Over a lifetime of meeting people, facilitating search conferences, and curating conversations that matter, there is one human frailty I constantly encounter and that still irritates me. In an age when reciprocity creates value, cooperation is key to getting things done, and connections are critical, I am weary of the way so many people seem to go out of their way to block opportunities and prevent things from happening.
They are not necessarily individuals. They can be processes designed in such a way as to hinder or confound — expendable rules, bureaucratic minutiae, ambiguous contractual conditions, and even the kind of telephone games used by many business corporations these days. You know the kind of thing: Your call is important to us. Please hold the line and we will test your patience by transferring you from one set of instructions to the next without so much as bothering you with a single intervention from another human being! Press 1 for further information or 2 to hear these instructions yet again…
Whether they are people or processes I call them the preventers.[i] A preventer controls access to an individual or group of individuals, ensuring they are not disturbed or diverted from the task at hand, or channels behaviour a certain way. Sometimes these preventers are ordinary people going about their jobs as briefed, although they do not need to do it with such excessive smugness. At other times their need to offend is blatant. They get in the way, slow things down, and stop things happening, exhibiting prodigious ignorance, and a sense of self-importance that, in my experience, is utterly unwarranted.
The preventers are typically procurement personnel, personal assistants, political staffers, lobbyists, secretaries, editors, university admissions officers, advisers, bodyguards and various other aides-de-camp. But increasingly the real culprits are the celebrities, office-bearers, executives, directors, and business owners themselves.
Preventers are most clearly visible in contemporary politics which has descended into a desperate and dysfunctional state. Policies that do not obviously further the narrow interests of parliamentarians, by protecting their ideological base, building their empires, or stroking their egos, are disregarded. As a consequence governments of every persuasion routinely fail their citizens while ignoring the plight of future generations. There is no vision of what might be possible, no time for bipartisan reflection, nor coherent inquiry. Intellect, foresight and moral fortitude have been edged out in deference to a combatant media cycle that seethes rather than informs, and from which there is no escape.
Public life is conducted in a permanent state of fight or flight. This environment rewards conflict, real or manufactured. So politics dishes up conflict as a substitute for evidence-based policy, over and over again.[ii]
Let me explain my deeper concerns about the spread of these preventers with a few personal cases…
1. Ignorance. Two weeks ago I reached out to the Chief of Staff of a public official I had been trying to contact without much luck. I explained to her that there was a golden opportunity to bring a unique international event of potentially unparalleled significance to the city in which I live. I assumed that the Mayor would be keen to support this. But I was chastened by this Chief of Staff who told me that I should contact her again when my planning was more advanced. While I have no reason to doubt this particular gatekeeper’s knowledge or professionalism I am aggrieved that so many possibilities have been forestalled by this decision. The lesson? The degree of authority and self-regulation assumed by some gatekeepers can stall any proposal that does not immediately make sense within that person’s own limited frames of reference.
2. Convention. A few years ago I was asked to help a government department choose a consultant in the field of my expertise. This request came directly from the Department Secretary who was a close friend. I agreed to help and examined the Tender document at length. It was clear to me from the outset that the writing of the Tender document had been slanted in favour of a particular company that charges excessively for its services but is universally recognised as the most prestigious of the large consulting practices. When I pointed this out to the manager of procurement he promptly complained to the Secretary that I did not understand the sensitivities surrounding this assignment and should therefore step down. Not wanting to embarrass my friend I concurred. The consulting firm in question was awarded the contract. According to several sources the consultants caused immense cultural damage yet went on to win further Tenders in other departments with intact credentials. The lesson? The finest advice, and the most profound wisdom, is routinely denied to those most in need of it who defer instead to suppliers offering convenience, agreeable solutions and, by virtue of their repute, tacit insurance should anyone dare challenge their legitimacy.
3. Selfishness. Some time ago I reached out to a colleague in my own field of expertise using the popular LinkedIn site — inviting him to connect because of our mutual interests. He declined, given the fact that he did not know me and we had not been properly introduced. Only later did I discover that he had just seven contacts on LinkedIn and that these were all venture capitalists. Clearly this person does not appreciate the role social networks play in this day and age. Connecting with others in a spirit of generosity and reciprocity was a foreign idea to him and clearly not as important as following the rules. The lesson? Many people still do not comprehend or appreciate the benefits of social media when some form of financial advantage is not explicitly part of the impulse to connect.
4. Condescension. A few weeks ago I was contacted on social media by a 19-year-old man from Iran. It was evident from his message that he was quite well educated. It was also clear that he was not a troll trying to take advantage of the medium to defraud me of a few dollars. He had heard about me, had at least skimmed through my credentials, was clearly fascinated by the field of foresight, and wanted some career advice, which I was pleased to give him. He then sent me another message stating how surprised he was that I had replied to him in the first place. Apparently he had targeted quite a number of people with similar requests. They either ignored him or sent him a curt reply saying they were far too busy to bother answering at length. The lesson? In the communitarian small-world milieu of contemporary life there are still people who believe that others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all.
5. Narcissism. Last week, hoping to meet with someone I have long admired during my forthcoming visit to the US, I received a brief message to my inquiry. Apparently this particular individual had far more pressing engagements and was consequently too busy to see me. The lesson? I discovered that my work is of no consequence to this person and that he is either too lazy, too caught up in his own dramas, or too full of self-importance to meet for a few minutes, even though I am hardly ever in the US these days and will be within cooee distance of his office for a total of six days and nights!
The first two examples above are part of a well-documented occurrence — the agency dilemma. This arises when one individual is able to make decisions on behalf of, and that impact, other individuals. Common examples of this relationship in a collective sense include politicians and voters, corporate management and shareholders, or brokers and markets. The agency dilemma arises in situations where agents are explicitly motivated to act in their own best interests, rather than those who they represent. Take divorce proceedings, for example. At a time of such stressful sadness I might wonder whether my lawyer is recommending protracted legal proceedings because it is vital for my own well-being, and that of my dependents, or because it will generate additional income for his practice.
But my final three examples are part of a growing phenomenon that should also concern us. I call it the entitlement bubble — the retreat into a pathological form of narcissism that arises from pressures to comply with the established order even when that system is felt to be in a state of deterioration or collapse. These individuals consistently pretend to be more important than they are, often convincing themselves of their perfection, relative to others, and consequently entitled to favourable or special treatment.
I relate these five episodes merely to point out that the codes, instructions, processes, protocols and underlying assumptions we commonly use to engineer change, channel energy, secure advice, contract appropriate services, or simply get non-routine things done, often impede us, blinding us to the imperatives of systemic change and preventing beneficial relationships from forming. Indeed they may result in isolation, exploitation, an uninformed defense of contrived boundaries, and agenda-setting that is both trivial and misleading. Meanwhile the potential for great work, such as the collective invention of a more humanitarian worldview, is belittled.
Surely life should not be so difficult, particularly given the enabling technologies we have at our fingertips these days. Perhaps we are fooling ourselves by wasting time and money constructing rules that are not only inefficient but can lead to inertia and the squandering of resources. Perhaps all we really need are transparency, humility, and a less confining attitude to connecting and collaborating with each other.
[i] A preventer is a mechanical device on a sailing vessel which limits the boom’s ability to swing unexpectedly across the boat due to an unplanned accidental jibe.
[ii] In the fight club of Australian politics, the public suffer the knockout blow — by Katherine Murphy, The Guardian, 19th February, 2017