Protestant and catholic
The design of organisations and products
The Jolly Contrarian holds forth™
Free essays on subjects dear to the old codger’s heart
Resources and Navigation
It is the JC’s contention that above our heads — at a level of abstraction far beyond the molecular comprehension of our frail, mortal minds — rages an apocalyptic battle between the massed forces of form and substance. It is a battle, and a war, that the subject matter experts have been losing for 30 years (being the more or less the length of the JC’s career.)
Form versus substance in a nutshell
Form is the map: simplified, rationalised, modularised: it establishes, through followable rules, a safe passage through the incomprehensible thickness of the jungle. It tries to reduce complexity — scary, unmanageable, non-linear — to mere complication — fiddly, but tameable by punctilious attention to detail — by prescribing fixed rules and procedures — process — which may be followed even by those with no particular experience or expertise of the territory. As long as you can read, and are generally disposed to quickly and quietly doing what you are told, the only question which is asked of you in such a formal system will be: did you faithfully follow the rules?
Substance is the territory: the fractal, inchoate, indeterminate, dancing, organic mass of messiness in which we are consigned to play our mortal games. Without a map, there is only one way to navigate the territory: by knowing it. Given that it moves — like some diabolical, shapeshifting labyrinth, doors disappear, staircases vanish, chambers and oubliettes wink in and out of existence— knowing it is hard, and takes continuing application, investment, time, patience, energy and skill. A map is a proxy for knowledge, not a substitute: one who has the knowledge, and knows the territory — an expert — will bridle upon being told to use a map.
Put it this way: would you use a map to navigate from the station to your own home?
In any case these are quite divergent philosophies when managing risk in a complex system. Form has but one advantage over substance: unit cost. You don’t need expensive experts, who have invested the time and resources in understanding the territory, to follow a playbook: a school-leaver from Bucharest, with a suitable command of English and a sullen teenage disinterest in asking precocious questions, will do. Better, in fact, since experts do tend to ask precocious questions, and that really isn’t in the spirit of things in a formal world:
Top down, the organisation implements process A, to deal with malign contingency X. Process A will be formulated and managed by an administrator, who need not, and usually won’t, be a subject matter expert.
Now, processes being based upon simplified models of the worlds they represent, process A’s shadow inevitably will fall across benign contingencies Y and Z: circumstances not needing process A, but which “it won’t hurt” to subject to Process A anyway.
(The alternative would be to implement a Process A', drawn wholly inside the boundary of malign contingency X, and whose shadow therefore didn’t fall across any benign contingencies, but which also did not quite cover all aspects of contingency X. Such a process, which fails to address “tail risks”, is a bad process).
We should expect process A to get in the way every now and then, when a contingency Y or Z comes about. When it does, the alternatives are to run process A anyway, even though everyone knows it isn’t needed, or to waive process A, by invoking process B (the “process A waiver” process).
Either alternative has a cost, the first being marginally preferable because it is already costed in. To justify the second one must show that the cost of obtaining the waiver will be less than the cost of just running process A, and so will result in a saving. This will, in turn, will trigger process C (the “justifying the cost of a new initiatives” process) which will, of course, increase the cost of process B, making process C, and therefore process B more likely to fail.
There is another way of doing things, of course: engage subject matter experts — which we define as “one who understands the territory and therefore the map’s limitations” — who can apprehend that this is a benign contingency Y and make the substantive judgment that, Process A is not substantively relevant, and thereby ignore process A.
This will upset two categories of people: administrators — who we define as “that class of people who are not subject matter experts, don’t understand the territory, fetishise the map, and therefore are aggrieved, or fearful, when the map is disregarded”; and rent-extractors — those who stand to be gain by rigid application of the map, some of whom will be administrators, but many of whom will be external professional advisers. (Often the waiver process might require, for example, a legal opinion: being a certificate from a specially-engaged subject matter expert that there is nothing to worry about.)
Protestant and catholic modes of organisation
This leads the JC to offer two modes of operation: the run-of-the-mill protestant mode by whose principles nearly all significant organisations are run — in which rules are rules, to suffer is divine, and rewards are presumed to be in the next life, since they clearly don’t apply in this one — and the much-talked-about-seldom-seen catholic mode — in which people who know what they are doing act immediately and. if need be, ask for permission, or forgiveness, later.
That always seemed more fun, open-minded and apt to uncover opportunities, and expose lurking risks, one might not find when following the same, mandated path home every day. The map may be linear, after all, but the territory is definitely not.
To live the catholic life is a risky bet, with no room on the broom for bluffers, fakers or know-nothings — they may ask for permission, but few will get it. But nor should you want bluffers or fakers on your broom, and if you have hired no-nothings as part of your protestant strategy — which is what it recommends — good luck changing faiths: you will be a long time finding a catholic path to redemption.
The history of innovation, of commercial revolution, is one of inspired connections, lucky hunches and creative routes out of apparent mishap. But to make a serendipitous connection you must put yourself in the way of them, and that means skiing off the groomed trails. The skiing there is harder, requires technical chops, rewards care, but the return is correspondingly greater, the possibility for discovery — if opportunity as well as imminent disaster — more immense.
If you “run on rails” you systematically deny yourself that chance of serendipity. All the more so should you work remotely — whether on a different floor, at home or in a call centre in Bucharest—, where there can be no “water cooler moments” — those mythical connections when institutional sparks fly, so beloved of CEOs when imploring work-shy staff back to the office — for remote work, in self-imposed physical exile, communicating only digitally, in pre-arranged multi-party meetings with a standing agenda, is about as railish as one could possibly be (hence the JC’s theory that COVID, and bring your own premises, brought to its logical conclusion/reductio ad absurdum the 40-year deprecation of subject matter expertise — from “ineffable genius, deserving of an office, a company car, a personal secretary, an expense account and private club membership” through to “battery hen with a probabilistic entitled to space somewhere along a row of Formica trading desks” to “sort out your own accomodation, here is a network account which you can access via two-factor authentication on your personal device, and we've blocked YouTube, Twitter and Reddit BUT NOT LINKEDIN” in the manner of a battery hen —that has been the management modernists’ intellectual project.) There is no chance to bump into anyone, no raised eyebrow at the resting state absurdity of it all, no off-colour wisecracks to bring some humanity to the situation (“AND JUST AS WELL”, intones human resources, tersely) — no opportunity to reimagine the way things are currently done.
If we can only evolve by reference to the adjacent possible — doors to rooms off this particular corridor, with their own doors to potential places elsewhere, and one is not permitted to open any of those doors, then one cannot expect to end up at a place other than the one to which management thinks you should be going. The voyage of discovery never made where management says it would.
Of course expecting creative sparks to fly from rocks as damp and browbeaten as most modern legal, compliance, risk and HR personnel is wishful, but the principle is surely right — only opportunities for unscheduled interactions, spontaneous, communication , an absence of an agenda, and unstructured play — designed, or at least permitted, system redundancy — gives the organisation any chance of serendipity.
Do we even want operational grunts having bright ideas? An 80/20 analysis says, stick to your knitting, kids. Follow the playbook and almost everything will be alright.
If it isn’t simple enough to reliably leave to an actual rule-following machine — if there are enough unpredictable scenarios, leaving open outcomes ugly enough to require the intervention of an imaginative human mind to stave off calamity, then do you really want that intervening hand to belong to an ingenue school leaver in Bucharest?
Here the modernist programme contradicts itself. Either
The modernist agenda, though sees business as fundamentally soluble by data. There may be a dim appreciation that new business requires innovation, but managing the bau surely does not, beyond further refining, digitising and simplifying the process. Risk management is a matter of operational excellence, and operational excellence is a matter of following the rules as quickly and quietly as possible.
The JC has said it enough already on this site that it hardly needs being said again, but nothing for be further from the truth. The roll of honour refers. You don’t die under the wheels of a brand new opportunity. You die when something you thought was boring blows up. People riding on rails will never be able to stop boring things blowing up. They are doomed to be surprised by them.
Risk management as protestant, new business as catholic
- We are indebted to Otto Büchstein’s magnificently fatuous Form und Substanz opera cycle for informing this view.
- We take it as axiomatic that, the “real world” being analogue, fractal, complex and unbounded, and a valid process being short, digital, algorithmic and complete, a process cannot perfectly map to a target contingency: to believe it can is to mistake a map for the territory.
- It is also the principle upon which almost all modern risk management is based, but that is another story.