The Importance of Ideas

One of the most common quotes
On the importance of ideas
Comes from Keynes,

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”
— John Maynard Keynes, 1953

Ghoshal expands those practical men
To managers…

“This is precisely what has happened to management. Obsessed as they are with the “real world” and sceptical as most of them are of all theories, managers are no exception to the intellectual slavery of the “practical men” to which Keynes referred.”
— Sumantra Ghoshal, 2005

Everything we have
Everything we do
Everything we are
Has its origin in
An Idea.

To fix something, we must first understand it.
To understand it, we must get at the ideas behind it.
To get at the ideas, we must think. Hard.

Much of the hard thinking in your organisation
Has been done outside it,
In the business schools referred to by Ghoshal
In the consulting companies you refer to for advice
In the technology companies you engage
To stay ahead of the competition,
Or increase efficiencies.

As a mid-level manager in a corporation or bureaucracy,
You deserve better.
You hold the threads between
Top-management’s strategic intent and supervisors’ day-to-day travails.
You are the glue, the implementers, the change makers of an organisation.
You hold the institutional knowledge,
You know how things work, and how to make them work.
You are maligned, criticised, down-sized and gutted.
Often by people who have no idea of the real worth of your work.
Often by people who have adopted
A particular vision of an organisation
And the ideology that goes with it.

That’s the idea I want to talk about with you today.
That’s the framework I hold shapes your work environment
And guides your actions.
That framework is technical rationality.

According to Guy Adams, co-author of Unmasking Administrative Evil
(we’ll come back to that)
it is…

“a way of thinking and living, (that is, a culture) that emphasises the scientific-analytical mindset and the belief in technological progress”.

The first, the scientific-analytical mindset is largely positivism
(remember the piece about Hayek and his use of the scientific ideology?)
The second, a belief in technological progress,
Underpins another, more recent phenomenon
The California Ideology, which itself
Drives the obsession with digital transformation.

It is this mental framework we need to, at least,
Be aware of.
Better, to understand,
So we can, little-by-little, replace it.
Not improve, replace.

In the words of Buckminster Fuller,

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

We need to break the rules intelligently.

Technical rationality enables the rise of technocrats
It puts the emphasis on analysis but not synthesis
It promotes technological progress as the solution to all problems.
(Think back to Elon Musk’s solution to the Thai cave rescue and compare that to what was needed)

But this is less about technical rationality

Than what it enables…