The Tyranny of the Explicit

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Bob Sutton has an interesting post linking to this New York Times story: After Bankruptcy G.M. Struggles to Shed a Legendary Bureaucracy. A manager relates how the company’s legendary bureaucracy is being cut down to size: his massively extensive performance review has been cut down to a single page. I liked his explanation for this:

We measured ourselves ten ways from Sunday. But as soon as everything is important nothing is important.

My feeling is that what appears to be happening at GM needs to happen in a lot more places. It often seems to me that everytime we experience a crisis, the solution is to write more rules. A child dies due to failings in care, and more forms have to be filled in. In absurd extremes, a council bans parents from entering a play area as they’ve not had a criminal records bureau check.

Alongside this is a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays. Social workers will have their initial training extended to four years; nurses will have to get a degree level qualification in future. Soon, psychotherapists will have to get a masters degree in order to practice.

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

In order to get things done people have to find elaborate work arounds for the rules, often with anxiety. The result: it’s actually harder to create real trust the human way, using our judgement and instincts.

Of course, language is a wonderful thing, but I see us getting horribly out of balance. I call it The Tyranny of the Explicit. I’ve made that a category here, linking a few related posts on the theme.

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