Uncertainty, industrious compliance, and the illusion of control

Posted on Thu 29 September 2022 in blog • 6 min read

If I had visited you from the future six months ago, and given you today’s headlines to read, you would probably have dismissed me as a lunatic. And you’d probably say the same to someone who dropped in on you today and read you the headlines from six months out. And if conversely you tried to sit down tonight and write the headlines for March 29, 2023, you’ll probably notice on the day that your predictions were nowhere near actual events.

You have no idea what the world, or even your life, will look like just six months from now. Make it five years or ten, and you won’t have the faintest shimmer of a clue. There is no certainty about your future.

Now, there are three approaches to deal with this kind of uncertainty:

  1. Fatalism. The idea that whatever happens will happen, you have no control over it, and therefore any attempt to wield any influence over your own life is doomed.

  2. Control. The idea that you can achieve certainty in your life by planning everything and leaving nothing to chance.

  3. Creativity. The idea that, although some events in your life (and the world) are beyond your influence, you will have the ideas needed to make the best of the twists and turns, good and bad, that life throws at you.

In comparing these, I’d maintain that fatalism is a terrible strategy for life, and that far superior to sticking to the illusion of control is an approach favouring creativity — “the process of having original ideas that have value,” according to Sir Ken Robinson.

Now, almost exactly the same considerations apply to the medium-term future of a corporation. Nobody really knows what the future holds. There is no certainty. The market can go either way, interest rates can explode shattering your financing, you might close on an unexpected opportunity that sends your business flying. In principle, corporations could make the same considerations that apply to people, and strive to foster creativity left, right, and centre.

I am routinely dismayed, though, by the fact that the approach heavily favoured in management is one of control, to absurd ends. I think it’s obviously ludicrous to expect an engineering manager to “plan” what their team will be working on 5 quarters from now, or a sales person to “project” product sales next July. There are close to a million things that could influence either outcome, and the person would have to do the work equivalent to that of meteorologist predicting maritime weather patterns for container ships, weeks and months out. Almost nobody in business has the data, the time, the staff, and the budget to do that.

So managers turn to metrics and KPIs and OKRs and whatever the TLA du jour may be, in a frantic quest to achieve some degree of certainty — a process which, as others have pointed out, suffocates the creativity that’s really needed to address a constantly changing environment. The idea is that if you collect all the metrics and do all the statistics and measure everything (in other words, if you follow some “process” perfectly), you’ll succeed.

That is so obviously non-sensical that the question becomes, why the hell does anyone think that this works?

And I have a hypothesis on why that is so. I attribute it to an institution that practically every manager has gone through, indeed, one that practically everyone has gone through.

That institution is school.

I don’t know about yours, but I can say one thing about my own school education: all of my schooling can be summarized in just a few sentences. Specifically, here’s what school taught me:

  1. Here is a set of rules.
  2. Apply these rules, and you will succeed.
  3. Apply the rules perfectly, and you will excel.

That applied no matter the subject. It was as true for maths as it was for foreign language education, and for writing essays in history class. Here’s how it’s done; do it this way and you’ll succeed.

As it happens, I was good at applying rules. I succeeded in creative writing even when my writing wasn’t at all creative: I could spell, I had good grammar, my writing had the expected structure, I understood punctuation. As long as my writing was error-free, I made A’s (or rather, 1’s, in the school system I inhabited). My schoolmates might have written far better stories, but if in a couple of pages they had three grammar errors and a few misplaced commas and a couple of spelling glitches, they’d make C’s (3’s).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving children a set of rules for solving a problem, and then rewarding them for applying those rules correctly. The problem is with the idea that applying the rules perfectly is where excellence lies. That the difference between doing something well, and doing something exceptionally well, is simply in the more perfect application of the rules.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What distinguishes good results from excellent ones is either that the excellent ones follow the rules very well and then add a personal creative touch, or that they deliberately bend or reject conventions and are great nonetheless.

It gets worse. The people that school rewards the most — the ones it considers the overachievers, the cream of the crop — are the ones who can most perfectly follow the rules everywhere. We call them straight-A students. I was one of them. There is absolutely no way that any one child could have straight A’s, if in school report cards we applied an understanding of excellence that included creativity. You cannot possibly be equally and exceptionally creative in maths, science, languages, history, and all the other subjects you take. Straight A’s is what you get solely from industrious compliance.

And now, in business, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is a whole generation of people under 35 who have gone through this kind of schooling, but are increasingly disillusioned by it — having understood that all their rules-compliance in school and at university is not a guarantee for economic prosperity or even financial security, and further that they can scarcely expect loyalty from their company if the going gets rough, even if they follow all the rules like a straight-A student.

But those same people are being managed by upper-level managers in their late 40s and 50s who not only have achieved some degree of financial stability, but who do believe that it was their education that prepared them for it — and that as long as they continue to meticulously apply a set of rules, everything will be fine and they get to expect a promotion. And when given a new rule book — say, some new management fad imposed by a person of authority, akin to their erstwhile teacher — all they need to do is apply those rules well, and it all will work for them, too. And the more industrious compliance they apply to the rules in the book, the more likely it is that results will not only be good, but excellent.

And if that rulebook includes collecting metrics everywhere and doing misguided statistics on them, it will result in an inordinate amount of busywork that kills the creativity that organizations really need to succeed. And likely drive away the people that could contribute exactly that kind of creativity.

Eventually, this problem will rectify itself by those managers retiring. But in the interim, maybe a few of us could ditch our school approach to work and collaboration, and engage our brains to produce the original ideas that we really need?