The cost of bullshit in business


This an abbreviated version of a great article by André Spicer first published in The Manchester Guardian. The original article is from his book “Business Bullshit”, published by Taylor & Francis. You can buy it at bookshop.theguardian.com

BACKGROUND:

Until early 1984, executives at Pacific Bell had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on telephone services in California. Now the industry was about to be deregulated, and Pacific Bell would soon face tough competition. The management team responded by restructuring, downsizing and rebranding. The company executives worried that Pacific Bell didn’t have the right culture and that their employees were not entrepreneurial enough; to compete in this new world, more than their balance sheets needed an overhaul, their 23,000 employees needed one as well.

THE BIG IDEA:

The company turned to Charles Krone, a well-known organisational development specialist, who designed a management-training programme to transform the way Pacific Bell employees thought, talked and behaved. The programme was based on the ideas of the 20th-century Russian mystic George Gurdjieff who believed that most of us spend our days mired in waking sleep and that we need to shed our ingrained habits of thinking to liberate our inner potential. 

Over the course of 10 two-day sessions, staff were instructed in new concepts that helped them identify the quality of their mental energy, and how to discover the importance of “alignment”, “intentionality” and “end-state visions”. The new vocabulary was designed to awaken employees from their bureaucratic sleep and open their eyes and minds to a new and higher-level of corporate consciousness. 

Pacific Bell planned to spend $147,000,000 putting 23,000 employees through the programme. 

THE IMPACT:

While some employees felt like their ability to get things done had improved, there were some unfortunate and unforeseen side-effects of this heightened corporate consciousness.

  • It was virtually impossible for anyone outside the company to understand the new language that Pacific Bell employees were speaking.
  • The new language “led to a lot more meetings”.
  • The amount of time spent nurturing the newfound states of higher consciousness meant that “everything took twice as long”.
  • Many believed that if the time and effort put into the new programme had been invested in the business at hand, everyone would have gotten a lot more done.
  • While the programme was packaged as new-age psychic liberation thinking, it was managed in a traditional corporate (authoritarian) manner; “shape up or ship out”.
  • Some Pacific Bell employees wrote to their congressmen about the programme. The Californian utility regulator launched a public inquiry, and eventually closed the training course down. But not before $40,000,000 dollars had been spent.
  • During this period, a young Pacific Bell computer programmer named Scott Adams spent his spare time drawing a cartoon that mocked the new management-speak which had invaded his workplace. Dilbert was syndicated in newspapers across the world.

NOW AND THEN

While Kroning’s programme was shut down, Kronese are alive and weli, and his B.S. seems relatively benign compared to much of the vacuous language used today. Words like “intentionality”, “ideation”, “imagineering”, and “inboxing” – the sort of management-speak used to talk about everything from educating children to running nuclear power plants. This language has become a kind of organisational lingua franca, used by middle managers in the same way that freemasons use their secret handshakes – to indicate their membership and status. It seems to be everywhere, and refer to anything, and nothing.

 

It hasn’t always been this way. 

 

In the late 18th century, firms were owned and operated by businesspeople who tended to rely on tradition and instinct to manage their employees. Over the next century, as factories became more common, a new figure appeared: the manager. To gain more respect, managers assumed the trappings of established professions such as doctors and lawyers. They were particularly keen to be seen as a new kind of engineer, so they appropriated the stopwatches and rulers - and created the first major workplace fashion: scientific management. Firms started recruiting efficiency experts to conduct time-and-motion studies. After recording every single movement of a worker in minute detail, the time-and-motion expert would rearrange the worker’s performance of tasks into a more efficient order. Their aim was to make the worker into a well-functioning machine, doing each part of the job in the most efficient way. 

As scientific management became increasingly unpopular, executives began casting around for other ways to improve productivity. They found inspiration in a famous series of experiments conducted by psychologists in the 1920s at the Hawthorne Works in Illinois where tens of thousands of workers were employed by Western Electric to make telephone equipment. There a team of researchers from Harvard set out to discover whether changes in environment, like light and temperature, influenced worker productivity. The researchers found that no matter how light or dark the workplace was, employees continued to work hard. The only thing that seemed to make a significant difference was the amount of attention that workers got from the experimenters. This insight led one of the researchers, an Australian psychologist, Elton Mayo, to conclude that the “human aspects” of work were more important than the environment. 

As Mayo’s ideas caught hold, and companies attempted to humanise their workplaces. They began talking about human relationships, worker motivation and group dynamics. They started conducting personality tests and running teambuilding exercises: hoping to nurture better human relations in the workplace.

During the second world war, as the US and UK military invested heavily in trying to make war more efficient. A bright young Berkeley graduate called Robert McNamara led a US army air forces team that used statistics to plan the most cost-effective way to flatten Japan in bombing campaigns. After the war the mathematical procedures that Robert McNamara had developed during the war were taken up by companies to help them plan the best way to deliver products to American consumers. Today his process is known as supply-chain management.

In the postwar years, workers once again became cogs in a large, hierarchical machine. While many grey-suited employees savoured the security, freedom and increasing affluence that their work brought them, others complained about a deep lack of meaning in their lives. They wanted to be themselves, express who they really were, and did not want to obey “the Man”.

By the 1970’s executives began attending a new series of new-age workshops to help them “self-actualise” and  unlock their hidden “human potential”, companies instigated “encounter groups” in which employees could explore their deeper inner emotions and offices were redesigned to look more like university campuses than factories. Nowhere is this shift better captured than in the final episode of the television series Mad Men. Don Draper had been the exemplar of the organisational man, wearing a standard-issue grey suit when we met him at the beginning of the show’s first series. After suffering numerous breakdowns over the intervening years, he finds himself at the Esalen institute in northern California, the home of the human potential movement. Initially, Draper resists, but soon is sitting in a confessional circle, sobbing as he tells his story. His personal breakthrough leads him to take up meditating and chanting, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. The final scene of the series shows the liberated adman’s new creation – an iconic Coca-Cola commercial in which a multiracial group of children stand on a hilltop singing about how they would like to buy the world a Coke and drink it in perfect harmony.

Since new-age ideas first permeated the workplace in the 1970s, the spin cycle of management-speak has sped up. During the 1980s, management experts went in search of fresh ideas in Japan. Management became a kind of martial art, with executives visiting “quality dojos” to earn “lean black-belts”. The 1982 bestseller, In Search of Excellence, captures the era well.

While McKinsey consultants mined the wisdom of the east, the ideas of Harvard Business School’s Michael Jensen started to find favour among Wall Street financiers. Jensen saw the corporation as a portfolio of assets – human resources – were a key part of the portfolio. Each company existed to create returns for shareholders, and if managers failed to do this, they should be fired. If a company didn’t generate adequate returns, it should be broken up and sold off. Every (little) part of the company was seen as a business. Seduced by the profit-center model, many organisations created internal markets and profit centers. For example, the BBC created a system in which everything from time in a recording studio to toilet cleaning was traded on a complex internal market. The number of accountants working for the BBC exploded while people who created TV and radio shows were laid off.

As companies become more ravenous for the latest management fad, they become less discerning. Some bizarre recent trends include equine-assisted coaching and rage rooms (where employees can smash office furniture, computers and images of their boss.

A century of management fads, not insight, has created workplaces that are full of empty words and rituals. The author, André Spicer, recently attended an hour-long meeting at which he recorded 64 different nuggets of corporate bullshit including; “doing a deep dive”, “reaching out”, and “thought leadership”. There were also some new ones he hadn’t heard before: people with “protected characteristics” (anyone who wasn’t a white straight guy), “the aha effect” (realising something), “getting our friends in the tent” (getting support from others).

 

QUESTION

Why have so many smart people been seduced by stupid business bullshit. 

 

SOME ANSWERS

  • People use management-speak to project an impression of expertise.
  • The inherent vagueness of this language also helps them dodge the tough questions.
  • While business bullshit annoys a lot of people, in most work situations we do our best to be polite and avoid confrontation. So instead of causing a scene by questioning the bullshit flying around the room, we just go along with it.
  • According to a 2014 survey by Harris, the average U.S. employee now spends 45% of their working day doing their real job. The other 55% is spent doing things such as wading through endless emails or attending pointless meetings.
  • Many employees have extended their work day and stay late to do their “real work”.

THE IMPACT OF B.S. ON THE ECONOMY

43% of all teachers in England are considering quitting in the next five years. The most frequently cited reasons are increasingly heavy workloads caused by excessive administration, and a lack of time and space to devote to educating students. 

81% of senior doctors in England say they are considering retiring from their job early.

57% of GPs are considering leaving the profession.

66% of nurses say they would quit if they could. In each case, the most frequently cited reason is stress caused by increasing managerial demands, and lack of time to do their job properly.

* Note: this is a pre-covid survey!

Politicians use business bullshit to avoid grappling with important issues. The machinery of state has also come down with the word-virus. The NHS is crawling with “quality sensei”, “lean ninjas”, and “blue-sky thinkers”. Even schools are flooded with the latest business buzzwords like “grit”, “flipped learning” and “mastery”. Naturally, the kids are learning fast. One teacher recalled how a seven-year-old described her day at school: “Well, when we get to class, we get out our books and then we start on our non-negotiables.”

If we hope to improve organisational life – and the wider impact that organisations have on our society – then a good place to start is by reducing the amount of bullshit our organisations produce. Bullshit allows us to blather on without saying anything. It hollows out our language and makes us less able to think clearly and soberly about the real issues. 

As more of our words become meaningless, we begin to feel less empowered. 

Bullshit must be challenged. This is a task each of us can take up by refusing to use empty management-speak. We can stop ourselves from being one more conduit in its circulation. Instead of just rolling our eyes and deleting stupid emails, we should demand something more meaningful. Putting management-speak in its place is going to require a collective effort. 

 

Start your own anti-bullshit movement made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. Question management bullshit in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in your private lives.

 

Bullshit spotting is also a way of reminding people that each of our institutions have their own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management bullshit speak. Remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated by bullshit. 

 

By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have better functioning organisations, institutions, as well as richer and more fulfilling lives.

 

 

 

I support freedom of choice


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About sales [events]


12-18-2011- 3

 This is my mother, Julia in 2011 at age 90. She’d be 102 now. At Christmas she gave us money because she didn’t understand how her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren navigated life. The price of things astounded her. As did the new technology, and the speed at which things come into and go out of fashion. It all became too much for her towards the end. Interestingly, when she asks her children what she should get their children, they were not so sure either; they too are amazed, but in a different way, by the changes, and the speed of the changes, in their lives.

The children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren have one thing in common: they all enjoy the money my mother gives them because they can do what-ever they want with it. 

My mother doesn’t think giving money is a gift because it takes no thought or insight. She believed that a good gift should be a creative revelation for the recipient.

Segue to Frank Wehrmann on the subject of Creative Design and Branding.

When I’m asked to design an advertising campaign or comment on one, I ask to see the consumer U&A research first. 

If the client doesn’t have any but is prepared to do some, great! 

There’s hope. 

If not, odds are that I can’t really help the client.

Like my mother, the people at the top are not in touch with what’s going on at street level. They just pretend to be. They see people shopping and see lots of stores having sales. And when some stupid ad agency tells them they need to do a sale as well, they’re more than willing to blindly jump on the band wagon and run one as well. Follow the leader – like little lemmings into the sea.

Like my mother, I don’t think giving away money or margin is creative or smart. Actually, I think it’s a pretty stupid [race to the bottom invented by short sighted marketers]. If they were smart, they would add to, rather than chip away, at their brand’s fragile value proposition and use their profits to make brand improvements that increase their brand's quality, loyalty and sales.

 

 

 

A thousand-word picture


Dog-Blog

  

 

 

Dear Old World . . .


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 We found these all-occasion cards at the AGO store in Toronto. 

 

 

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