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The Devil’s Advocate

No! She covers, Clarice!

In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

Index — Click ᐅ to expand:

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Major innovation comes, most of all, from the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.” — Norbert Wiener, quoted by James Burke

If you want to wreak innovation at your shop, consider yourself Clarice Starling. Face up to your Lecter.

Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?” What does she need, this legal eagle of yours?
Clarice: To innovate!
Lecter: No! That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing a legal eagle does? What needs does she serve by “innovating”?
Clarice: Er ... chatbots? ... document assembly? ... legal reference data? ... MIS... Sir —
Lecter: NO! She covers! That is her nature.
Clarice: Covers? Covers what?
Lecter: Arse, Clarice. Arse!
Clarice: Oh, right.
Lecter: And how do we cover arse, Clarice? Do we seek out arse to cover? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice: No. We just...
Lecter: We begin by covering the arse we see every day. Our own arse, Clarice. Don’t you see people dissembling daily, to explain why whatever just happened wasn’t their fault? And don’t you make excuses to avoid responsibility for the things you didn’t pay attention to?
Clarice: Just tell me how —
Lecter: No. It is your turn to tell me, Clarice.

Every story can be boiled down this: once there was a problem and, for better or worse, it got resolved. It may be triumphant or tragic, but there must be an outcome. Storytellers who don’t get to grips with this fundament — who allow something other than resolution of the problem to drive their narrative — write unsatisfying books.[1] To not resolve the problem — eventually: we all love a bit of will-they-won’t-they suspense as we go — is literally what it means to not satisfy.

Business administrators retooling their operations to “modernise” might bear this in mind. The goal is not to introduce chatbots, or to outsource, or to implement distributed ledger technology much less to “bring lawyers kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century” — believe it or not, they are already here — but to solve a problem.

If someone clutching a hammer assigns you to a nail-finding task-force, consider as you go Marcus Aurelius’ meditation, above. What is the problem? What are you trying to fix? Put down your PowerPoint and write this on a piece of paper.

What is wrong?

Some ideas that might occur (there will be a lot of overlap):

  • This process is too slow.
  • This process is too complicated.
  • This process is too expensive.
  • This process is too manual.
  • This process is too wasteful.
  • This process requires too many people and too much oversight. The overheads are too high.
  • This process is too fragile. It keeps breaking.
  • This process is is too hard to understand. People keep getting it wrong.
  • This process is mostly routine and tedious but has a risky component and therefore requires an expert to carry out the whole thing.

Agents of innovation

The flip side to the perils of complexity and normal accident theory, is convexity of benefit. Innovation, benefit, boon, fiesta is just as hard to predict as catastrophe. But just as likely, if the people you have spotting weights in the gymnasium of disaster are experienced, clever, imaginative, problem solving people.

See also


  1. This is why some people find the Lord of the Rings saga so tedious: all that delving into the history, mythology and language of elves is very clever — and yes, it may document the resolution of a whole raft of other problems, but it still has almost nothing to do do with the immediate problem of the Hobbits’ quest, beyond providing deep historical context. And as for the Hobbit folk songs, just shoot me. Hold your letters.