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Legitimising rhetoric not a real guide to action

July 28, 2010

201007290727.jpg My thanks to Iwan Jenkins for drawing my attention to this article by economist John Kay which acts as a taster for his book Obliguity which I have now ordered. He discussed Franklin’s rule as a decision making model. This approach, which remains common, is to draw up two columns headed pro and con, then to list all the facts and make an appropriate decision. He has a disturbing illustration with Darwin’s use of said rule to determine if he should marry; contrasting a loss of the conversation of clever men at clubs with the charms of music and chitchat. Of course we need to realise that this whole period, which includes Utilitarianism, has a belief in a linear form of rationality, a moral calculus which will allow objective decisions to be made. The seduction of the laws of thermodynamics and motion was irresistible to many a social theorist.

Now this picks up on a wider theme of naturalising decision making processes on which I have posted frequently. Making a decision can not be reduced to an equation that removes the need for judgement, and judgement in turn requires perspective. He also (in what may be confessional but its unclear) concedes that a life time of building economic models may have been a mistake. In a telling phrase he says this was a legitimising rhetoric rather than a real guide to action. Shades there of my recent tirade against corporate value statements here and here.

The really critical point is his emphasis on the danger of putting money or financial return before all else. He gives two very good examples. Firstly ICI changing its mission statement from the responsible application of chemistry to creating value for sharholders as its share price peaked, just before it went into decline and lost its independence. Secondly Marks and Spencer raising margins and squeezing suppliers to achieve a short term return before its reputation and sales collapsed. Now these examples obviously take place within a wider economic system that became (and has continued) to focus on short term return and purely financial measures. He quotes the Lehman Brothers slogan Lets make nothing but money to contrast with the creation of real value.

They say that those who the Gods would destroy they first make mad. We live in a society where playing games with money is rewarded over the creation of value and social good is reduced to the crude and primitive mathematics of the market. We have lost the capacity to understand value.

The obliquity principle which is the foundation of his book is summed up in this quote: The happiest people were not those who pursued happiness, the wealthiest men were not the most materialistic: the great painting was not the most faithful representation. I’ll let the rest of his argument on decision making speak for itself. However I do think there is an issue with his approach. He comes up with all the right advise – approach problems obliquely, recognise that objectives are imprecise and constantly change. He argues for adaptive decision process and navigating irresolvable uncertainties. Above all he challenges the inadequacy of models, from economic to political: reconstructing the Middle East on the basis of an American model of lightly regulated capitalism and liberal democracy, although they had not the slightest knowledge or understanding of the societies they sought to model.

What I think he misses is the need to move from models to praxis, he lacks a theory as to why the practices he recommends work. Without theory nothing scales.   I retain a hope, but it is only a hope, that as we realise the inadequacies of the model and outcome based focus of systems thinking that we will not simply relapse to ad hocism. Practice without theory cannot scale.

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