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Beware of the trap

June 27, 2008

By Corina Wong

I have recently discovered a fascinating documentary entitled The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom. Written and directed by the brilliant English filmmaker Adam Curtis, The Trap is a three-part mini-series that explores the historical development of social thought and how it led to what we as a society now consider the concept of “freedom” to be. Unfortunately, it is not pretty. The Trap argues that our idea of freedom was formed out of the paranoid framework of the Cold War and driven by the crude notion of human beings as selfish, isolated and suspicious creatures, constantly strategizing against each other.

Adam Curtis, British filmmakerCurtis interviews John Nash, an economist who believed that humans were inherently self-centered and would always strategize for maximum personal gain. He devised mathematically coherent system games in which the only way to win was to behave selfishly and betray your partner. Nash’s work with game theory won him the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (a.k.a. the Nobel Prize for economists). However, an important fact to all of this that was not known at the time was that Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and was consequently suspicious of everyone around him!

Nonetheless, the idea of people as fundamentally selfish creatures quickly spread in influence. Since it was assumed that everyone worked towards their own self-interest, performance objectives and incentives were created for everyone – even cabinet ministers and governmental departments. Thus the public and industry sectors started to mark successes through targets and quotas. However, they did not design sufficient processes to help guide their employees towards successful implementation. Instead, employees were given the freedom to meet the targets in any way they wanted. When faced with the pressure to meet these impossible quotas, people resorted to desperate solutions to work around their problems.John Nash

For instance, in Britain when hospitals were required to decrease their waiting lists, they began to operate inefficiently. The new job of the “Hello Nurse” was created, with the sole duty of greeting patients in the waiting room – thus allowing the hospital to claim that the patient had been “seen”. To reduce the number of people on trolleys, they took off the wheels and reclassified them as “beds”. As for the police, when their target was to significantly reduce the rate of crime, they ended up reclassifying many types of crimes (including assault and robbery) as merely “suspicious occurrences”.

The unreasonable targets that the hospitals and police faced were the result of broken processes. They were designed to enable and encourage employees to look out for their own interests. Organizations still operate in the same manner today. And many large corporations work on a top-down approach to manage their businesses. This is because most companies have been structured with layers and layers of bureaucracy. This in turn creates a huge disconnect between the top level and what really goes on at the bottom level. The top does not truly understand the problems and issues that pop-up in the day-to-day workplace. This leads to impractical demands like the unreasonable quotas the hospitals and police faced. In such work environments bottleneck decisions occur, and nobody wants to make an unprecedented decision or criticize the way something is done for fear of being blamed. Moreover, organizational silos perpetuate these broken processes. Departments within organizations become insulated and separate from the rest. They are so focused on meeting their targets that they forget to step back and look at the whole picture. They forget that instead of working towards a target, they should be working towards improving and maintaining customer satisfaction.

This brings us to the Tatham Method. We teach our clients how to fix broken processes by using a simple problem-solving method (The Tatham Systematic Method). This empowers lower level employees to make informed decisions. These informed decisions are invaluable in helping organizations create better processes. When you fix broken processes, people begin to act differently. When they act differently, they begin to think differently. This allows for a more customer-focused work environment. We teach our clients how to stop thinking selfishly because in business, it is all about the people you are servicing.

And when things do go wrong, organizations need to embrace those mistakes because they provide opportunities to improve. As Michael Jr. cheerfully said to me last week after I had accidentally melted a sheet of laminate onto the laminator itself (and thus rendered it useless), “We’re one of the few companies who are happy when people make mistakes!” For only when mistakes are revealed can we know where our processes are flawed.

I have barely touched the “tip of the iceberg” of Adam Curtis’ The Trap. You must watch the whole series to find out more! I guarantee it will be worth your while. And conveniently enough, it is also available on YouTube. Here is the first part of Part One to get you hooked.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting. It is so counterintuitive to think of ‘mistakes’ as opportunities. A lot of people intellectually get this notion but rarely practice it. Will check out the mini series.