Other Side Consulting - Saving the world one manager at a time

Ridiculousness Rules

The ridiculousness is a feature of the majority of organisations that we have gotten so used to that it is now relatively invisible. It takes something genuinely stupid to stand out in the ridiculousness.
Ridiculous - deserving or inviting derision or mockery; absurd.
The Ridiculousness – the absurd, preposterous and laughable processes that managers are forced to navigate to get things done.

I think the majority of public sector services, and many private, are delivered not because of the attention of management but rather in spite of it. Management, raised on a diet of leadershit, focus on strategy (formulation not implementation), transformational leadership, the company’s values and organisational politics. The result is a choking fog of processes, micro-management and make-work tasks that we call the ridiculousness. The concept is similar to Gordon McKenzie’s ‘Giant Hairball’ and it generally sucks the joy of life while burying imagination and innovation.

Why do managers allow this occur?

There are a couple of reasons. First many managers, especially senior managers, have little day to day contact with the coal face and without this they lose contact and relevance. Exacerbating this is the love affair with ‘new blood’. Organisations parachute people in from the outside, often from different industries, and they bring with them a range of kills and experiences perfectly suited to their last job, not their current one. It is a variation of the Peter Principle. That is not to say that new blood and ideas are not good but they need to be introduced thoughtfully not mindlessly.

Second is due to normalisation. Over time, often quickly, ideas and actions come to be seen as 'normal' and become taken-for-granted. It’s similar to being in a new country where initially everything is new and fascinating, ‘wow, look at these double decker buses’. A few weeks later it dissolves into the mundane, ‘the bloody bus is late. Again.’

Philosopher Foucault saw a more sinister force in this second factor which he labelled disciplinary power. This, he contends, enables the maximum social control with the minimum expenditure of force. We do the things we do because we see no viable alternative. Disciplinary power, if you choose to look, can be seen not only in obvious places like the military but in hospitals, schools, factories and in departments and offices everywhere.

This paints a rather unattractive, but often an accurate, picture of organisational life. Not only is the ridiculousness embedded in day to day life, not many people see it and those who do are kept in line by its very nature.

But there is hope especially if, like us at the Other Side, you like subversion (or even perversion in the philosophical sense of the word). Warning – the disciplinary forces mentioned above exist to inhibit subversion so you will be flying into danger.

The simplest subversive act you can do is to recognise it and give it a name. Rather than simply accept a micro-management dictum, such as all expenditure has to be approved by your manager irrespective of the cost, ask the question out loud – “What is this trying to achieve? It seems ridiculous to me.”

I do have to admit it isn’t easy as Foucault’s disciplinary power contains aspects that are subtle. Being subversive often brings you into conflict, and creates issues, for your friends and colleagues. They won’t thank you for being hung out on a limb or made to look incompetent and this is often enough to keep people in line. It’s the same peer pressure that kept us in line at school that keeps us in line in our organisations. It’s an uncomfortable parallel but a cap that seems to fit. The majority of managers are far closer to school teachers than they are to empowering coaches. And that’s something that needs to change.

Roger McEwanComment