Clunky robots and other opposites of real work

Real work cannot be understood with a mind body split, either literally or metaphorically. Neither can real learning about how to do real work, gaining real skills in doing things that really matter. That is why management doesn’t work.

I recently visited a sports physiotherapist — a real expert, with fingers that heal. He has worked with a range of Olympic sportspeople as part of the teams that brought them their success. As a metaphor for truly systemic action, we could do worse than focus on Olympic results: everything has to work properly together (and then some!), for the athlete and for the people around him or her.

My neck periodically causes me difficulty and pain. I know the intensely sore spots at the base of my skull when this happens and it leads to headaches and a sort of debilitation. I have a daughter who is sports-therapy-trained and she can sort my neck out by massaging it. I know that if I stay active, gardening and walking rather than sitting as I am now, the problem is less likely to occur. I also know that if you get pain in your shoulder, the problem may actually be in your big toe, so to speak.

Paul, my expert, explains that what I am presenting with is a common syndrome because our culture does everything “in front of us”: driving, desk work, whatever, our arms are out in front of the body. What we fail to pay attention to is the rear power train involving our shoulder blades and trapezium muscles. Luckily, when I went to see him I had an occurrence of the syndrome. He could find the painfully tight muscles in my neck and demonstrate their connection to headache pains in various places: behind my eyes and over my ears for instance. He then showed me that the excessive strain on some muscles is due to weakness/laziness in others. Basically, I need to strengthen elements of my rear power train.

The metaphoric insight here is that the problem (part of my neck) is not the problem. The problem is that in my activity I do not retain balanced use of my body the way it works. Remember the wisdom of the Dagara tribe in an earlier post.[1] In order for the symptoms not to spiral the wrong way I need to know how the system works and how to get it back into balance. Other intervention, such as drugs or surgery, miss the point. And of course, in these blogs I have to point out that there are not many Pauls and if my daughter had not been an elite athlete herself I would never have found him. Our health system does not even train the right people, let alone enable patients to be able to find them.

The enactivist turn

There is an approach to cognition and philosophy called enactivism that we need to sketch quickly here. Partly because we use the metaphor of computer-as-mind far too readily, we seem to think there is necessarily in our minds knowledge made of facts about the world, a decision-making capability, and a planning capability to turn decisions into action. Whereas it appears that our minds don’t work that way.

We work as a system, just like our Olympic sportsperson or last week’s high-flying Rolls Royce consultant. We cannot usefully separate mental concentration from the effective application of muscle-power. We precisely do not think what we are going to do next: we act and our minds are part of the system that guides the action. We have to lose the notion that the mind is in control before we can understand the system.[2] There is some interesting parsimony in this system: we don’t have to tell our arm and hand the context in which they are catching a ball: we only have to say if the expected visual trajectory is not being met.[3]

Let’s pause to look at teaching, say, teaching a child to catch a ball. I’ve been there of course: keep your hands together like this and watch the ball. 99% of teaching is not even that hands-on. It doesn’t work and we can see with the enactivist turn why it doesn’t work. What needs to learn is our entire mind-body system in its environment, a very whole learning. And yet we try to abstract the parts: mind training, body training, learning about the environment. Enactivism abhors that plonky separation, that sort of non-thought.

Enactivists talk about clunky robots. You can make a robot by designing the parts and getting them to work really well separately. Perhaps the vision system and locomotion system and the touch system. And then when you put them together the robot is clunky because the development of for instance the vision system was not sufficiently in the context of the touch system and so on. It seems to me that our notion of thinking is so impoverished that we try to take working people and make them clunky. We succeed and we then try to apply the same failed pedagogy to reduce the clunkiness. I could scream.[4]

I think there is a Bruce Lee quote to the effect that he does not fear the opponent who has practised 10,000 different kicks. It is the opponent who has practised one kick 10,000 times that is to be feared. Please explain to me why we think children need 10,000 “facts” about the world. Bruce Lee also said something about the necessity of forgetting what you already know in order to gain new wisdom…

Models of organisations

Indulge me. Suspend for the duration the idea that an organisation needs market research, needs people with particular skills, needs a management structure, a management information system. These are surely parts of a clunky robot organisation. Imagine instead an organisation that can do something.

Here is another metaphor. Somewhere in my oil industry geophysics background I got to watch a film about Red Adair. In the fifties, he established a company that put out wildfires in oil wells. In the film, he sits at his desk while a fire wreaks havoc somewhere in the world until his very substantial fees are actually in his bank account, then he gets to work. The image burned into my mind is of a drill-string — miles, literally, of heavy steel casing from an oil drilling operation shooting into the air, melting in the heat of the blaze and knitting itself as it fell. There is my organisational equivalent of an Olympic athlete: perfect coordination under maximum threat and uncertainty.

So, another piece of non-thinking. Given the huge amounts of money to be made at the time (1950s on) would you try to copy Red Adair’s company and do things the same way? Would you survive? Would a clunky robot organisation survive its encounter with a wildfire?

Invariants and archetypes

In an outfit like Red Adair’s, there is a necessary and strictly enforced alignment between the stated purpose of the organisation and what it actually does. The moment there is any doubt in a client’s mind that Red Adair will put their fire out tomorrow, the chance that large amounts of money will be transferred in advance dwindles fast.

From a POSIWID point of view, invariants are about outcomes. You look at what doesn’t change in the outcomes, despite an arbitrarily large change in the situation, and you start to see patterns and invariants. The invariant is what the organisation still does when the chips are down. Does a school under pressure try to please OFSTED or try to educate the kids? When Carillion is under pressure does it pay its secret offshore shareholder trusts or does it look to perform its contracts?

The enactive view says that you learn to do what you learn to do: always ways of operating in the world and never transferable skills or external knowledge. The latter are post-hoc rationalisations to avoid too much attention on what matters. The question of what I do, as we mentioned at the end of the last blog, can be a very sensitive matter indeed. Is the corporation a business serving customers or a tax scam, actually?

From an archetypal point of view, invariants are about deep patterns we are probably not even aware of. In the Jungian world there are patterns typically understood as mythic gods and heroes or as the logic of ancient thought such as alchemy. These thought systems explore the essentially eternal interaction between these archetypical patterns. In the material explored in these blogs we might want to think about the Apollonian world of rationality and control and vaunting ambition and the Dionysian world of rewilding and disruption, of sensuous delight and intuitive insight. The point of this archetypal way of understanding is that the material never gets resolved (that belongs to Apollo) and never gets totally subverted (that belongs to Dionysus) but that the interplay is the source of action.

Organisations certainly enact archetypical thought patterns, and these thought patterns are sufficiently deep and inaccessible that it is not surprising that they produce invariants. In many organisations it is better to fail for reasons that are understood than to succeed for reasons that are not. In many organisations, decisions will get made on data, whether the data is relevant or not:[5] there is a decision-style pattern that often means that deep patterns of meaning are being skated over.

I was a director of a social enterprise in Ilford whose ostensible purpose was to help local residents start their own micro-enterprises. Its founding statements were about an organic self-funding model and replication to broaden the base. And I developed an architecture about how that might be done. What happened was grants from the local council for various services: we did a fantastic job and that is what people on the project understood. My architecture was useless because, no matter what was said, people used the available resources from the grants to do the sort of community development they loved. Everyone was happy until it became obvious that the model would not be sustainable. The invariant became doing work the council should have been doing much better and much more cheaply than they could do themselves.

Just to summarise: the enactive view is about bodily action and refuses to partition the system which produces that action, the action must remain whole. Archetypes will find a way to be expressed through these indivisible action systems. POSIWID says that the true purpose in an organisation is to be found in these invariants of what it actually does when the chips are down. Any meaningful learning that happens, happens as the organisation learns to do what it does: put out wildfires or do community development or whatever. But never ever assume that what an organisation says it does, its purpose, its mission, its commitment to customers, has anything to do with its invariants. That is vanishingly rare.

Not pulling the wings off the fly

To study real action, real work, you have to study it in situ with real challenges. The tiger burning bright in the jungle, not the psychological experiment abstracted into the lab. When you take the wings off the fly it doesn’t do fly things anymore. Did you see the controversy about how flies land on the ceiling? Whether they roll or loop? How will you resolve that?

The instinct to separate the market research from the customer service tends to generate clunky robots. They may work but they don’t do real work. They are likely to generate a façade for financial engineering (aka tax scams) rather than meet anyone’s real needs. The human imagination loses its foothold in all those arbitrary measures that give someone else control. Go and observe closely, and remember David Graeber’s findings about how many people think their job is bullshit. And what proportion of corporate financial dealings are conducted in jurisdictions that will not prosecute dodgy dealing.

The enactivist turn for organisations says you cannot separate the strategy, the operational plan and the execution. You cannot separate them if you want to understand, but separating them is a good idea if you want to apportion blame or look clever and indulge in whatever other bullshit is the opposite of real work and real insight.

Like my sore neck and my headaches, you will not find insight and healing without understanding what a system does in its own terms. That is as true for your organisation as it is for an elite athlete. Lots of ways to misjudge what is needed, bad, tendentious advice from almost everyone, and a narrow road where things become clearer not foggier.

[1] And since almost nobody remembers what we wrote in previous posts, let me remind you that they consider balance to be a central sense. If one of them says that they can’t do something, it’s not a question of ability/willing/whatever, it’s that they can’t do the thing and stay in balance

[2] This is also known as the ‘elephant and rider’ distinction. The conscious bits are the rider on the elephant, but it’s almost always the elephant that does what the elephant does, leaving the rider to rationalize post hoc.

[3] One of our earliest posts, The Inner Game of the Contract, references Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis and the distinction between the (unhelpful) conscious controlling self and the (competent) self that knows how to catch a ball. His solution? Focusing our conscious minds on things that help the gestalt-oriented mind.

[4] In the field of Enterprise Design we talk about the concept of Enterprise Awkwardness, which is exactly that robot come to life and doing business. Screaming in frustration is one of the extreme symptoms of enterprise awkwardness; when dealing with corporate customer services, for instance.

[5] McCullough’s principle of redundancy of potential command effectively says that decisions are driven by available data, so think first about the decisions, then about the necessary data to support those decision, and then make sure that is the data that’s available…