Complexity, reducibility, integrity and bullshit: the general untheory

I

Some readers may recall an earlier post which I christened an ‘untheory’ of innovation. It argued that there’s not much use in ‘theories’ of innovation if they’re taken as recipe books for senior managers to ‘drive down’ innovation through organisations. Why? Because if innovation is to thrive, endless decisions must be made to facilitate any number of different innovations and it can’t be known in advance who should be co-ordinating those decisions. An innovation might involve some slight or pronounced change in accounts, marketing, technical specifications, supplier relations, training, industrial relations and on and on. For these decisions to be made well – or as I like to say ‘on the merits‘ – all sorts of pathologies must be overcome:

There are hierarchies, there’s groupthink, there’s second guessing hierarchies, there’s trying to keep people happy and consensus at any cost, there’s ‘not invented here’, there’s ‘not in my backyard’ there’s excessive risk-aversion (though it’s usually aversion to a certain kind of risk, which is the product of another pathology – process hugging) and other manifestations of status quo bias, there’s adulation of those with high status either within a hierarchy or the wealthy and powerful over the less so and on and on.

That’s why I’ve argued that one of the most useful things one might do as far as ‘teaching’ management or innovation is concerned, is to coach managers not with the usual flattering stories of how far sighted heroic managers were, but rather with unflattering stories which highlight the foibles of our understanding – and offer means of overcoming them. What I’m arguing for is a recognition of the irreducibility of the on the ground experience – its lack of susceptibility to systematic, theoretical insight and its management corollary – policies adopted and driven from the top.

There are any number of areas in which we wave away the possibility of such irreducibility and instead embrace an empty and deluded kind of managerialism in which those at the top are forever attending strategy sessions, restructuring, reengineering and all the rest of it. Progress is not made (and as an aside, cannot easily be measured or ranked) because a lot of the progress that is necessary is sui generis and made at the coalface – or at least must involve the giving the coalface and autonomy to solve its problems and push for improvements.

Some other areas where this jumps out at me are:

  • Regulation: The central agencies and in their specific areas, line departments and the business equivalent – the peak bodies – will all need some managerialist schtick with which to beat over-regulation. Thus for instance a few years ago the BCA wanted to rev up the troops on regulation. So it got Access Economics to do a report on the state of play. How did it do it? It took the reg review manual about the need for robust regulation of the way regulators make regulation and then assessed each of the States’ regulatory performance against the set of quick and dirty criteria it had run up. Of course it didn’t actually attend to the quality of specific regulation – because the vast bulk of it made that practically impossible. But everyone treated the report as a pretty serious exercise, even though one might be suspicious of the efficacy of the entire regulatory review apparatus. Further, the topic of ‘regulation’ is truly immense. It isn’t just ‘red tape’ – though that itself is a broad enough topic. Regulation in general is a truly immense subject surely the oldest and most important arm of government. To take a small snapshot we’re talking about regulation regarding the environment, work health and safety, product safety, consumer and investor protection, labour market regulation. In all these areas broad ideological preferences are of limited use – particularly where there’s so much substantive agreement between the mainstream parties, despite their grand rhetoric (mostly about the supposed extremes of their opponents) – and what matters is individual examples and the way they influence life on the ground.

As I argued in an article recently:

Policy discussion typically conceives of markets as comprising competitive firms subject to state regulation. In areas like education, health, aged care, city planning, research, the arts and legal services, output is better thought of as the joint product of competitive and collective (collaborative and regulatory) activity. Each sector requires the evolution of quite different institutions in which public and private, competitive and collaborative considerations concatenate at every level from high policy down to the life-world of workplaces.

That’s not a world in which helicopter views are of much use, particularly the all-purpose helicopter views of high ideology.

  • Ethics: We seem to have a need to ensure that ‘research’ by which we mean Very Serious Research done by Very Serious Research Agencies (VSRAs) is done ethically. We have no such scruples about media coverage, or marketing research. Nor does a VSRA do an ‘ethics approval’ on whether or not to privatise the benefit of some potentially life saving new technology by patenting it. Forsaking some largely publicly funded VSRA’s interests in the public interest isn’t ethics, that’s just being a mug. And there are no such scruples about what happens within programs themselves. So you can ask families sensitive questions as part of a family support service, but you just can’t get a VSRA to evaluate it, without spending many months on the ethics of asking those questions.Be that as it may, one might imagine that one way to do ethics approval might be to have a group of people representing those whose interests might be affected by the research and engage them to make sure they’re OK with it. Instead we have an overarching policy at the top of the apex – the NH&MRC guidelines which, run to nearly eighty pages.If you think, as I do, that ethics is the often difficult process of making tradeoffs against different values, then you might find this process is a kind of anti-ethics procedure as the guidelines are full of rules and absolute rather than relative commandments such as this one: “The wellbeing and care of the woman who is pregnant and of her fetus always takes precedence over research considerations”. So much for other values – like the wellbeing of millions of other pregnant women and fetuses – and maybe some non-pregnant women or even men – who might benefit from research.
  • Research impact: We all know that outputs are more important than inputs.  And research outputs are therefore more important than research inputs. And research outputs are learned articles and books and we can measure these outputs and their quality – well something a bit like their quality – which is the prestige of the journal they’re published in and their popularity as academic footnote linkbait.So we’ll run with that. The fact that these might not be very good measures, that it borders on the absurd to assume that one article, or one citation is equivalent to another, that over time they are easily gamed and that the process of gaming progressively corrupts the value of the outputs not to mention the culture of the enterprises producing the research. That it embeds a deep mono-disciplinary intellectual conservatism into academia around existing disciplines and their commanding heights in the journals in which at the very least one risks all to develop original insights and hypotheses that might take a long time to test and that one can’t get credit for original and fertile departures from the orthodoxy – well you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
  • Management: Should there be strong leadership, or more permissive leadership, strong direction from KPIs rising up through the hierarchy or greater devolution of decision making and decentralisation. Who knows? It depends on the circumstances, which includes the personnel involved, the history of the organisation(s) involved etc etc.

My untheory of the irreducibility of innovation – which focuses on the importance of decision making on the merits at all levels within a system – reveals why two of the things that tend to characterise innovative organisations are flat management structures – with shorter lines of communication, fewer opportunities for middle managers to veto good ideas – and intrinsic motivation. Both increase the likelihood of decision making being made on the merits. (I spoke about a little of this at the launch of Melbourne Knowledge Week a week or so ago and Peter Doherty who was also on the panel made a similar point about science – that it’s ‘bottom up’ knowledge – that it pays ultimate attention to the world of experience. For me the analogue in management is decision making on the merits).

II

Here’s a lament of modern times from nineteenth century American poet Longfellow presumably about something similar.

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

The appeal is to the intrinsic motivation of the craftsman in his craft. (It also conjures up Adam Smith’s idea of the impartial spectator – the “man within the breast”.) And central elements of craft are irreducible – sui generis. Of course the craftsman will be guided in what he builds by the master builder or architect of a building. The master builder (or architect or whomever else it is) is ‘boss’ of the project, deciding whether to build a cathedral or a bridge and all sorts of aspects of the workflow. Professionalism was built from this ethos in the nineteenth century, with its notions of fiduciary duty and so on (which is not to say that professionalism didn’t come with some downsides in which professions put their own collective interests above those of their clients). But within that context the craftsman or professional has autonomy over his craft and its application to the work. He won’t be told how to do his craft by someone who is more senior in the project but not as knowledgeable about the craft and not involved in the detail of his work.

In fact the Longfellow quote – it’s a slight misquote but let’s leave that be – was a favourite of Wittgenstein who had an Orwell like abhorrence for the thoughtless clichés of ordinary and official life. And I ran into the Longfellow quote from an article that cited Frankfurter’s essay “On Bullshit” which I’ve quoted before. The article was called “Linux vs. Bullshit” and it sought to emphasise one of the great merits of open source production was its attention to coding on the merits – that is without secondary (corporate) agendas. It also cites Eric S. Raymond – author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar – who focuses on the significance of intrinsic motivation for the production of good software.

And bullshit is an elemental constituent of the world we have built and are continuing to build which is so inimical to decision making on the merits. It’s essence is the very lack of fastidiousness or craft/professionalism it embodies. As Frankfurter goes on:

Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case not wrought.

Imagine you’re a journalist who has to cover a story on red tape and regulation. Or a politician who has to have something to say on it – or a bureaucrat within government or the BCA who has to come up with a policy on it. What are you going to do? You can’t just sit there and say “I don’t really know”, or “nobody knows more than a tiny part of the puzzle”. Deloitte will be putting its finger I the air and estimating the cost of regulation to the whole economy ($250 billion p.a. since you ask). Why saving just 10 per cent of it would be a huge micro-economic reform. What are you going to say? (Quick, you’re on Insiders on Saturday, cameras will be rolling. Remember, John Kerrin got sacked in the early 90s recession when journalists asked him when the recession would end and he said “Your guess is as good as mine”).

Well there’s only one way through. As the philosopher Henry Frankfurter puts it in his essay:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled, whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others, to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

And so, here we are, in a world in which commentators comment, experts proclaim their expertise, and the media supplies most of the general purpose commenters at least about issues it deems of apex importance like how our government is going. Yet a great many of the topics they discuss, such as the ones I’ve identified above are completely ill-suited to such treatment. And so the public discussion we get of them is more or less pure bullshit. And the way we manage those issues goes in endless increasingly sterile circles of bald assertion barely disguising incomprehension, rising disaffection leading to some change intended to improve things. But the whole thing is pursued with such high handed impatience and incomprehension that the result is more of the same, and on and on.

Here’s something the British Chambers of Commerce said in 2007 in their publication “Deregulation or Déjà Vu?” (See also this link):

Both Conservative and Labour administrations approach deregulation with apparent enthusiasm, learn little or nothing from previous efforts and have little if anything to show from each initiative.

Now if you’re trying to make a living in such a world, would you rather be a craftsman or a bullshit artist – will you go into – say – engineering, teaching, nursing, musicianship on the one hand or PR, head hunting, corporate strategy, marketing, media, events management on the other? Well if you feel born into any of the craftsman roles, you’ll prefer the former professions. You may not make as much money, but you’ll be happier doing something you were born for. But surely the more common situation is the person who could go either way, but who is more likely to reach their human potential and achieve life satisfaction plying a craft. But in the world we’re in, they won’t just make less money being the craftsman, they’ll be bossed around by people who have little understanding of their job or sympathy with them (or be the subject of professional forces that have been built by similar people – like ‘research quality frameworks’ for academics for instance).

They’ll be restructured, reengineered, performance managed – taken advantage of. And so lots of the good ones leave. (Long before the age of Teach for Australia, or even Teach for America, I was a self-funded Teach for Australia grad, which is to say I wanted to teach for about three years as a worthwhile life project. I’m very glad I did, but not only did I have to do this in a world that was built for career teachers – a full year of training for three years of practice – but when I was there virtually all the teachers in the schools I taught in were incredulous. Like weary soldiers in the trenches in WWI they said to me “You’re bright – you’ve got your head screwed on. Get out before it’s too late”.

It’s difficult to regulate well. But rest assured when it is done well, no-one notices – no-one in the stratosphere that is. So the person who works out how to regulate really well won’t be promoted to a more senior regulatory position. For there is no ‘Regulator General’ and if there were the job would go to someone else. They might be able to run an econometric model – though they’re surprisingly rare in an age of bureaucratic generalists – but they’d be someone who’d made their way up through one of the Central agencies. And the great cult of managerialism in which symbolism and performativity at the top – so delightfully summed up by Gilbert and Sullivan “I polished that door so carefully that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navy” – simply rolls over the life world of experience smashing it up and flattening it out beyond all recognition.

Postscript: Speaking of bullshit, here’s the promo for ANZSOG’s annual conference this year.
anzsog2016_web_rotator_600x150-jpg-fontHyper-Government! Very impressive. Who knew?

Postscript Two: Bullshit, the interview.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Ethics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.
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JJ
JJ
7 years ago

Your untheory matches my experience, although I would note that it’s about culture and a lot of that comes from the leadership.

This is SOOO accurate a description of the modern organisation. In the old days, we had craft-based bureaucracies eg MMBW, SEC. Doctors ran hospitals etc etc. Top management of these organisations or their equivalent (especially in universities!) have been replaced with managerialist positions (often economists). Language and discourse are suitably altered.

Furthermore my impression is that the gap between the front-line and the top is huge (and bigger?). (I;ve just been reading a book by Prof Jeffrey Braithwaite about resilience where he talks about the need to reduce the gap between ‘Work as Imagined’ and ‘Work as Performed’.)

Part of me wonders if it was ever thus? (a short read of C Northcote Parkinson and many other texts cautions one against railing against the present too much)

Can it be changed?

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

In fairness, doctors are shit at running hospitals (don’t believe me? Visit a hospital: it probably is ran by doctors in Australia and it will be pretty shit; still don’t believe me: google “how did doctors learn to wash their hand”). Management is actually a craft and I’d rather managers run my hospital or my electricity company.

MD
MD
4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I agree(partially) with both of you.

Management got doctors to wash hands through campaigns that highlighted the risk to others (not themselves) appealing to their innate altruism.

That said, “management” is routinely derided in hospitals by doctors because it is often a het up nurse with an MBA and a cheap pantsuit from Jigsaw that is intent on removing things e.g the good band-aids, free carparks, staff meals or the Nescafe Blend 43. They “win” by cutting costs not inspiring discretionary effort or casting an aspirational vision. Economic rationalism of this kinds in a hospital less a race to the bottom.

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago

Came across this quote the other day it seems relevant

“If someone says the sky is green, you prove that it’s actually blue, and the next day he comes back once again insisting that the sky is green, and this happens repeatedly, you eventually have to acknowledge that mannerly debate about the color of the sky just isn’t enough; you have to go meta, and talk about the fact that this guy and his friends just aren’t in the business of honest discussion. Paul Krugman

“content is fancy form” and that is hard work. BS on the other hand is easy. And that is the rub: you can demolish and bury BS, but it keeps on clawing its way back out of the ground, our term for the Art resale tax BS backers is the ‘undead’- how do you kill something that is not quite ‘real’?

wilful
wilful
7 years ago

Nicholas, as a former senior policy officer in the Victorian government, I absolutely agree with what has been said here. On many occasions I came up with better ways of doing things in my area, simplifications that would make either ours or the public’s life that little bit easier. I did this because I enjoyed my job and thought that was supposed to be part of it. I wasn’t unique of course, there were many other professionals like me who agreed with me. Yet very very few of these ideas ever saw the light of day. Why? Because the “clay layer” (impermeable substance) of senior managers and junior execs typically saw no immediate benefit for themselves, just more work to implement to reform, maybe some questioning of the status quo, maybe some risks, and they seemed to prefer lurching from crisis to crisis dealing with the crappy cobbled together solutions that were not their fault than having to put some resources into doing things differently. Partly for this reason, I have now left government…

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago

Nick,

you know I agree with most of this, though managerialism for me is entirely understandable: of course managers want to see themselves as infallible and in charge, particularly when they have no real clue as to what is going on and rightfully fear losing their over-priced job.

To change this though, one needs a vision of how things could be different: a buzzword, a utopia, a story of change that people can draw hope from and that gives them an understanding as to how life could be different. For managerialism is now supported by lots of supporting habits: blind compliance taught to the next generation from a very early age, a top-down view of organisations, a hero-worship of the people at the top no matter how terrible they were in actuality, an acceptance of bullying by managers as part of ‘what you have to do to get things done’, etc. Managerialism fits into those habits and has greatly amplified them. It is now quite deeply embedded.

People might agree from their own experience that you are talking about a real problem, but to change their choices for their children and their organisations, you need a vision. One that makes people feel cheated but that also offers hope.

Myself, I have veered to the conclusion that managerialism is an outgrowth of our political system which increasingly produces and then awards unpriced favors, often in the form of favourable regulation. What the ICAC enquiry has unearthed with respect to land rezoning and mining concessions in NSW, where coalitions of private parties and politicians helped themselves to favorable mining concessions, land re-zoning, and other political favors worth a lot to private parties, is but a small part of a much broader phenomenon that now dominates our political scene. Similar favors explain the emergence of overpaid medical specialists, managers of education and health institutions, and huge superprofits in our financial industries.

The key insight is that the favors are unpriced, ie something of worth is allocated but not for an open price, a missing market. As a result, coalitions emerge between politicians, civil servants, and private agents that capture these favors and keep them in small cliques. The cult of managerialism is then merely the device to protect those favors, to rationalise them, and to corner the spoils that essentially come from anti-competitive practices. This mechanism works inside ministries just as much as it works when granting monopolies to private agents. The mainstream economic solution would be to price those favors in open markets. The mainstream political solution is to somehow generate far more information on the merits of these favors and their allocation so that political decision making pays more attention to the public interest. I think more participatory democracy could help with that, but you might prefer other options.

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

That sounds mainly right Paul. I assume you mean doctors in general are overpaid, not the best? They are probably underpaid due to the inefficiencies of their industry!

JJ
JJ
7 years ago

I agree that managerialism is at least partly a response to drivers in our political and economic system. Can anyone suggest any interesting reading on this general theme?

On the more specific question of doctors and hospitals, I don’t think there’s necessarily a simple answer. Understanding of the work of the hospital and ability to engage with doctors and nurses are clearly critical, but it is possible we’ve gone a bit far with generalists – this research raises questions:
Physician-leaders and hospital performance: Is there an association?
Abstract
Although it has long been conjectured that having physicians in leadership positions is valuable for hospital performance, there is no published empirical work on the hypothesis. This cross-sectional study reports the first evidence. Data are collected on the top-100 U.S. hospitals in 2009, as identified by a widely-used media-generated ranking of quality, in three specialties: Cancer, Digestive Disorders, and Heart and Heart Surgery. The personal histories of the 300 chief executive officers of these hospitals are then traced by hand. The CEOs are classified into physicians and non-physician managers. The paper finds a strong positive association between the ranked quality of a hospital and whether the CEO is a physician (p<0.001). This kind of cross-sectional evidence does not establish that physician-leaders outperform professional managers, but it is consistent with such claims and suggests that this area is now an important one for systematic future research."

http://www.amandagoodall.com/SS&MarticletJuly2011.pdf

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

It’s one of my projects. I have a piece coming out soon in the Australian Economic review on this (which mentions the medical issues where one is not talking about foresighted rent-seeking that came with managerialism, rather ex-post political protection of accidentally created rents). In terms of the university sector, see http://press.anu.edu.au//wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Universities-as-Royal-Courts-A-Fable-Paul-De-Frijters.pdf

John walker
5 years ago

Yeah
The frequency of terms such as “must”, in federal regulations, sorted by industry categories, don’t , aparently , map to the frequency of people starting new businesses in those industries…. :-)

John walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas
Went to see the Big Short the other day (could be conformation bias) but there seems to be AAA rated certified psychic wealth ,everywhere these days. Not just in finance.

Came out of the film thinking, how come most things still work ? Is it because the reality of most official (and academic) representations of things these days are not that important? I.e it doesn’t matter -nobody reads them or takes them seriously, anyway?

John walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

BTY the introduction to the article I sent you ( which was sent to me by Anne) raises a implicit ‘meta’ question re slow but continuous, incremental change and when does such incremental change reach a point where a major qualitative change has occurred . And in that example , ‘education’ no longer equals, education.

It kind of reminded me of something in S J Gould’s intro to the Structure of Evolutionary Therory. Roughly Gould asked : if my family , of impeccable distant orthodox Jewish ancestry have gradually over the last hundred years come to “, religiously ” eating cheese burgers for lunch every day, does that mean that cheese burgers are , now , ‘Kosher’ ?

Patrick
Patrick
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

The last sentence is certainly interesting! I think that represents bottom-up expertise at work ;)

paul walter
paul walter
5 years ago

The last para is great.

The sky is dark with Des Moore and other Platonic types, IPA preppies and ancient Murdoch hacks…so many the sunlight is mostly blotted out.

And generalist pests, the academic equivalent of road kill or pot-bashers.

And Patrick.

JJ
JJ
5 years ago
paul walter
paul walter
5 years ago

Does the system really want things at optimum. Can you build in little opportunities for mark ups? Is your communication system not functional, so people with issues with you then give up?

Nicholas Gruen
5 years ago

I mention ‘ethics’ above, but should also have mentioned ‘consents’, as I do here. Apropos of me being asked to agree not to mention 5,000 sensitive issues during interviews with students:

One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. In the case of regulation, we really need the people at the coalface to be thinking about the efficiency of what they’re doing within a larger whole. It’s very difficult for the top, or the centre to get this to happen – as it has to happen at the periphery, but no matter. We’ll issue instructions. All those making regulations must do a regulatory impact statement – to the letter of the thinking of those at the top, but alas not to the spirit.

Patrick
Patrick
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

shudder

john Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

That student had done ” humanities ” ,and had learnt an indifference to human facts in all their gritty diversity.
Shudder indeed.

john Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas
The essay also says of this elite that they are: excellent haters.
Could it be that an elite that is based on ‘ equality’ is one based on ,envy- That takes sorrow at others good fortune?

“whose scrawniness seemed stuffed
with all men’s cravings, sluggish with desires,
who had made many live in wretchedness. ”

Was it that scrawny wolf, that the Leopard was seeing when he spoke of ” little hyenas ” who will all be ” salt of the earth”

John walker
5 years ago

While there must be many reasons for the growing extreme partisanship (and the fear – moral panic that seems underlie much of it ) Tyler Cowens understatement: ” changes in the media environment”. Surely has to be a big factor, no?

The ‘web, has had one effect that is easy to overlook but is significant- in a web browser window on the typical hand held device, everything you see has much the same physical or visual ‘size’ and therefore it’s easy to loose a sense of scale-proportion.
And time space, history is also ‘flattened ‘ by the web , that doesn’t help either.

john Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

– It deepens the productivity puzzle. We might expect rising numbers of managers and professionals to be accompanied by rising aggregate productivity, if only as a compositional effect: managers and professionals have higher wages and so (in neoclassical theory!) are more productive. That this hasn’t happened makes it even stranger that productivity has stagnated.

Not that strange if education is really about ‘qualification’ no?

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paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago

Nick,

I happened to stumble accross the UN declaration of Human rights. It seems to fit your notion of bullshit above, no? If taken literally, they are ridiculous and meaningless. And if not taken literally, what are they?