A sealed shut hazelnut shell
Polished with sheer sides
A haiku about a former manager who was infamously impervious to feedback, or “reality” as it is sometimes known.
Let’s call him Andy, as that was his name.
Like a bullet he only went in straight lines, never swerving left or right from his task, nothing could pierce him as he did the piercing thank you.
Andy had built his thick and impervious shell by fully engaging with the command and control ethos of “doing the task you’ve been given”. Doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but he applied that to his staff too. So, once a
order request was issued, it was to be carried out. If it was a stupid half baked incoherent order, and clarification was sought it would often be met as if it was an outright mutiny. The purpose of work is to do tasks. Not doing tasks was not doing work and not doing your job, ergo questioning a task was tantamount to rejecting your whole job.
Andy often ended up the only person in the room who thought he was right, but given that he was in charge, he never knew it, due to everybody else in the room having learnt to keep schtum.
He wasn’t brutally rude or overbearing on the surface, but due to his laser like focus on the task at hand it was soon clear that if you similarly weren’t as focussed on just doing, and had a question, then there must be trouble being made.
Andy wasn’t well liked by his underlings. But some were nevertheless impressed. The ability to “do”, even when doing the wrong thing, was admired by some. This was because the constant awareness of how our work appeared to Andy had turned us into a medieval court clustered around a tyrannical king. Purpose, never fully visible, had disappeared to be replaced with huddling around The Throne. We were well trained and became attuned to whatever crappy piece of tat would impress, like timid woodland creatures sensitive to the faintest crack of a twig in a wood at night.
Andy had trained himself to ignore everything other than his ideas of what was right, and we had became trained to never offer him anything other than his own ideas back to him. Eventually he sealed himself in completely like a mummified Pharaoh in a pyramid. His own personal universe with just him in it. The Andyverse. Nobody would ever offer anything to him from outside the Andyverse. The Andyverse was closed for all eternity, with Andy at the centre as king of everything, king of nothing.
So what’s this got to do with systems thinking then?
The systems thinking lesson
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
—Steven Hawking, 1988
I learnt that Andy wasn’t just a freak occurrence. He had learned to be Andy from the Andy above him. As with the turtles, I learned that in command and control organisations it’s Andys all the way up.
I found out later about Chris Argyris and the two very different models of thinking and behaving in organisations. Model 1, a defensive style which at its heart is about the individual protecting and advancing his ideas which results in an organisation in the individual protecting and advancing himself.
A key characteristic is it is sealed. No testing of ideas, as model 1 causes people to identify with their ideas. They are their ideas. A successful idea is a successful Andy. Everything becomes about the individual. Andy’s idea. Andy’s project. Andy’s success. Andy’s failure.
Andys breeds Andys. Andys advance other Andy’s. Andys define the rules of the game, Andy’s turn work into a game.
I know it’s not Andy’s fault though. Nobody is born Andy. Not the Andy I knew, or the Andy’s that made him. It’s all the Andy’s working together that make the Andyverse. It takes a strong Andy to step out of line and start thinking different as they are still in the Andyverse when they start to realise that there are other universes, and who lives in those ones eh?