Given my obsession with the effect of organisational change on staff while writing my dissertation (admittedly I was mainly obsessed with self-determination theory) I’m amazed I did not come across this paper, Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organisations Empowers and Alienates1 instead seeing it highlighted on Twitter (a platform I have largely been eschewing but am occasionally dipping into, and thanks to Ben Taylor for tweeting it) far too late to be useful.

The original poster highlighted the Lovecraftian nature of organisations being uncovered with one quote from a research participant:

The CEO, after being walked through the map, sat down, put his head on the table, and said, “This is even more f**cked up than I imagined.” The CEO revealed that not only was the operation of his organisation out of his control but that his grasp on it was imaginary.

What, however, I found perhaps more concerning from the paper were the references to the belief in the immutability of organisations. Rather than seeing an organisation as a human-man construct it was a permanent and necessary entity that existed of itself:

they had objectified the organisation, talking about and treating organisational divisions, senior management, functional boundaries, job roles, and rules as “things” having a reality and existence of their own … the organisation increasingly becomes discussed, imagined, and treated as a naturalised, necessary structure. The idea that organisations are an ongoing human product was a provocative insight for these employees.

While there might be few things more depressing than the sentiment “it’s always been that way, it will never change” once the staff involved gained the insight that they were working in a human-made organisation that humans could change the effect was transformative:

Observing the organisation as continuously in the making gave employees an overwhelming sense of possibility, sparking ambition.

It resonated with one of the key findings from research, that autonomy was key to ensuring that staff had intrinsic motivation. In short when they had some control they were happier and got better results. While my research was in education, there are plenty of other examples that illustrate similar results, like Buurtzorg in healthcare in the Netherlands, or the generally positive impact of autonomous (pre-Covid) homeworking on productivity.

It’s not hard to draw parallels with the current situation. Would the response be better if we weren’t trying to deliver centralised public health models in the UK? Could locally directed responses be more agile, and increase our knowledge of what works faster, than cumbersome nationally directed response? Would our response to a tiny virus be better with we didn’t let ‘the economy’ — an imaginary construct with no independent existence — determine so much of that response?

Like my failed attempt at cycling I can’t help thinking that there was so much evidence that things could be different and better before some got to directly experience that difference during the pandemic. But we are just ignoring it all in a rush to return to the old ways of doing things and To keep city centre Prets open. I am less of a fan of Friedrich Milton than I once was but do wish the government, presumably bigger fans, would pay heed to one of his more useful quotes: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

We are trapped by the fallacy that what we built before was perfect and permanent when we should be picking up the ideas that have been lying around for years.

  1. Huising, R. 2019, “Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organizational Operations Empowers and Alienates”, Organization science (Providence, R.I.), vol. 30, no. 5, pp. 1054-1075.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of having to go into work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I am obviously luckier than some to have a job but that offered me no protection against the envy I felt towards those working from home. As reduced timetables pushed my daily commute to nearly two-and-a-half hours combined with my pre-existing belief that I am more productive working from home I would trek into work, grumbling about work-life balance, as I passed other people taking advantage of their reclaimed travel travel time by going for a run or a stroll.

It was almost inevitable I would start cycling in. First of all with a borrowed Brompton which I’d use to miss a few stations at the beginning and end of the commute as I built up to using my hefty old bike that would creak and groan as I finessed my form and route to get the daily travel time well under two hours. And I enjoyed it.

Even during this summer’s heatwave I would cycle to and from work, taking it a little easier in the morning to try not to get too sweaty but making it a little more challenging on the way home. I would set little goals. Try to stay in higher gears a bit longer uphill, have secret races with cars that could clearly beat me on the straight but had to slow right down for traffic calming. I’d obsess over segments on Strava, usually wondering why it was so slow when I’d felt so quick. It all added to the enjoyment.

When it wasn’t a fair-weather thing, and I found myself opting for the bike knowing I’d have a headwind the whole way or that I’d get soaked in the rain, I felt I had become a proper cyclist. I was just enjoying it.

And then I stopped enjoying it. I don’t know exactly when. But at some stage I realised I’d not had a moment’s pleasure while cycling for a while. It had changed. No longer free and fun, it had become more stressful. The secret races with cars morphed into constant threat assessment. Do they know I’m here? Are they really going to try to turn left just in front of me? Did they really need to pass so aggressively? And the journey got slower as cars blocked cycle-lanes using them to peek out so they could turn, or drove close to the curb preventing cyclists getting to the head of the line at lights. While I optimistically assume that most of this was unintentional, rather than anti-cyclist, behaviour there isn’t much room for nuance when competing against one-and-a-half tonnes of car.

Looking for an upside I only had one incident of abuse, but that’s probably because that’s mainly reserved for women.

It was also quite notable that it felt distinctly worse cycling in Wandsworth (my commute would take in four boroughs). I don’t know if this was something to do with the nature of Wandsworth drivers or the transport policy in Wandsworth Council. My previous experience suggests the latter, although the recent entitled outcries by drivers aggrieved at cyclist-friendly policies might suggest the former has a part to play as well. It was both sad and sadly predictable that Wandsworth, in so many ways a like a discount version of the current government, would u-turn on its attempts at rebalancing streets in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

I do, of course, get why people would want to drive. Public transport is filling up and might not feel safe. Time tables are still restricted. Buses a split between schools and everyone else. But the pressures on people to get back to work to save Pret A Manger are there. I get that there are a mix of motivations and that while there are undoubtedly some who fervently believe in their God-given right to drive an over-sized 4×4 on narrow urban stress most are probably just doing what they think is right. And perhaps they are, it’s quite hard to know what is right when the current rules are that you should work from home except that you should go to work but never be with more than six people unless there’s money involved because it’s a shop or a pub when you should wear a face covering apart from when you shouldn’t.

It is just another example of mismanagement, both nationally and locally, the pandemic and its consequences. It just feels a shame that having seen so many benefits of a city with fewer cars bring air and noise pollution we are so desperate lose them all. It does, I suppose, just add one more reason why I rather like home-working.

It is difficult, sometimes, to pinpoint the exact cause of the depressive pessimism that it the mood music of 2020. Is it Covid-19? Or is it the government’s strange inability to collect and publish statistics on it? Or their tendency to blame others for problems rather than solving them? Is it that nagging sense that while the way contracts are being handed out might not be corrupt technically, it’s hard to avoid the whiff of something a bit off?

Is it the incompetence of the handling of A-level results? Or is it the bizarre situation where we’ll get worked up about a handful of people braving the Channel in a dinghy because they, bizarrely, think that life will be better here than any other European country? Or maybe it’s the utterly surreal suggestion by Priti Patel that they are trying to escape French intolerance?

I have started wondering if, actually, it’s because of all the polarisation it’s the one between optimism and pessimism that is most profound. It’s hard to imagine how making ourselves economically weaker while stoking intolerance is a cause for optimism but, when packaged up with terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘control’, it seems that even a government that’s equal parts ideology and incompetence can provide enough of the population with hope that it can dominate a broken electoral system like first-past-the-post.

The difficulty is that there is a finite capacity for pessimism and outrage. So, taking the A-level results, while there is so much focus on young people missing out their Oxbridge places there is hardly any media attention given to those elsewhere on the spectrum such as those who will miss out on a university place entirely. Those for whom the downgrading doesn’t mean the difference between a prestigious university education and slightly less prestigious university education but, instead, is a set-back that will last, with a huge economic cost, for the rest of their lives.

Or, looking beyond this, year, the fact that the algorithms have simply highlighted (and perhaps amplified) an annual inequality that downgrades the potential of children from deprived areas every single year of their education. Surely that is where the outrage should be: by limiting their potential we hold back the whole country.

I’m obviously one of the 55% or so that finds little cause for optimism in the UK. Perhaps the biggest cause of pessimism is that I don’t really expect the government to do anything to appeal to me, why should it? There is no need for consensus building when it can achieve electoral success by just appealing to its base.

Once upon a time politics was about hope and optimism. Remember that Obama poster? Perhaps that is an analogy, something that started positively but ended in disappointment and court battles. But politics was about hope. From Attlee’s ‘Face the Future’ manifesto in 1945, Thatcher in 1979 exhorting people to vote for a ‘better life’, Blair in 1997 offering the country a ‘new life’. Even May’s shambolic 2017 election, despite the comically memorable ‘Strong and Stable’, was under a manifesto entitled ‘Forward, Together’. The consistent theme is that, as a country, things can be better. And now…?

If there could be a more visceral image of a government destroying hope than downgrading the exam results of thousands and thousands of young people, mostly from less affluent areas I do not want to know what it is. Can we really take four more years of it?