Recursive responsibility

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Today's Dilbert:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I'm not going to quibble about this one.

In 1989, shortly before I left the industrial research job that I had held for the previous 15 years, corporate headquarters appointed me to a committee to decide on a procedure for evaluating methodologies for prioritizing follow-up actions in the wake of a "technology portfolio fair" where researchers had explained new technologies to heads of product development in various branches of the company.

We weren't authorized to decide what to do, nor even to suggest priorities for alternative actions, nor yet to suggest a methodology for assigning priorities to alternative actions, nor for that matter to evaluate alternative methodologies for assigning priorities to alternative actions. Instead, we were tasked with designing a procedure for evaluating methodologies for assigning priorities to possible decisions.  From a certain perspective, the mere ability to conceive and communicate such a task was a triumph of the human intellect.

My level of admiration for this achievement was not unconnected to my decision to move to academia.  But my feelings of awe had no linguistic focus — it was the content, not its expression, that was awful.


  1. Sili said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    Hasn't academia become much the same lately?

    I can see the problem. And yet I can see how it can be done 'bottom up' if all the other levels are … if not working, then in existence, at least. On the other hand doing it 'top down' strikes me as impossible.

    [(myl) One of my first administrative assignments in academia, in 1990, was to help draft a "Five Year Plan" for my department. Given the then-recent demise of the Soviet Union, I thought this was an amusing example of some unnamed law governing the preservation of bureaucratic terminology.]

  2. peter said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    But think of the alternatives – follow-up actions prioritized (if at all) on the basis of subjective managerial preferences or by using evaluation methodologies which intrinsically favoured some groups or technologies over others. Although we all like to complain about bureaucracy, the alternative is usually management-by-whim, unfair and irrational decisions, nepotism and personalism, and lack of prior consultations with stakeholders. All just fine for your typical 18th-century family-run pottery business, but totally out of place in a global enteprise with thousands of employees and customers and shareholders all wishing to be treated fairly, regulatory constraints under multiple, conflicting jurisdictions, and likely legal actions for any ill-considered decisions.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    I think we are talking about the management of managers, metamanagement, if you will. This means making obfuscation even more obfuscated and opens a vast virgin landscape for bloviation.

    A quick Google gives 83K+ hits, so the beast is upon us as we speak. One entry says: "On a mission to make employment a better experience." The unspoken answer to "Better than what?" is unemployment. Need I elaborate?

  4. Rick S said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    I was going to consider devising a plan to develop a hierarchy of criteria for selecting bullet points to include in this comment, but Time stopped.

  5. David Gerard said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    I've been around Wikipedia long enough to see certain parallels there as well …

  6. Doug Sundseth said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    "But think of the alternatives…"

    Co-extensive authority and responsibility? I know; it's a radical suggestion, but there you go.

    This sort of bafflegab is intended as a fundament-covering exercise.

    "It's too bad we lost $20 million. We need to reexamine our procedures — or maybe our procedures for making procedures."

    If you have a procedure and follow it religiously, any negative consequences aren't your fault. Ideally (for the sort of people who like these exercises, anyway), it is impossible to assign fault at all.

  7. tablogloid said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    Peter @ 10:30 am: "Although we all like to complain about bureaucracy, the alternative is usually management-by-whim,…"

    My 27 years in a Canadian provincial government bureaucracy revealed that official policies and procedures were merely make work projects to ensure the drones never made decisions . The reality was that we were ruled by "management-by-whim, unfair and irrational decisions, nepotism and personalism" etc.

    This was confirmed many times during my tenure including one morning when I entered my office and found a Cabinet Minister's son sitting at my office desk. He stayed there the whole summer.

  8. Steve Bennett said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    What I find particularly gross about this example is not the need to evaluate methodologies, or the need for a procedure to do so, but the fact the task was assigned to a committee. Which means the first thing the committee will do is determine procedures for its own running: how often will they meet, how, who will they report to, in what format etc. So you will end up with an item in your to-do list which is effectively "write up the minutes from the second meeting of the committee for the determination of a procedure to choose a methodology for prioritising follow-up actions in response to technology presentations at the recent technology fair".

  9. Jim said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    I've long said "Dilbert is not comedy. Dilbert is documentary."

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    One of the reasons I decided to leave IBM after a short contract position during the dotcom boom was because I was in a new security technology group that was spending all its time meeting about writing ISO 9000 documents for procedures for writing ISO 9000 documents for establishing the new procedures for the group.

    Also, I was attached to another group and, after three months, still didn't know my job title and was untrained on about half my job duties (coding an internal software distribution app) because my team leader didn't have the time to train me and estimated that he wouldn't be able to do so for another three months.

    So I followed up with one of many persistent recruiters and ended up with a start-up that shortly afterwards IPOd and with whom I made gadzillions of dollars.

    At that time, IBM was still the world's largest private employer. That app I mentioned our group developed was for entirely internal distribution and, believe it or not, we had a competitor—another group with IBM France doing the same thing. I hated and was appalled by the bureaucracy but decided that for a company that large, it might be the only way it could function at all.

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