Islands of Civilization

Thank heavens for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. They are islands of civilization in a sea of instant opinion and soundbites. In the current issue of NYRB there is a review of Richard Perle’s phantasies about the Middle East by Thomas Powers, another by Frederick Crews about the nonsense of repressed memories of sexual abuse, and one by Richard Horton about the dangers of the privatisation of science. And, of course, much, much more.
The LRB has a long, long article by Neal Ascherson about Georgia – and if you think Georgia is a long way away and of little consequence think again, if you worry about nuclear material falling into the wrong hands look no further. Off-line there is Adam Philips on Dylan Thomas, Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman, and an intriguing piece by Bernard Porter on attitudes to cannabis in the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century.
The LRB and NYRB are treasures that need our support, so by all means read what you can on-line for free, but subscribe or buy them too, we’d be poorer without them.

Search inside the book

I mentioned in passing Amazon’s “search inside the book facility” in an earlier entry. At the time I was so caught up in what I was thinking about that I failed to register how significant Amazon’s innovation is. I remember some years ago the way that Altavista’s full text search capabilities transformed the usefulness of the Web. Amazon’s initiative promises to be still more significant in terms of making visible Gregory Bateson‘s “patterns that connect” in published books. This is big stuff.
What is disturbing is the obstacles that are going to be put in the way of the full promise of this technology being realised, because of a dog in the manager attitude to intellectual property. Amazon’s solution of showing pictures of pages seems like a sensible compromise, but there are still people advocating stopping them doing it on the grounds of infringement of copyright. This seems dumb on several grounds, not least that copies of books might bought that otherwise the buyer might not have known existed.
There is a good account of the technology and its significance in a piece Gary Wolf wrote in Wired and an example of copyright stupidity here. But if you haven’t done so already go to yourself and try it out – it is amazing.

The Adjacent Possible

I love the phrase, “the adjacent possible”. It captures in a very vivid way my sense that we are surrounded by more possibilities and opportunities than we can see – the theme of “Purposive Drift”. Hence my excitement when I first saw the term. It seems to say something I have been trying to say for along time in a very compressed, succinct way. That’s what the “drift” in “Purposive Drift” is about, trying to finding ways to counter our blindness to the richness of the world and to create the circumstances where one can become aware of the adjacent possibilities that too strong a focus on goals or plans could make you miss.
I found the phrase on Edge, where I haven’t been for a while. When I did last week there it was, “The Adjacent Possible – a talk with Stuart Kauffman”. My excitement was somewhat tempered by the fact that I couldn’t pull out much of what he meant from the talk nor with my search of the web following it. This was not dissimilar to my experience of reading his “At Home in the Universe” where I felt he was saying something very important, but found it difficult, if not impossible, to follow his argument in detail. This is due to my inadequacies not his. But, never mind, I shall shamelessly appropriate the phrase and use it in a way that makes sense to me.
What added to my sense of glee was the interesting stuff I came across trying to track down what others meant by the adjacent possible. (Among other things, in an indirect way, that’s where I alighted upon Geoffrey Vickers, my current, growing obsession – all the snippets I have managed to pick up reinforce my sense that he has some really important stuff to say.) Among the new stuff I found there was an interview with Michael Lissack, who is someone else who seems to have a good take on the world. As this extract from the interview shows his use of “the adjacent possible” is close to how I think about it.
“Q: How can companies become more adaptive?
A: You need to be able to recognise your adjacent possibilities. A lot of people can’t. They are at A, they want to go to X. And X is maybe twenty steps away. And they can?t visualise what the next step is that gets them towards X. They can work their way backwards to like N. But they have no idea how to get from A to N. They do know if they can get to N, they can get to X. But they need to know what B and C are. I find that a lot of people at a lot of companies are so focused on being able to articulate X, and then they hire consultants who work them backwards to N, that they never figure out B and C.”

I knew it!

Thanks to Amazon’s amazing “Search inside this book” I confirmed my earlier sense that Sir Geoffrey Vickers thinking was worth pursuing. Amazon now enables you to search the entire text of a number of books and view the pages where your search term occurs. Entering “Vickers? in their entry to Peter Checkland’s “Systems Thinking, Systems Practice” pulled up a lot of references. There on page 262 there was a passage from “Freedom in a Rocking Boat” and a comment from Checkland, which suggested that Vickers had resolved some of the ideas I am still struggling with in “Purposive Drift”.
The passage from Vickers begins “The meaning of stability is likely to remain obscured in Western cultures until they rediscover the fact that life consists of experiencing relationships, rather than seeking goals or ‘ends’.” Checkland comments that, ?Vickers suggests replacing the goal-seeking and goal-seeking-with-feedback (cybernetic) models by one in which personal, institutional or cultural activity consists in maintaining desired relationships and eluding undesired ones.”
So now I am faced with the quest of tracking down Vicker’s writings most of which seem to be out-of-print. But as a taster I did find one paper on line, where he was writing about what Health Services were for, that says to me that here is a mind that still has much to contribute to our thinking today.

Learning what to want

Sir Geoffrey Vickers is a figure that I have known about for years, but the extent of my knowledge was that he was seen as an important figure in systems thinking and had written a book called “Freedom in a Rocking Boat”. I had tried getting hold of that book a number of times, but without success. By one of those curious roundabout routes I stumbled across an Open University site that had a video and transcript of a short talk he gave in 1978. The snippets there have whetted my appetite to find out more about his thinking, because he strikes me as being one of those nearly lost thinkers who has much to say to us today.
What I find slightly mysterious is that there seems to be a cluster of people working, thinking and writing in the immediate post-war period, whose work is largely out of print and whose thinking is mainly represented by a few a few strong quotes, but little else. Why, I wonder have they almost disappeared when what they had to say is, perhaps, even more pertinent today than it was when they were more well known? I suspect that a little intellectual archaeology would yield results that would seem startlingly modern. Meanwhile here is a snippet from Geoffrey Vickers harvested from the web:
?Learning what to want is the most radical, the most painful and the most creative act of life.?

“These guys are relentless”

I had started writing something about the wider context of the Hutton report, when I just felt weary. The thought of ploughing through all the junk that led up to the invasion of Iraq again suddenly seemed as attractive as wading through a sewer. Fortunately I found three links which I think says anything I wanted to say much better than I could manage plus a whole lot more. The first is an article in Mother Jones that details the lead up to the invasion. The second is a piece in the London Review of Books by Conor Gearty that neatly sums up the report itself. The third is a blog by a young Iraqi woman, Riverbend, that I have been following for some time. This, as well providing some wider insights into what is happening in Iraq, gives a vivid account of the daily life of a Baghdad family as the war the continues – a definite must read.
But one snippet from my original intention remained. In the months before the invasion I found a piece in the New Yorker, which contained one paragraph that I felt caught the mood of the whole thing:
“In September (2001, my addition), Bush rejected Paul Wolfowitz’s recommendation of immediate moves against Iraq. That the President seems to have changed his mind is an indication, in part, of the bureaucratic skill of the Administration’s conservatives. “These guys are relentless,” one former official, who is close to the high command at the State Department, told me. “Resistance is futile.”
As I found myself resisting what I had thought I wanted write, I realised that the “relentless guys” phenomenon had a much wider relevance. The sense that “Resistance is futile” is something that many people in many organisations, both public and private, have felt as some bright new idea tramples its way through the system. Sometimes the idea is simply a utopian phantasy, more often the idea contains a kernel of good sense, but in either case any reservations or qualifications about its implementation are brushed aside. Its proponents know it is the right thing to do. People with more knowledge and experience on the ground or those who hold more nuanced views are dismissed as being old fashioned or feeble.
So how does this phenomenon work? At the beginning there is almost always some bright people who develop a nice, simple clear idea that seems to offer certainty. This gets picked up by a bunch of careerists and other special interests, who can see personal benefit from what is proposed. Then you need a crisis of some kind. The response to that crisis produces the momentum that enables the idea to be pushed through. The key to whole thing is the lack of doubt in its advocates, the rewards in terms of career or status that they accrue, their ability to brush aside any evidence that runs counter to their project and most importantly their ability to move upwards out of the organisation before the debris from their enterprise becomes too apparent.
Sounds familiar to you?

Management and measurement

Simon Caulkin’s management column in the Observer is usually worth a read. This week he is talking about a new book by John Seddon, “Freedom from Command and Control” – I talked about some of Seddon’s work in an earlier post, “Failure demand”.
In his assault on the command and control style of management Seddon is particularly scornful of what top management chooses to measure as a means of control. As Caulkin says, “Instead of being controlled by measures, people need measures and methods that allow them to control and improve the work. In this way people, and only people, can absorb variety. And the results can be spectacular: capacity rises as waste is removed. Cost falls. Better service is cheaper; not dearer.”
Seddon suggests that:
“There are three tests of whether the measuring stick you are using to assess performance is a good one:
? Does it help in understanding and improving performance?
? Does it relate to its purpose, as established by the customer?
? Is it integrated with work (that is, in the hands of those who do it)?”

He goes on to argue that most managerial targets, standards, service levels, activity measures and budgets failure to meet these criteria. Certainly I have seen some excellent organisation have all the quality, in the commonly accepted, as opposed to managerial, use of the term, sucked out them by the imposition by senior management of “quality” standards and processes.

The Death of Routine

I have been playing around with some ideas for a book for a while. It’s based on the concept that we can understand much of what is happening in our changing world in terms of the effects of what I am calling three “action ideas” that gained momentum in the Sixties. The thesis is that these “action ideas” are still working their way through the system and contributing to “the death of routine” and the sense of unease that many people feel now. I should point out that what I am talking about here is the erosion of the shared routines that characterised much of the early post-war period, not the individual “got up, had a cup of coffee,..” routines that make up much of our lives. Anyway what follows is a draft of the Introduction. I would be interested know what you think.

Continue reading The Death of Routine

Changing the agenda

Well, it looks as if Michael Wolff was right all along, the Dean campaign did carry the seeds of its own destruction. A short entry on John Naughton’s blog, led me to a long thoughtful piece by Clay Shirky analysing the failure of the campaign and why so many people got it wrong. It’s a good read, but I’m not sure that it adds that much to what Michael Wolff said some months ago.
The danger in all this is that just as the significance of Dean’s campaign became over inflated, it may now be too easily dismissed. My sense is that its real significance was its role in changing the agenda, rather than its role in garnering support for one candidate. I suspect that as time goes on we will see an increasingly sophisticated adoption of the methods Dean’s people used not only to change agendas but to create and define them.