Imagine you want to buy a bar of chocolate from a supermarket.
You are sitting at home, so you need to get in your car, you need to drive to the supermarket, you need to park the car, you need to get out the car, you need to shut the car door, you need to lock the car door, then you need to go into the supermarket to buy your chocolate bar.
And there’s no chocolate bars, cos they’ve ran out.
So you go back home again.
Next day, you want a chocolate bar, so you you need to get in your car, you need to drive to the supermarket, you need to park the car, you need to get out the car, you need to shut the car door, you need to lock the car door, then you need to go into the supermarket to buy your chocolate bar.
And there’s no chocolate bars.
So you wash your car, and valet the inside. Then you you need to get in your car, you need to drive to the supermarket, you need to park the car, you need to get out the car, you need to shut the car door, you need to lock the car door, then you need to go into the supermarket to buy your chocolate bar.
And there’s no chocolate bars.
So you buy a new, faster car. It’ll get you there whizzy fast. You you need to get in your car, you need to drive to the supermarket, you need to park the car, you need to get out the car, you need to shut the car door, you need to lock the car door, then you need to go into the supermarket to buy your chocolate bar.
And there’s no chocolate bars.
You buy a fancy saville row suit, get a smart haircut and you you need to get in your new faster car, you need to drive to the supermarket…
You get the picture. No chocolate bars.
This would be a very silly way to behave if you were doing this. But people are doing this, every day at work.
People begin not to care about the reason they are doing something and concentrate on the thing they need to do, to the exclusion of the bigger thing it is a part of.
There’s a name for this…
More on that later, but thankfully there’s a catchier one, it’s the….
In Kung Fu Panda there’s a thing called THE DRAGON SCROLL. It is a magic scroll with writing on it that will invest the holder of the scroll with great power. There’s a massive fight between the goody (Kung Fu Panda) and the baddy over possessing the scroll, but in the end it turns out, the scroll is blank. Just an empty scroll.
Kung Fu Panda’s dad tells the distraught Panda that this is fine. He is a noodle soup seller and is famous for his special noodle soup and in an attempt to console him, reveals that the long-withheld secret ingredient to his famous “secret ingredient soup” is “nothing“, explaining that things become special if they are believed to be. Panda realizes that this concept is the entire point of the Dragon Scroll
Cos this is a Kung Fu film, this is the lesson here. The lesson is things become special when they are believed to be. And high kicks. That is also the lesson cos it’s a kung fu film
Back to you sitting at work.
You might like your work. You might like the people, the excel spreadsheets, the meetings. You might be a bit teccy and enjoy formula and programming. Or training people on doing things.
And when some awkward sod, like me, asks you about your work you explain how it is good, how you have made it better over years, how it takes less time to do now with greater impact.
And then i ask “Who is this for? Do they use it? Have you ever seen any impact of what you on the end customer?” and you talk about why it is important, and how it could be good. But then, when pressed into a corner, you say, because you know really, well obviously they don’t use it, it’s not meaningful etc
And then the conversation ends abruptly, and we depart to our respective desks.
So at heart you KNOW that purpose is not being met. But you’d rather concentrate on your very own bit, on your patch. Because then you feel better.
This is the Kung Fu Panda principle in action.
The formula for it is…
I know XYZ
But I don’t want to know that i know XYZ
So I don’t know XYZ
A flinty eyed Serbian Philosopher called Slavoj Zizek calls this “fetishistic disavowal” (& he came up with the Kung Fu Panda analogy too so he should know)
He talks about for example, how people carry on eating factory farmed meat…
[Trigger warning: contains stuff about factory farming and all sorts of violence ]
“What about animals slaughtered for our consumption? Who among us would be able to continue eating pork chops after visiting a factory farm in which pigs are half-blind and cannot even properly walk, but are just fattened to be killed? And what about, say, torture and suffering of millions we know about, but choose to ignore?
Imagine the effect of having to watch a snuff movie portraying what goes on thousands of times a day around the world: brutal acts of torture, the picking out of eyes, the crushing of testicles -the list cannot bear recounting. Would the watcher be able to continue going on as usual? Yes, but only if he or she were able somehow to forget what had been witnessed.
This forgetting entails a gesture of what is called fetishist disavowal:
“I know it, but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know.”
I know it, but I refuse to fully assume the consequences of this knowledge, so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know it.”
The full formula of fetishistic disavowal is as below…
“I know things are like this, but I will not admit to that (disavowal), because an investment in a part of the whole edifice of things allows me to ignore the contradictions in the edifice of things as a whole (fetishism)”.
People who are really keen in their job are more likely to not think about the actual whole system they are a part of, if the work they are keen on is a part of a dysfunctional system
Their investment in the part of the system is so much that they ignore the WHOLE.
This post here about the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, an innocent man at the hands of an armed police officer. In spite of overwhelming evidence of something bad happening, the jury decided the deceased was “lawfully killed”.
“The response of the vast majority of politicians who commented on the case ran something like this: “The verdict is baffling; the police have many questions to answer; we must respect the jury system; we must restore public trust in the police” […]
In the responses to the Mark Duggan verdict this takes the form of a disavowal that the jury’s verdict seems problematic, unjust, wrong, and that the police have behaved in a way that is at the least brutal and most probably racist, by fetishising the idea of juries as always correct and unbiased, and the idea of the police as honourable public servants.”
So this flawed and wrong verdict doesn’t show that the policing and court system is broken when it comes to police violence, instead it shows the need to restore public trust in the whole system and forget that it is consistently producing flawed verdicts. It is fetishistic disavowal in action.
Thinking about purpose and whether purpose is being delivered isn’t just the responsibility of leaders. It is a responsibility of everybody playing a part in the system.
It is the responsibility of leaders to enable this and STOP fetishisation of whatever work is being done inside the system and instead make the purpose of the system everybody’s job.
If you are a professional and caring social worker who works tirelessly to help people it doesn’t matter unless the system you are a part of works to help people too.
I produce a scorecard, amongst other things. It doesn’t matter how nice it is, how accurate, how timely. If the system it is a part of doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work too.
Not thinking about whether your system works is encouraged by a command and control management system that splits up flow of work, separates decision making from those who carry out the effect of the decisions. Even job descriptions. Especially job descriptions. They say “this is yours, and that isn’t”. And when that happens purpose definitely isn’t yours.
Not only does command and control management cause and encourage fetishistic disavowal of your own work, it relies on it happening for its own continued existence. Imagine if everybody in an organisation cared about not just their bit, but whether the WHOLE THING worked?
People would be acting across boundaries, across decisions taken elsewhere, whatever is needed to solve problems would go from where it is to where it’s needed.
People would be working to purpose, not their own little bit of purpose, which can only be a pseudo-purpose at best.
Working to purpose wouldn’t mean everyone striking out on their own. CHAOS! The point of a system is not just that it has purpose but that the parts interact in an organised way to achieve that purpose. This means not fetishising your own bit at the expense of and ignoring the larger edifice, but looking at who needs to work with who to do what. In any restructure I’ve been involved in its NEVER about changing the way the bits work together, it’s all about changing what the individual bits DO. This increases fetishistic disavowel and decreases working-to-purpose.
In the end Kung Fu Panda defeated the baddy, but he is a cartoon kung fu fighting panda, and you are are not.
It is a lot harder to look up from your own work and look at the larger thing you are a part of and see that it just doesn’t work. But if you don’t , you can guarantee nobody else will.
[going to the shop to buy a chocolate bar that’s not there was half-inched from here]