Don’t tick boxes

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“There’s nothing like a crisis to highlight the difference between performative governance and actually governing.”

—Attributed to Andrew Exum, The Atlantic

Modern dogma writ large. In the mortal, unlistened-to words of tiresome Victorian librettist Otto Büchstein, La Vittoria della Forma sulla Sostanza.[1]

This disposition that ticking a box — fulfilling a formal requirement to have taken a step, followed a process, or sublimated an intractable hazard into a parametrised, traffic-light renderable key performance indicator should generate any comfort other than a false one, feeds on, just as it nourishes, related dogmas: of cost reduction, at all cost, that all unknowns can be known, that all vestiges of risk can neutralised, bifurcated, cauterised and eliminated to leave a pure, crystalline residue of concentrated reward. That history is at an end, that the universe can be brute-force computed, and the fact that it hasn’t yet is a minor inconvenience that we can tide over just as long as we check of few boxes and keep a clear audit trail.

Box ticking is tedious, in the technical sense of being intrinsically wasteful.[2] But it suits the middle manager because it is something she can show her superiors that she has achieved — something that will handily populate a PowerPoint slide, or which she might render with a cute little traffic light in the RAG status section of her reporting dashboard. This will delight the members of the steering committee to whom she reports. It will delight them in the sense that they will be see a healthily populated RAG status and, neither knowing nor caring to what it actually attests, and will draw the happy conclusion that all is well and in order, the relentless bureaucratic machine rumbles onward, and should anything turn out to been amiss, it certainly won't be their fault.

Ironically it also suits the the subject matter expert, and for much the same reason: he can agree a formal process which is tolerably un-onerous which will delight internal audit and get the middle manager off his back, so he can get on with the business of actually monitoring risk.

See also


  1. Literally, “The Victory of Form over Substance”. Never popular.
  2. here we refer you to the Jolly Contrarian’s laws of worker entropy and in particular the sixth.