The Rise Of Business Bullshit – And How We Can Fight It

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” – Harry Frankfurt  On Bullshit

Many people in the social sector will have heard about the 80/20 rule –  that 80% of the demand comes from 20% of users.

It’s one of those things that seems to intuitively make sense. If we can solve the problem of the 20% of people who are sapping all our resources – then the world would be a much better place.

Except of course….it’s bullshit.

Recent work by our own Insight team found the belief that a small group of users were responsible for a disproportionate amount of contact with us simply had no foundation.

So why do these myths – dangerous in that they lend themselves to silver bullet solutions – swirl around the modern workplace?

John V. Petrocelli is the author of a new paper which looks at the Antecedents of Bullshitting and the conditions that need to exist to encourage people to bullshit. 

First of all, bullshitting is not the same as lying, which is a deliberate and premeditated attempt to conceal the facts.

By contrast, bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is. They are simply communicating with little or no regard for evidence, established knowledge, or truth.

Petrocelli ran two experiments that revealed major factors that might cause someone to bullshit:

  • Firstly, people bullshitted most when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed their audience didn’t know much about the subject. Even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure to contribute something kicked in.
  • Secondly, if there is no accountability for bullshit, it’s more likely to happen.  People appear to be more likely to bullshit when it’s perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to do without challenge.

As Petrocelli says – it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting, so it’s even more important we understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.

So how can we stem the flow of BS and encourage people to challenge its validity?

Four Tactics That May Reduce Bullshit

Get Better At Problem Definition

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions, not finding the best problems.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings

Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts -so said Andre Spicer

As Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.


There’s one big tactic for battling bullshit that Petrocelli identifies:

Evidence.

Certainly, we’ve become much more focused on being an evidence-based organisation – as Carole Clarke writes – we increasingly need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work.

We need to bust myths. Slay Zombie Projects.  And wage war on jargon.

An indifference to evidence breeds an indifference to the truth.

Nudging our organisations towards a more evidence-based culture becomes the surest way to stem the flow of bullshit, if not kill it.

Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks himself said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.

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The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation

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Photo credit: Jonatan Pie

Transformation can’t happen without discovery and discovery can’t happen without experimentation.

It’s a new year and at Bromford we are planning a reboot of our approach to innovation (actually we are planning a reboot of everything).

My emerging thoughts are we need less talk of accelerated fast fail innovation and more a systemic and systematic approach to experiments.

Why?

Because innovation is almost never a single event.

As Greg Satell has written it can take decades for new solutions to be adopted widely. People cling to old models out of habit and convenience. Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.

The idea of putting a few people together in a room and expecting them to have some eureka moment about complex problems is , at best, naive.

Corporate away days, brainstorming, hackathons, conferences, unconferences,  all promote the myth that bringing a few random people together solves problems.

It’s good to talk for sure – but let’s stop conflating collaboration with innovation.

Most hacks and conferences do not solve problems – and certainly not big problems. Problems are there for a reason. People are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single group of people ever can.

As part of the programme I’m working on at the moment potential solutions often only emerge weeks, or even months, after the initial creative session.

The reality is that innovation is an ongoing process. A process that requires problem definition, research, creativity and testing. Lots and lots of testing.

Currently only a small proportion of organisations in the social sector incorporate this process alongside the introduction of a wide range of new knowledge, new process and new technology.

Organisations are jumping to the latter. However technology cannot magically mend broken systems or solve intractable problems.

The real opportunity in 2017 is combining experiments with larger scale transformation.

I’m no longer interested in the cheerleading of innovation and transformation as an end in itself. My interest lies in the practical examples of learning and exploration that organisations are able to evidence.

Smart organisations will:

  • Build a portfolio of many different types of experiments from new customer offerings to new business models.
  • View small experiments as a natural constraint to bloated and expensive ‘projects’.
  • Conduct multiple experiments at the same time and be able to evidence their impact and share the learning.
  • Use the governance, scale and resources of transformation programmes to ensure the adoption of proven experiments.

Our job is to set the stage and create the right environment for those experiments.

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

Organisational change doesn’t come easily.

A joined-up process of collaboration, research, experimentation and transformation would certainly make it a lot faster.

Lessons From a Year Spent on a Two Pizza Team

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Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team – Steve Wozniak

In the early years of Amazon , as the company was in transition from fledgling startup to world-eating behemoth , managers held a corporate away day to consider their main challenges.

One executive opined that communication across the company needed improving – employees simply needed to talk more. The CEO , Jeff Bezos,  is alleged to have stood up and said “No, communication is terrible!

Bezos didn’t want more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and management.

Hence he established a fondness for what became known as the Two Pizza Rule: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

The term has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

It’s interesting then if you observe any management meeting when a problem comes up around a deadline or late project. Invariably the solution is to throw resources at it. In fact the opposite is often true – you should take resource away. 

Historically career progression has been gauged on the amount of people you manage , the budgetary responsibility you bear. Your position in the hierarchy. In a networked age –  power and influence simply don’t work this way.

The monolithic management structures across much of public services need aggressive simplification. Revolution rather than evolution.

Twelve months ago , as we prepared to launch Bromford Lab, I had all my resources taken away.  And I’ve never felt better. 

We have four people on the Lab. A lot of people who visit ask if there are any jobs going. The answer, sadly, is no. Two Pizza Law means we can never expand.

What are the benefits I’ve found from this way of working?

Agility ramps up.

We can have an idea on Monday morning, have the process mapped by lunch and the product in place by the end of the day. There’s less consultation and less ego to negotiate.

Hierarchy gets blown apart.

There’s no management meetings as there isn’t really any conventional management. Everyone knows what’s going on in the wider company – even the things that could previously be marked management confidential. The tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO syndrome) just doesn’t happen.

Performance becomes transparent.

In big teams I’ve managed and worked within I’ve experienced “social loafing” – where people exert less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. But there’s no hiding in a two pizza team. A weak link gets shown up straight away.

I’ve noticed that performance management has become more democratised too. We call each other out publicly (usually on WhatsApp) when tasks are unfinished or performance drops.

The downside? 

Well, even Steve Wozniak would agree that to deliver great product you need a great team around you. You can’t do it alone. And that’s where the rest of Bromford come in.

Next week we’ll expand Two-Pizza working by assembling four semi-automonous squads to help us work on themes we know are important to customers.

These will synchronise with the work of the Lab, Insight and Customer Experience teams – adopting some of our agile methodology – as well as working out loud using more collaborative social business tools.

Each squad will be encouraged to be radically transparent – engaging more colleagues and customers in their work without the hindrance of line management responsibilities.  In time we hope these guerilla cells turn our approach from innovation lab to innovation company.

In truth – we know all management is waste. In a connected business power no longer emanates from the boss or the top of the hierarchy. It lies right at the centre of the network.

The challenge for all large organisations is how they make every business unit act like a startup. Every employee thinking like a business owner rather than being served by the company.

The future of work is already here, just not evenly distributed.

And it’s a lot smaller.