducing budgets and so will need to make a step change (which we all know is technically equivalent to a paradigm shiftlet) has been doing the rounds since at least the age of Tony Blair.

If you agree with me so far, we both think that this is a silly mannerism. But does it matter more than that? I think it does, not in itself, but in the sense that strategisation is a signifier not just of a degradation of language – which is a serious business because language is the medium through which we think – but also of a certain set of assumptions  about how one deliberates on and makes decisions. I’m in the process of writing more about each point, and you, gentle reader, will be the first to know my further thoughts as they become ready for publication. In short, on the first point strategisation represents the primacy of rhetoric (you know all that stuff about ‘our narrative’)3 over thought. That’s pretty problematic right there. I came across a great expression of Charlie Munger the other day “Take a simple idea and take it seriously”. Simple ideas are powerful. You can drive them a long way quite independently of the existing state of the literature and when you’ve taken a simple idea into some new pastures, it’s amazing how powerful it can be. Because it’s simple it’s not brittle – it’s implications are often easily seen and understood and often robust to different circumstances. But you won’t be able to ponder a simple line of thinking and follow it’s implications on its merits when you’re mind is deranged by bogus strategising.

I realised in a discussion with someone yesterday that the upsurge in interest in a universal basic income (UBI) could be somewhat influenced by a kind of strategisation, though it’s far from as cut and dried case of it as the material above. Why all the interest in UBI? Partly because the rise of the robots is being understood as a new phenomenon. And it suits those who pose as Big Thinkers to respond to this with a Big New Idea.4 In fact, to the extent that this phenomenon unfolds, it will unfold through time and its impact – in rendering some skills obsolete and possibly further increasing returns to capital at the expense of labour – is the kind of impact we’ve seen before. And we can vary our payments and tax systems to address these problems. Of course UBI is a systematic rearrangement of those systems, so that’s all well and good. It should be considered on its merits. But if UBI is a good idea, it has been for some time. FWIW (which is not much as I haven’t thought about it that much), I expect it’s better to keep plugging away with our ‘deserts’ based tax and welfare system. Anyway, I don’t want to make too much of this – it was just a thought.

But why do people engage in strategisation? As I’ve argued above, it pollutes our minds with extraneous nonsense. But here’s the thing. It’s a particular kind of nonsense. It’s a kind of bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt puts it:

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Strategisation is an attempt to pull strings to sit at the head table – with the cool kids – the movers and shakers – the James Packers and Lachlan Murdochs – in their Olympian grappling with the problems of the day. It tries to conjure around the author’s case an air of high strategic importance. Like I said, I’ll be writing more on this, but suffice it to say here that I think this introduces a kind of bias into the conversation in which some ideas become freighted with status, whilst others are for the little people. Pretty soon you’re talking VerySeriousPersononomics.

And please feel encouraged to provide additional examples of strategisation in comments below.

 

  1. It’s true that, if a market is growing a little larger, the issue of its efficiency could be regarded as a little more important, but the general story is that wherever there are efficiency gains to be had, we should try to have them.
  2. I’m citing the draft report here because I made a note of this for a future post long ago but I expect similar sentiments can be found in the final.
  3. AKA “where’s our burning platform?”
  4. Or at least one that’s not been implemented, even if the idea isn’t that new.
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10 Responses to Strategisation

  1. derrida derider says:

    The Harper Review was chock full of such strategisation – it read to me like something produced by Treasury in its most crude and naïve economic rationalist phase of the 1980s. And no section more so than that on human services, where there seemed to be no recognition at all that markets in human relations operate somewhat differently than those for textiles. Ian Harper has in the past produced far better work than this.

    Of course if the market is growing that is “evidence” of “urgent need for reform” “to capture the benefits”. If it is shrinking, that is “evidence” of “urgent need for reform” to prevent it shrinking. In either case the “reform” somehow always seems to favour some vested interest favoured by the government of the day.

  2. Jim says:

    Great post

    You say strategisation is a kind of bullshit. Yes. But it is legitimised bullshit by people with a vested interest. I’m sure the report by Accenture has lots of great ‘strategic initiatives’ that Accenture could ‘shape’ (code for expand on the dot points) for the public service in future work.

    I always find these claims about the growing task facing the public service a bit confusing, particularly as they are followed by calls for more resources or reform. Surely after a couple of hundred years the bedrock of government services is in place (laws have been established; the schools, roads and dams have been built etc.). So doesn’t all this scary growth just imply a need to keep up with marginal changes, which surely isn’t that hard. And surely we are well into the world of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to reform.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that much of what goes on in Canberra is really just ‘make work’ for policy wonks fiddling at the edges. This is all reinforced by consulting industry that has an unwritten code to never answer a client’s question without raising another one.

  3. Keryn says:

    I guess we’ve all seen this and felt frustrated at spurious arguments. Some are clearly bullshit by people who are using the opportunity to push the ideas they’ve pushed before. But I worry that much of it is unintentional, from the degradation (as you mentioned) of language and practices of reasoning.

    Superficially, these ‘strategisation’ paragraphs look like a case is being made, using facts (often presented in the form of soundbyte). Especially to a reader in a hurry, or an uncritical reader, or one who likes the recommendation. These formulations look familiar, and people emulate them.

    My observation (within various agencies) is organisations unintentionally training their staff to think & write this way. Forms require staff to “explain how this proposal supports the 4 strategic priorities”; public materials are re-written to fit within specific policy framing, even if they make less sense that way. These processes lead to creative writing, and a loss of meaning. Some of this writing will be intentional bullshit, but much will just be people doing what the process directs them to do (accidental bullshit, perhaps?).

    I’ve worked on a number of program evaluations where decision-makers have funded activities without knowing what the project will actually do, or how it may achieve outcomes, because they required proponents to submit paperwork focused on ‘strategic alignment’. Funding is give to activities that sound most aligned, but they cannot tell what is accurate or creative writing. Later on they complain that they don’t know what programs are doing.

    Do you have ideas on what can be done to halt this degradation of language and reasoning? Can people be helped to learn the difference between warranted argument and plausible but irrelevant ideas propping up a recommendation?

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Wow Keryn, you’ve just put your finger on what matters about this much better than I did. In a way it’s probably important to downplay the degradation of language. Of course, there is a downgrading of language but the impact of that will often be relatively minor at least where it involves new buzzwords and so on.

    But what you’re putting your finger on is a much deeper problem which is both confusing ends and means but also actively misrepresenting them. It does all this in pursuit of ‘the institutional imperative’ to use an expression Warren Buffett uses in a somewhat different context.

    Let me explain. The whole idea of strategy is that it is hierarchically superior to practice or delivery. Strategy is supposed to be set after reflection on the organisation’s purposes etc. It’s supposed to guide practice.

    But what you’re saying (and what we all know) is that, to a substantial extent the reverse happens. A strategy is cooked up, often full of all sorts of often vague and nice sounding things. This then structures reporting. So one reports against various strategic objectives. One makes it look as if the activities were a result of the strategy, when often they’re not – they’re just what the organisation does. Moreover, the organisation’s reporting is then bent in all sorts of ways to report developments as consistent with the strategic objectives. On the first point – the confusion of means and ends – the degree of derangement this is wreaking seems quite formidable to me.

    Remember that our capacity for reason is very heavily influenced – perhaps dominated – by what Jonathan Haidt calls (I think) our “inner attorney”. That is, we tend to be far more articulate, emphatic and confident in defending positions after we take them than before. There’s a major problem right there as if one were strategising and making decisions rationally, the effort would be expended before the decision. Moreover, this is a world of thinking in which it is presumed that ends and means are easily disentangled and the lines of accountability are, by virtue of that always clear, at least in principle, and yet the facts are quite otherwise. Ends substitute for means at the drop of a hat, and with such fluency that that fact is disguised even from the person performing the switch.

    And, to expand the second point, this is in a context in which the institutional imperative is for the organisation to look good, with each of the functionaries down the hierarchy from the CEO down seeking to bask in this glory – or to at least protect themselves from hostile scrutiny. Given that it’s reasonable to expect there to be inherent difficulty in speaking truth to power in such organisations, this arrangement is worse than that. Not only is no great effort gone into ensuring that the organisation has a culture in which truth can be spoken to power (a pretty difficult thing) but in fact, ends and means are being subtly redescribed and massaged into some (largely bogus alignment) all over the place.

    Of course, the strategic framework is never explicit and comprehensive enough to cover everything, so things get interpreted from the perspective of power. Thus agencies that on the one hand solemnly guarantee the powers that be strict protection of their clients’ privacy, on the other release their private details to journalists when they think it aligns with the institutional imperative (even though I suspect in the case I’m adverting to here they will have misjudged the potential for public backlash and so misunderstood their agency’s broader interest).

    And your final question – what can we do about it? I’m trying to think. In the meantime, I have to make do with the idea that understanding and critiquing is surely the right beginning.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Apropos of the last two comments above, here’s a post by me illustrating how memes become themes become ends without means.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    If I’d had this article to hand when writing my post above I’d have used it.

    In the face of increasingly complex challenges, rapid social change and technological innovation, governments must find new ways to do more with less. Despite declining tax revenues and deteriorating fiscal conditions, public expectations of what governments should deliver have risen. In every domain, governments need to innovate in how we respond to challenges.

    It is not enough to experiment with new policies in the laboratory of democracy if we use the same beakers. We need to change the processes by which we make policy and deliver services for the public good. Empirical yet agile research in the wild is the route to knowing how.

    Novak, BS, Nature, 544, 287–289 (20 April 2017)

  7. Pingback: Doughnut economics: The hole is greater than the sum of its parts | Club Troppo

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self: redefining some new fad as the same as what you were already saying is also a kind of strategisation. I’m thinking John Brumby’s reflections on ‘liveability’.

    It is a mix. It’s about a good economy, but more than that, it’s about the sort of values that make up a society, values like fairness, a fair go, traditional values, caring, strong communities. And it’s about opportunity making sure wherever you come from, whatever your family background, you’ve got the opportunity to go on and do well in life.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    On re-reading this piece, I wish I’d added something else – perhaps picked up to some extent in the exchange between Keryn and me above. Strategisation is part of the architecture of fads in politics and management. In this world you flash some expressions around – as I said the ‘we’re being forced to do more with less’ meme is very common – and then you’re in a kind of intellectual white out in which ideas are not distinct from one another.

    What then becomes distinct are various intellectual credit cards rather than people thinking things through for their own circumstances. This used to be whether you were a professor or not with some impressive CV. Now it’s the brand of your consulting firm, which is really its size. And also it’s about whether you’re mouthing the right kind of buzzwords. Reengineering, ‘whole-of-government’, ‘joined-up-government’, contracting out, commissioning.

    This is the world I sketched in the latest of my ‘Overton’ series, in which ideas get picked up and dropped, not on their merits but on what is sadly much more arbitrary – what the cool kids are talking about. And what determines what the cool kids are talking about? Well, cool kids talk about what over cool kids talk about.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self of how often start-ups in both pure commercial and social impact areas employ high level strategisation. Like this

    “By 2050, the earth’s population is projected to reach 9 billion. Food supply will need to increase by 60% to meet global demand.” – StartUp Australia

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