Plausible deniability

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Plausible deniability /ˈplɔːzəbl/ /dɪˈnaɪəˈbɪlɪti/ (n.)

The quality of being just the right distance from a saucy initiative: close enough to bask in its glorious light should it be a success; far enough to be well clear of the blast radius when, as usually it will, it explodes in ignominy.

How much of a firm’s risk management infrastructure is dedicated, as a first priority, to plausible deniability? This might sound a fatuous, rather cynical question, were the resounding answer not, “all of it”.

The scorecard of corporate catastrophe against individual responsibility over the last 30 years tells a grim — Grimm? — story: whatever should go wrong, however disastrous, it never seems, officially, to be anybody’s fault.

This has a couple of unedifying implications for our thought leaders. One is that our multinationals are really little more than uncontrolled dirigibles, blown madly about an angry sky by the capricious winds of ill-fortune, their executives little more than captives: wanton boys to jealous Gods — in which case you wonder why they get paid so much — or that the executives really are in control, but have skillfully arranged things to be forever upwind of whatever fan happens to be in the manure flightpath for the time being — in which case, you also wonder why they get paid so much.

Now this is not to say no-one is downwind of the Fans of Ordure: stooges and patsies abound amongst the subject matter experts who are, as Sidney Dekker comprehensively catalogues,[1] routinely found at fault and eviscerated for corporate shortcomings whose root cause was plainly poor design in systems and controls.

A Fan of Ordure, yesterday.

Proactively mendacious employees — while, of course, not unheard of — are the exception and not the rule: most folks who show up are earnest, want to do a solid day’s graft, be recognised for it, and go home. Those with an instinct for survival learn the Buttocractic oath, and will act as a first priority in preservation of their own posterior, but as they rise through the ranks, the stakes get higher, the number of diffusion avenues inevitably grows, the priority of ensuring, above all else, plausible deniability.

Now defenestration of executives certainly happens, but you sense it is rarely a product of a forensic investigation of the path of an ill-fated buck to find where it stops — bucks, in a modern corporation, do not stop anywhere: they just diffuse into thin air, mercurial wills-o’-the-wisp, eluding all attempts (none of which are ever made) to snatch at them — but rather it happens through a far more visceral, less analytical process. Like Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, one day you’re on top of the world; about to become a made man: the next, you are in an empty room with plastic sheeting on the floor and there is a double-tap to the base of your skull.

As ever, I digress. But is any of this a surprise in a a deterministic culture so relentlessly focused on corporate liability for unwanted outcomes, rather than practical day-to-day management of outmodes to avoid them being unwanted in the first place?

And so an entire professional subculture has emerged to, er, buttress the arse-covering instinct. Auditors, credit rating agencies, providers of legal opinions, to whom the individuals inside the organisation and whose job, you would think, it is to manage those risks, can point should they come up short.

“No one got fired for hiring IBM” – or Linklaters, Deloitte or Moody’s – has more than a grain of truth to it.

See also