dubiously true stories and cartoons

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that you can know the path of an electron as it moves through space or you can know where it is at a given instant, but you can’t know both.

It’s a great principle, and one that’s readily understandable, if, for instance, your chosen field of expertise involves the study of particle physics or quantum mathematics.

I’m not familiar with either of those subjects. I don’t have the brain for that kind of thought. My brain is more artistic and therefore cursed with random, chaotic and illogical thought processes. As a result I like the simpler things in life. I like to use language that is plain and easy to understand – this does not stem from my arty-farty brain, but from the fact that I’m from the North of England. People where I come from like to speak plainly to each other – it’s one of their great strengths – and they almost always say what they are thinking.

An organisation I once worked for was in the throes of introducing a new computer system and a colleague and I were volunteered to attend regular meetings and seminars that had been arranged by the senior managers of the system’s development team. We were instructed to prepare detailed reports after each event so that our own senior managers could closely monitor the progress of the new system.

These events sometimes dragged on for days and were attended by top-level personnel who only used management-speak whenever they felt the need to say anything. They were, it seemed to me, the kind of people, who upon arriving home from a hard day at the office, would say to their wives/husbands, “I’ve had a significantly enhanced period of intense employment today darling, and I’d appreciate the facilitation of the arrival of my balanced diet of proteins and carbohydrates forthwith.”

Our senior managers were part of this new breed and were always keen to take on board any new management strategy, no matter how ridiculous or unworkable, that was introduced and, as a result, they insisted that the reports we submitted to them contained at least two graphs.

Consultants, commanding extortionate fees, were hired to tell us things that we already knew but in a management language we didn’t understand.

At the time I was also writing and drawing a comic strip called Pond Life for the organisation’s in-house magazine. The title of the strip was not intended in any way to infer that the managers who worked within the organisation were stupid – although that did cross my mind on many an occasion – I just used a pond and its various inhabitants as a microcosm of the organisation in which I worked in order to get across my point of view.

The editors of the magazine were, at first, happy with the stuff I was producing for them, but as time wore on they became increasingly suspicious of the political element that was creeping in month by month, and it all came to a head when I submitted a strip about consultants.

The first (rejected) "Consultant" story

“I can’t put this in the magazine,” the editor told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it suggests that we spend too much money on consultants.”

“But, we do.”

“Yes, I know we do. We just can’t say it. We have to be more positive or the powers that be will come down on us like a ton of bricks.”

“Don’t they want to know the truth?”

“Of course they don’t. Can’t you do another one that’s a bit more positive about consultants?”

I thought this over and told the editor that I would try. A few days later I submitted a second strip that said exactly the same as the first one, but in a nicer and more roundabout way.

The second (accepted) "Consultant" story

“That’s better,” said the editor, and it was published it in that month’s issue.

It was probably the introduction of consultants in the workplace that caused the significant change in the vocabulary of management over the years. Attending pointless meetings meant listening to people talking in an unfamiliar language, almost as if they were using their own perverse interpretation of the Newspeak invented by George Orwell for his novel 1984, with obtuse and unintelligible phrases being used to describe really simple operations.

A word that management seems to like to use is Synergy.

The Office That Time Forgot

The dictionary definition of synergy is combined action. Ask anyone in the street what combined action means and they should be able to tell you, but if you ask the same people what synergy means they would more than likely think that it was something you might catch from drinking tap water in Thailand.

When someone enters the wonderful world of management he or she immediately becomes part of a secret society, with its own convoluted language that’s cunningly designed to protect them from the proles who are determined to undermine everything by speaking plainly to each other.

At one of the seminars my colleague and I attended, a top level manager spoke at length about upcoming changes that were going to affect the delivery date of the new system. He talked about measurable performance envelopes, optimised knowledge sharing, far-reaching stakeholder consensus achieving processes, overall capability delivery capacities and breakthrough initiatives.

After about ten minutes all I could hear was, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” and as I looked around the room I could see the faces of the candidates changing.

Bewilderment gave way to confusion, which in turn changed to panic and then, finally, shock. When the speaker eventually finished and asked us if we had any questions he was confronted by an audience that was quietly dribbling into their own laps. As that dreaded statement, “Any questions?” left his lips everyone was secretly hoping that no-one had.

But, there’s always one.

Someone near the back, who was obviously well-versed in the pretentious smoke screen of management speak, put up his hand.

“Don’t you think,” he asked, “that in order to deliver significant enhancements to the overall capability delivery capacity, in addition to inducement of empowerment across the full range of organisational structures, a far-reaching stakeholder consensus-achieving process should be utilised to energise the target population, thus facilitating the use of simplistic binary structures?”

I listened to the question he asked in total disbelief. I couldn’t possibly imagine in a million years what the answer was going to be because there was no way on earth that I could ever have understood the question.

The fact that these people needed to hide themselves behind a veil of empty, meaningless phrases suggested to me that they suffered from a deep-rooted insecurity in their own abilities and a burning desire to appear more important than they actually were.

But what, I hear you ask, has this got to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?

Let me explain . . .

The meetings and seminars my colleague and I attended went on for months because the new system was beset with all kinds of problems. The system’s management team became frustrated by it all; but our frustrations were not caused by the constant delays due the failure of the system to do what was required of it. Over time, we became convinced that our senior managers were not actually reading any of the reports we were painstakingly putting together after each meeting, but they were instead simply signing them off.

In order to test out our concerns we formulated a brilliantly simple plan that would reveal once and for all the general apathy of our senior management team and the total disregard they had for all the hard work we had done. After the following week’s meeting we raised a report explaining that the continuing delay was down to . . .

. . . an inconsistency in the development and integration process of the HEISENBERG COMPENSATOR, which has led, in turn, to a breakdown in the rolling plan methodologies and measurement of process effectiveness introduced and facilitated by the Strategic Planning and Integration Team during the Activity Resource Supplementation Exercise of the Business Underpinning Matrix.

We passed the report through to our senior managers and waited. A few days later it was returned with the obligatory signatures attached. There were no hand-written notes scribbled in the margins enquiring about the function of the Heisenberg Compensator and nor was there any sign of them noticing how the three rather pretentious titles at the end of the paragraph would be abbreviated. 

They wouldn’t have understood what a Heisenberg Compensator was anyway, and even if they had read our report they probably wouldn’t have asked. 

In case you’re wondering . . . a Heisenberg Compensator is a vitally important piece of equipment that is essential for getting around Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the only place it is used is in the Transporter Room of the USS Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek.

As it turned out everybody’s efforts came to nothing because the new system crashed and burned at the end of December that year, leaving a lot of egg on the faces of the senior managers who had proposed it and allowed it to drain so much of the organisation’s finances. I had submitted a Pond Life strip criticising the system’s delay for inclusion in the December issue of the in-house magazine (which for some reason had gone under the editor’s radar) and, call it coincidence or just plain dumb luck, it was distributed on the very day the system expired.

The "Pond Life" story that caused so much fuss

The editor of the magazine was immediately summoned for a one-way conversation with the Big Boss and was asked, politely, to fall on his sword.

Strangely, I wasn’t held to account for this terrible affront to the Big Boss and his senior management team; it was put down to the editor’s error of judgement for allowing it to be published in the first place, but his replacement was told, in no uncertain terms, that anything I submitted to the magazine for future publication had to be closely scrutinised.

Fearful of receiving the same fate as his predecessor, the new editor was overly cautious and everything I submitted was rejected on the grounds that it was “just too political.” I submitted one more strip that illustrated my frustration with the magazine and the organisation but that too was rejected.

The last (rejected) "Pond Life"

And that was that. I’d worked on the magazine for four years before I was thrown onto the scrap heap, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really care. I’d become bored with having to constantly think about positive things to say about an organisation that wasted money on consultants and buying off-the-shelf computer systems and then trying make them do things that they were never designed to do.

On the bright side though, I did learn that there actually was a practical use for the application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Beam me up, Scotty!

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