Sunday, June 22, 2008


If I should ever write a treatise on bad behaviour in corporations, I could use a recent work situation as an illustration entitled "The Pre-ordained Alternative."

The situation was this: a faction within my current project called for a discussion (a Technical Interchange Meeting, in engineering jargon) about the best method to deliver our product to the customer. I was among the engineers who showed up ready to evaluate alternatives. However, as all of us were taking our seats, the leader of the faction immediately hijacked the meeting to present a series of slides in favor of the faction's preferred alternative, which had the suggestive benefit of boosting the fortunes of the faction. Afterwards, with a smile and a genial tone the faction's leader asked the assembled group to suggest ways of improving his solution. It was if you were shopping for a vehicle, and the car salesman was adamant about selling you a school bus and nothing else. But he was quite happy to consider your opinion about whether it should be a yellow school bus, a red school bus, or a blue school bus.

Annoyed at being treated like a rube, I began to question the assumptions that were the basis for the faction's chosen solution. The leader brushed my questions aside and repeated, as if to an idiot child, why his solution was the best way of satisfying his assumptions. My annoyance increased. Fortunately, I was not alone in being dissatisfied with the proceedings. The meeting dissolved in confusion and another meeting was scheduled to revisit the topic.

What is my point in relating this example of marketing masquerading as engineering decision making? If one can cleverly specify the list of assumptions, the solution becomes pre-ordained or, to use a current economics cliche, is "baked in the cake." (Economists frequently use folksy expressions to spice up their prose. However, I have never heard a baker compare a cake to a debenture or a amortization schedule. This tells you something.)

The only way to guard against this kind of deceptive "baked-cake" behaviour is to laboriously think through each of the assumptions one by one until a sound basis for evaluating alternatives is established. But, as thinking is hard work, the necessary examination of assumptions is seldom performed and this bad behaviour often goes unchallenged.

"The Pre-ordained Alternative" is a cousin to a popular parenting style of years past called "Restricted Alternatives," wherein the parent pretends to negotiate with the offspring after carefully restricting the range of choices. The parent might say to little Oswald, "Would you like to pick up your toys or would you like to take a bath?" The trick is to get little Oswald to make a choice – say, picking up his toys. Then, if little Oswald grumbles while picking up his toys, the parent can say, "How can you complain? You made the choice yourself!" Of course, the child knows that he had no meaningful choice in the matter and feels no ownership of the decision. It all becomes vexation of spirit.

I myself resisted the prevailing parenting culture and was not guilty of this common style of manipulation. After much thought, I developed my own parenting style, leading to parenting errors that were completely original. No run-of-the-mill vexation for my offspring! Their vexation was hand-crafted.