a meeting of mindlessness

I was talking the other day to a politician who is, for all I know, a perfectly nice, competent person, doing their best at a difficult and important job. I have to take this on faith, though, because their minders insisted that the interview be done with both of us in different studios so it was quite impossible to establish any kind of human contact.

I could only imagine the scene at the far end: perhaps the advisers wore funny masks, in order to desensitise the minister to the ridiculous. I contemplated a PR droid in a shiny suit wearing a large, strapped on red nose, and projecting powerpoint onto a wall from which the minister read, very fast, sentences like this:

bq. "The %(loony)programme% in defining those five outcomes is not prescriptive. It is a %(loony)framework% within which we expect %(loony)services%, both at national level and particularly at local level, to start to identify what are the %(loony)issues% in their area in the context of that %(loony)framework% that should be priorities and how they can allocate resources and a development of %(loony)services% to meet those priorities, but it also gives us importantly a %(loony)benchmark% against which we can assess how well services are being provided to address the needs … because it’s been derived from wide-scale %(loony)consultation% … around which there’s a huge %(loony)consensus% and indeed you know a great deal of recognition now, I’m pleased to say, from other European countries who are coming here to see how this %(loony)framework% and the %(loony)programme% around it is really transforming %(loony)services% because the key to that, the key to these five outcomes is saying, look, you know we’ve got to think of [my responsibility] holistically, not in accordance with just the way we choose to organise %(loony)services% … It’s that %(loony)integration% that’s the %(loony)hallmark% of the %(loony)framework% itself and the way we want %(loony)services% to be transformed to work together to meet those needs properly."

Some people might say that this is all completely meaningless verbiage. It is not. Everything the minister had to say in this passage could be summed up in six words, perhaps five. They were important words, which would change the lives of many subordinates. But let’s not spoil the suspense just yet, for it took me some time to crack the code.

While I was doing so, I grumbled to a friend who has to deal with computer companies. He had just come off an interview with a Microsoft product manager, who could only talk down the telephone, in a conference call with two PR minders and a transcriber also listening and able to interrupt. "Wow! yours said ‘holistic’ too", he said.

%(loony)"It’s that integration that’s the hallmark of the framework itself"% what is the meaning of that phrase, which seems to defy lexical analysis? It is really simple enough: it means "We must have more meetings." In fact the whole of the minister’s policy is that we must have more meetings. All those mysterious words like %(loony)"hallmark",% %(loony)"services"%, %(loony)"framework"%, and, of course, %(loony)"programme"% all mean the same thing: %(loony)meetings, probably wth powerpoint.%

So if we translate, for a martian, what the minister is actually saying, it is something like this:

bq. "The %(loony)meeting%, in defining those %(loony)meetings% is not prescriptive. It is a %(loony)meeting% within which we expect %(loony)meetings% both at national level and particularly at local level, to start to identify what are the issues in their area in the context of that %(loony)meeting% that should be %(loony)meetings% and how they can allocate %(loony)meetings% and a development of %(loony)meetings% to meet those priorities, but it also gives us importantly a %(loony)meeting% against which we can assess how well %(loony)meetings% are being provided to address the %(loony)meetings% … because it’s been derived from wide-scale %(loony)meeting% … around which there’s a huge %(loony)meeting% and indeed you know a great deal of recognition now, I’m pleased to say, from other European countries who are coming here to see how this %(loony)meeting% and the %(loony)meeting% around it is really transforming %(loony)meetings% because the key to that, the key to these five outcomes is saying, look, you know we’ve got to think of [my responsibility] holistically, not in accordance with just the way we choose to organise %(loony)committee meetings, with powerpoint% … It’s that sort of %(loony)meeting% that’s the hallmark of the %(loony)meeting% itself and the way we want meetings to be transformed to work together to meet those %(loony)meetings% properly."

One quite sees how this could not be said face to face.

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6 Responses to a meeting of mindlessness

  1. Rupert says:

    This is all tiresomely familiar. Here’s my diary entry from a few years ago – I would point to it directly, but due to technical problems beyond my, etc…

    “Thursday 6/11/2003

    I have never made a secret of the enormous incomprehension I feel when confronted with consultants. Individually they’re not too bad, but when they mass into an army and set out to lay siege to corporate budgets I fear for my sanity. I simply cannot understand why people give them so much money for what seems to be evanescent drivel. Words fail me – but not before I try them out: balderdash, witless meandering, expensive heaps of steaming offal disguised as prime steak. I really should ask the Earl of Erroll for tips next time I have to deal with these people.

    Take today’s press release from Cap Gemini Ernst & Young: New Approach To ERP Projects Set To Deliver 20-30 percent ROI. This wonderful New Approach is called EDPI, or Event Driven Package Implementation, and it alone can help the problem that nearly sixty percent of customers don’t believe they get a return on investment from enterprise resource planning. No matter that they got so disappointed because they believed the bloody consultants in the first place – no, what they need is yet more of the same sort of thing.

    And what is EDPI? It’s based on Criticality, Collaboration and Culture. It counters failure to achieve full stakeholder buy-in — the “project bubble” — and initiative overload. Got that? It incorporates techniques that are capable of delivering results: it’s not just a one-off workshop, but a series of significant landmarks in a projects lifecycle.

    No, we didn’t understand it either. So we phone up and ask. “Explain this in two sentences”, we said. Fifteen sentences later, we got it. EDPI is — ta-da! — having meetings.

    That’s it. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young have reinvented the meeting. I’ll leave it to the company to say why having meetings is such a good idea.

    “Many ERP project teams simply don’t communicate how they will help realise key business strategies and therefore they fail to achieve full organisational buy-in. We ensure all stakeholders fully understand how the ERP project will help them realise their business goals, thereby creating a Solution That Sticks.”

    Thanks, CGEY. We’ll let you know. ”

    That diary posting triggered a week of anguished PR activity at a surprisingly high level, until they twigged what was actually happening and stopped bothering. I would suggest that satire would be a good tool to stick into the bloated body corporate, except that since the 1960s the body corporate has evolved an effective defence: nobody even pretends to take it seriously.

  2. My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that the emperor knows he has no clothes. He’s afraid that you (or any other journalist) will see this and comment on it. For ’emperor’ read ‘government’ or ‘large company’.

  3. acb says:

    FL: I think that they are concealing _from themselves_ the fact that they have no clothes. It is anxiety-reduction voodoo.

  4. ACB: That might well be the case.

  5. John Richardson says:

    Simultaneously hilarious and yet terrifying.

    In the third book of his science-fiction trilogy, CS Lewis described how the villainous National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments invented a ‘science’ called Pragmetometry. This is how it is introduced by one of the characters in the book, although within the plot it is, in fact, all nonsense and just a distraction from the real workings of the N.I.C.E.:

    “The N.I.C.E. marks the beginning of a new era – the really scientific era. There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day, and they’ve got a wonderful gadget by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half-hour. Then that report slides itself into the right position where it’s connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports. It’s a marvellous gadget. The different kinds of business come out in different coloured lights. They call it a Pragmatometer.””And there,” said Busby, “you see again what the Institute is already doing for the country. Pragmatometry is going to be a big thing. Hundreds of people are going in for it.”

    When I first heard there really was an actual a government body in the UK called the NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) I thought someone was having a laugh. Since then, I’ve decided it simply proves that Satan has a sense of humour, as well as God, and that CS Lewis was something of a prophet.

  6. acb says:

    Yes, but Lewis was a don, and so knew all about committees as instruments of destruction long before the rest of us. Have you read the great Cornford[1] squib _Microcosmographica Academica?_ See also the climax of Michael Frayn’s _Tin Men._

    But I am serious about it’s being a form of voodoo to fool the participants. There is somewhere on my shelves a book called _The theology of management,_ about the metaphysical presuppositions of management, and the emergence of managers as a new clerisy, which I find entirely convincing. It was written by an Anglican priest, by the way. The idea that the performance of these rituals increases our chance of success, if by unknown and unknowable means, is what interests me. Note that this isn’t at all the idea that “we must do it because our ancestors have always done”. I suspect that very few religions have ever been like that. Certainly no pre-literate one could be.

    fn1. I can’t remember whether the Cornford on question was the poet who died in Spain; his mother,who wrote “Fat white woman whom nobody loves” or his father: anyway, a member of the distinguished Cambridge family. His monograph has been reprinted recently

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