Regular readers will be familiar with my dismay at the kind of bumph that passes for strategic planning. I recall as ‘thinker in residence’ at a one of the major departments in Canberra having a discussion with senior management about Web 2.0 and innovation in government. They began the conversation by posting a list of dot points which purportedly identified the department’s or one of it’s division’s strategic goals. I was completely lost. I can remember nothing of the strategic objectives of the department, but I think one of them involved getting more outputs from inputs. (Which gives you some idea of how useful – not – such desiderata are.)
I loathe long retreats that seem to go forever which come up with mission and vision statements and other religious credimus (I am informed by my Latin studying son that ‘credimus’ is the plural of ‘credo’.) I think such things are now going out of fashion, but the new things seem even worse to me. One such is functional diagrams. The problem with functional diagrams is the suggestion they create of one to one mappings between nominated functions and what people do. Or articulations of ‘values’. Spare me. So tell me, if we don’t put ‘honesty’ in does it mean we’re not too keen on honesty? Timeliness? Equity? Transparency? What do we leave out? Why? I have been known to feign death to avoid such deliberations.
I can articulate – or try to articulate what I dislike about these things – but the proof of the pudding should be in the eating. If some style of collective thinking isn’t up to scratch in terms of philosophical rigour then so much the worse for philosophical rigour if it helps the organisation think or act. My argument would be that it actually gets in the way. Pretending that strategies are emanations of values (rather than occasionally constraining a strategy because it’s not ethical) actually deranges the thinking process. People are forever making believe that they’re following the formula, whereas most good thinking and discussion has a very high implicit content and we know from research that we reason ‘backwards’ as it were – finding reasons for conclusions that we arrive at intuitively – whether those conclusions are ethical or practical.
And just as a matter of fact, I can’t think of a framework or mission or vision statement that has helped me either think of something worthwhile or actually helped shape my thinking in any useful way. Can you? (I guess one exception to this is the fashion in – I think the 1980s – to try to rethink firms around functions and markets rather than the things they did. So a carpet maker became the provider of “floor covering solutions”. Well the jargon may not be appealing but the idea is a good one which is to try to think a bit laterally about what it is you do, what your market is, rather than define yourself by your current activities. On the other hand the whole idea of a business having to have a ‘mission’ is kind of obviously ridiculous. Nothing wrong with it having a mission if that’s what it wants to have, but why does it have to have a mission any more than a school has to have a mascot?)
In any event I was put in mind of this one day when I happened upon Dr Phil on the TV. He was doing a show on parenting, and had on a thoroughly ghastly woman who was nagging her kid to death. (he was still alive at this point). I was rather taken with the way the moustachioed hero ended his show which was with resignation. Having tried in that touchy feely way to get her to realise that she needed to let the child get a word in edgeways, to realise that it wasn’t all about her, he finally gave up and with the credits rolling said to her words to the effect “well you seem to be happy that you’re doing a great job. You’re here telling me that it doesn’t seem to be working, that you’ve got problems, but somehow you’re not doing anything wrong so I guess it’s all someone else’s fault – your husbands and your child’s and the child’s school so good luck with it”.
The program ended with Dr Phil’s five steps of parental discipline. And as I read the five steps I realised that the same haze, the same vacuous stupor that came over me at the department looking at its strategic objectives. It’s not that the five steps lack merit or are wrong. But they’re propositional. And it seems to me that so much is implicit in relationships that propositions often serve to muddy the waters. Perhaps this is partly about different cognitive styles, but for me, when I watch parenting that I think isn’t much chop it’s not because parents have got the wrong propositions in their head. It’s because they are not relating to their children. They’re zoned out – in a world of their own. In that state Dr Phil’s propositions won’t help them, they’ll just zone their way from one disaster to another and following the principles will be their new way of misunderstanding what to do.
Here are Dr Phil’s . . .
Five Steps to Disciplining Your Kids
Do you need alternatives on how to get through to your children? Are you at the end of your rope? Dr. Phil offers Five Steps on How to Discipline Your Kids—without spanking.
1. Commit Yourself.
2. Be Realistic in Your Expectations of Your Child.
3. Define Your Child’s Currency.
4. Give Your Children Predictable Consequences.
5. Use Child-Level Logic.
Anyway, here are Dr Nick’s steps of parenting.
1. Relate to your child.
You’re supposed to bridge the cognitive divide between you and your kid. You won’t do it perfectly, but, to paraphrase Janis Joplin, it’s all you’ve got baby. If you can’t do it, you’ll be pretty lousy at parenting. Anyway, the key is – they’re thinking differently to you – they’re just little kids. So you need some empathy with them, some ability to put yourself in their place. That’s the foundation of everything. Any rule, any practice that goes against this is wrong, even if it hurts your ego to admit it.
2. Give your children predictable consequences.
Yep, just like Dr Phil says.
3. Forget rule 2 (or any rule other than rule 1) whenever it seems sensible.
Your intuition may tell you that ‘predictable consequences’ are a bad idea – that you shouldn’t have threatened something. If so, don’t do it. Also, when you start implementing the ‘predictable consequences’ your child’s reaction may tell you that it’s a bad idea. Of course you have to be aware that you can’t turn that reaction into a ‘currency’ (to use Dr Phil’s term) by which your child will manipulate you. However children are not (in Dr Nick’s experience) naturally manipulative. They’re stimulus response organisms like us all, but you more or less have to train them to be manipulative. If you try to be consistent, but sometimes relent and if you are actually learning from your own experience, then keeping a healthy eye on the possibility of manipulation is all you need to keep this issue sorted.
4. Try to limit power battles.
Your kid will naturally think you’re all knowing and all wise, which doesn’t mean you can’t be irritating the life out of them at the same time every now and again. Remember when you’re having a power battle, your own feelings are involved. This means you won’t be thinking all that straight. Try and find another way through.
5. Be decisive when it’s necessary. Explain if necessary, but don’t overestimate how much they’ll take in and don’t enter into arguments that are not real searches for truth (hint: almost none of them are).
When I was a kid one of the expressions I most hated was that I had to do something “because [some authority figure] said so”. When I was a parent I rapidly became aware that most arguments are not really on the level. I remember my eldest smashing something. There was nothing so wrong with her having smashed it, and I wasn’t chastising her but she felt bad about it so she said ‘we’ll fix it’. I said ‘we can’t fix it’. It was something that couldn’t be fixed, a smashed glass, a cracked egg, whatever. She insisted that we would fix it. Why? Because it was important to her that it could be fixed. So rather than go on arguing I just said we’d see or something like that and distracted her with something else so that we could move on.
This episode led me to articulate (to myself then, but now to you O Troppodillians) my theory of argument. Almost no arguments are bona fide. They’re always feelings in the guise of reason. (This also applies to adults, but the implications of that fact for your own conduct are different and are not dealt with here.) When you are arguing with a kid the kid is not thinking ‘What a great opportunity to get to the bottom of this puzzle that I’ve been wondering about for a long time’. They’re thinking “He wants me to wind up the window and I don’t want to”, they’re thinking “I’ll leave it down and say ‘why?’, that should keep things going the way I want for a while and we’ll see what happens then”. My response to this was usually “If you want to know that let’s discuss it, but we’re not discussing it when we’re both cross, so we can discuss it in half an hour”. If it was urgent I would resolve the immediate question with some kind of command which would be physically forced if necessary, but it is better if you can think of some kind of negotiated (but not argued) strategy.
Here one might say “OK, you can have it open for another five minutes if you agree to close it afterward”. Much better not to let it become a battle of egos. But an argument is guaranteed to make it just that. And I think in eighteen years of parenting, that option to have the argument half an hour or more later when things weren’t so emotional was taken up once or twice (though in each case it was a sign that things remained just as emotional – that’s why the argument retained it’s interest. Anyway, in that context it was fine to try to have the argument.)
Anyway, that’s five rules. They’re not very comprehensive, but nor are Dr Phil’s. But it’s a start. A first draft perhaps.
What thinkest thou O Troppodillians?
Postscript: Commenter Conrad fills us in on some important developments in the mission statement space. Swinburne has a statement of direction. And when they say direction, they mean, well direction as in ->. As in =>. Arrows. There are arrows in their statement of direction. I think you need to see their statement of direction. It will build a sustainable future. What you have to admire about this is that so many other organisations are building – quite deliberately – unsustainable futures. Abba was an unsustainable band. They didn’t have a mission statement, but if they had it would have been something like “We exist to get a lot of hits and be unsustainable, but for as long as we can”. Adolf Hitler’s mission statement “kill, maim, destroy” was all very well, but it was unsustainable. We beat the crap out of the guy. Blew the place kingdom come. Pol Pot – same kind of thing. OK – so do you get sustainability now? It’s got to be forever, and if you can’t make that stick then take a leaf out of Abba’s book and make it last for as long as possible. Abba didn’t have arrows in its mission statement though. Those arrows really add something. By 2015 Swinburne will be committed to community – now it’s just committed to sustainability. I hope this is at least as clear to you as it is to me. <=
Postscript 2: Here‘s a podcast of a radio interview I did on this post.