Why Business Doesn't Work

If the world of work is purely rational, meritocratic and driven by perfect business logic… why is it such a bloody shambles?

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Few of us will get through our working life without once thinking, of our place/s of employment, some or all of the following: that our subordinates are morons, that our superiors are mad, that our approximate peers are useless, and/or that the entire enterprise which somehow pays our mortgage is a preposterous folly bound irreversibly for bankruptcy, and possible criminal proceedings.

Quite a lot of the time, in fairness, we’re wrong. Up until the point at which your colleagues start heaping filing cabinets against the doors to thwart the bailiffs, while the accountants douse everything in paraffin, some measure of competence somewhere on the upper floors, or in head office, wherever that is, should probably be grudgingly conceded. But sometimes, we’re right.

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Though people have been doing business for as long as there have been people, and though the last hundred years in particular have seen business theory become a massive business in itself, it is still frequently the case that absurd ideas are enacted, that talentless buffoons and/or devious tyrants are promoted, and that heartbreaking quantities of time, energy and money are consumed by utter bullshit.

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It’s not a new problem. As long ago as the 1911 publication of The Devil’s Dictionary, author and American satirist Ambrose Bierce defined “Corporation” as “An ingenious device for securing individual profit without individual responsibility.” As if to endow Bierce’s quip with the qualities of prophecy, only one senior Wall Street banker – Credit Suisse executive Kareem Serageldin – ever went to prison over the great unravelling of the 2008 financial crisis. But it’s not really that old a problem, either – the modern megacorporation, of the sort that now employs so many of us, is a relatively recent development.

“The office and home,” says Gideon Haigh, author of The Office: A Hardworking History, as well as many fine books about cricket, “[only] separated when a) communications made it possible, and b) the scale of capitalism grew.”

Perhaps the trouble is that we are yet to entirely figure out how to operate large enterprises so that they do not succumb to bureaucracy, groupthink and the proliferation of tiers of self-sustaining, self-protecting middle management. A shuffle through the jobs section of any government department, your local council, or the BBC, will drive the most reasonable of taxpayers to the purchase of an Ayn Rand T-shirt.

But the allegedly lithe, swift and ruthless private sector is not immune. If you work for a large enough private enterprise, you will be able to name several colleagues of whom it could be said that if they didn’t show up tomorrow, nothing would change. You may be given to wondering if the same is true of your job. 

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Many have tried to solve this problem, or have at least sought to give the impression that they’ve cracked it. The modern cult of management theory began, with coincidental irony, with another 1911 publication – Frederick Taylor’s The Principles Of Scientific Management. Taylor, an American engineer and tennis champion, was the first management consultant – and, as such, is the name you should curse every time you endure some idiot with an MBA wanging on about synergising core deliverables across multiple platforms going forward. Taylor’s ideas were expanded upon by Elton Mayo, a thundering Australian charlatan who somehow bluffed his way into 20 years of tenure at Harvard Business School, conceivably the single most overrated institution of our times.

No finer or funnier debunking of management consultancy has been written than The Management Myth, all at once a history, memoir and confession by Matthew Stewart – the American author and philosopher who, as a younger man, worked as a management consultant, a period during which, as Stewart admits in his book, “I never lost the sensation that I was just making it all up as I went along.”

“My main concern about management theory,” he says now, “is that it’s often a way of not addressing a problem – it’s a way of  talking that sets the problem aside, and just allows it to fester. The  mistakes are all pretty classic – abuse of authority, individuals mistaking their personal objectives for those of the company, confusing exploitation with good management. Management theory just gives them a cover for all that, which is why it persists.

“As for the jargon, like any way of marking an in-group, it has positives and negatives – it allows for communication and builds group solidarity, but it divides people. You have a class of management elite, and beneath them some version of a working class, and one way to signify the difference is with that MBA-speak.”  

While most corporations are corpulent in the middle, it’s a bigger problem that they’re often absolutely demented at the top. Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s 1969 book, The Peter Principle, noted that it was the nature of heirarchies that everyone would be promoted one rung beyond their capabilities. But it may be more pernicious than that. Jon Ronson’s 2011 book, The Psychopath Test, made a persuasive case that such bureaucracies might have been constructed to ensure that their pinnacles were not reached accidentally by well-meaning bunglers, but quite determinedly by the last people who should be occupying them – the conscience-free, dauntlessly confident, win-at-all-costers who persist with their ascent far past the point at which the decent, reasonable person decides they don’t need the hassle, that there’s more to life than work and that frankly they’d rather not be regarded by their fellow humans as an amoral maniac and/or have their sleep interrupted on Christmas Eve by three somewhat sanctimonious spectres.

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“Certain sectors especially,” says Ronson, “reward the quick kill – banking, insurance, the media. So the more psychopathically you behave, the more you’re rewarded. And it affects the whole office, like a stone thrown into a pond. Everyone else has to start behaving like that to keep up – not only your colleagues, but your competitors. It’s horrible, really, the system we’ve built for ourselves.”

There is almost certainly nothing that can really be done. Anything a single human creates is flawed. Something created by many humans is therefore exponentially faulty. Which is why, whenever someone tries to fix work, they usually make it worse.

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Have you ever heard of a workplace innovation that doesn’t sound like hell? The “Metaplan” of Eberhard Schnelle – the German office furniture designer who you can blame for open-plan offices and people in meetings sticking coloured cards on a board. Every pseudo-Google you’ve ever set foot in, with their stupid beanbags and ping-pong tables and basketball hoops and people addressing each other as “buddy”. The horror recently unveiled by New York advertising firm The Barbarian Group – something they are unreasonably pleased to call a  “superdesk”, which seats all 125 of its employees.

Last year, Jason Fried, the founder and CEO of collaborative software tool Basecamp, gave a TED talk entitled 'Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work'. Fried identified the key downfall of the modern workplace as M&Ms – managers and meetings.

“The issue is cost,” he explains. “What does it cost to have that meeting? If there are eight people meeting for an hour, it’s not a one hour meeting – it’s an eight-hour meeting. Think about how much it costs – in time and attention – to pull eight people away from their work for an hour. It’s usually not worth it.

“There are fantastic managers out there, no question. But unfortunately those aren’t the norm. The manager should be the oil that keeps the machine running smoothly. But oftentimes managers try to be the oil, the gears and the fuel, and they just end up getting in the way. Great managers know how to share intent so people can come to the right conclusions on their own. Poor managers just give instructions to follow and end up checking in far too often.”

Added to which, an inter-connected world has made escape impossible, terrible ideas more mobile, and their consequences ubiquitous.

“A Mac, a Herman Miller chair and a Steelcase workstation are the same wherever you go,” says Gideon Haigh. “Likewise, the influence of more pervasive business-school education, global accounting firms, global management consultancies. There is also the kind of coercive egalitarianism reflected in the move to ‘business casual’ clothing, with the pretence that ‘we’re all equal round here.’ Which, of course, is utter bullshit, and of course, many of the workplaces most superficially united are actually the most hierarchical and discrepant in their rewards.” 

It is entirely arguable that the times in which we now live are defined by the inherent dysfunction of the modern workplace. The global financial crisis which began in 2008 had many causes, but those causes had one thing in common: the tendency of groups of obviously clever, hitherto successful people to mutually reinforce a collective decision to do something self-evidently stupid. Which, in this case, was to lend colossal quantities of money to people who had no hope of paying it back so they could buy property which was vastly overvalued precisely due to the lackadaisy with which home loans were being regulated.

Every single person reading this could have seen that this made as much sense as betting the global economy on trap six at Belle Vue. Every single person reading this has probably seen their own workplace do something equally foolish, if mercifully less calamitous in its consequences. But when those sane, sensible, individuals get together, no lunacy or rapacity is beyond them.

Modern Toss’s exhibition A Decade In The Shithouse continues at Forge, 154-158 Shoreditch High St, London, until Sun 19 Oct.