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).
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.
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.
Hyper-Government! Very impressive. Who knew?
Postscript Two: Bullshit, the interview.