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Harm Minimisation

Entry 1948, on 2018-11-22 at 21:58:45 (Rating 4, Comments)

My friend and colleague, Fred (not his real name), works in a similar role to me in a similar large organisation. Over the years he has become increasingly frustrated with his work environment, and increasingly cynical about what his real role is.

When I asked recently, he didn't even know what his actual, formal job title was. His organisation has gone through numerous reorganisations over the years and the names used for various roles have changed seemingly at random, and for no apparent reason. He says it has now got to the point where he neither knows nor cares what his formal job description is, what the current name of the department he works in is, or even who is in the chain of command above him in the hierarchy.

In fact, he just tries to get on with his work and ignores the distractions and barriers to that which he encounters every day. He doesn't go to meetings, for example, unless there is no practical way to avoid it. He doesn't know what most of his organisation's policies are, and where he does know a policy he often bypasses it, although he concedes that there are some which make some sense. He doesn't care how little he gets paid in comparison to more senior people who do nothing all day. And he just ignores the petty politics which is about all the senior management seem capable of engaging in.

So although he is clearly an anti-authoritarian, and maybe even tends towards anarchy on occasions, he also pragmatic enough to know that some compromise is necessary, and that even the most incompetent managers sometimes come up with reasonable ideas. Plus, even if every idea they had was bad, the system ensures he has to at least pretend to accept them.

This seems a fairly good compromise. When I said he seems cynical and rebellious on one side, but relaxed and dispassionate on the other, he counters with a reminder of his latest "rant" where all vestiges of serenity seem to evaporate!

So it's like there is the anger and rebelliousness under the surface which is usually kept in check by an attitude of acceptance and detachment, but occasionally escapes for all to see.

After a recent discussion on this topic, Fred said his job title should be "harm minimiser". I partly saw what he was getting at, but asked for clarification. He said that, because of various decisions by the incompetent (and he claims morally corrupt) management, the people he supported had a lot of difficulty in getting work done, and that his job was to reverse the harm done, or at least minimise it.

As I said above, this seems like a very cynical way to look at the world, so I asked for some examples. I can't repeat those here, because that might reveal the organisation involved, but they centered around poor choice of software standards, terrible web services, unnecessarily complex and inefficient support mechanisms, lack of expertise in key areas, and lack of any effective mechanism to correct problems when they were identified.

So harm minimisation, to Fred, involved finding alternatives, shortcuts, and bypass mechanisms for many of the officially condoned systems.

He described how recently he took a series of shortcuts and solved three problems in 15 minutes for a client which had remained unresolved after three weeks churning through the official systems. And while that might have been one of his most noticeable successes, it was not unique.

I think many people might have experienced the same issue themselves. For example, I have wasted hours, and sometimes days, trying to get issues solved by internet service providers and cell network companies, but when I found a single person inside the company who I could deal with directly the problems could often be fixed in 5 minutes.

So maybe the person I contacted (sometimes through a connection established on Twitter and other on-line services, and sometimes through tips given by other people who had similar issues) was that companies "harm minimiser".

Because, based on Fred's observations, it seems that all large organisations probably suffer from this problem. He says that any company big enough to need a formal management structure is susceptible to it to varying degrees, because as soon as professional managers get involved you will always get bad outcomes.

The people near the top of the hierarchy never see the negative consequences of their decisions and it's all Fred's fault! His harm minimisation makes things seem better than they really are. Without his work (and similar efforts by others) the whole system's deficiencies would be so obvious that even those at the top might see them.

So the great irony here is that in order for the formal, bureaucratic, rule-based system to work, there needs to be a certain percentage of people prepared to bypass that system.

It's a little bit like the allegory of the rowing team, where more and more of the people who are supposed to be rowing instead start organising those who remain to do the work, until almost no one is left doing anything. And the numerous organisers give confusing and inefficient instructions, and no one is permitted to row without the appropriate level of supervision. It's only the people who sneakily row while no one else is looking who give the boat any forward movement at all.

Fred would prefer to "row" in a "boat" where everyone is rowing, and the coordination was done through cooperation and consensus rather than arbitrary decisions being made by one member which are then passed inefficiently down through a chain of command.

Reading Fred's opinions here it is obvious why I wanted to present them in this post, because they do coincide with a lot of what I have said in the past. It's about time all the "organisers" were told to sit down and stop rocking (and slowing down) the boat. They should start rowing or get thrown overboard. If that can't happen, the only alternative is harm minimisation.


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