By Anthony Judge
Do you get frustrated when decision-makers avoid doing their jobs? Do you wish you could identify the techniques they use to avoid making decisions so that you can better hold them to account?
Here I identify 14 aspects of the art of non-decision-making based on my experience serving in, and observing, a range of international organisations.
1. Definitional games: This is the process of defining categories in one way in one document or organizational unit, and then defining them in another way elsewhere or at some later time. The art is to use this approach to obscure opportunities or to selectively advance particular strategies. At the same time competing definitions may be used to justify apparently incompatible strategies.
2. Neglected or repressed categories: This approach is familiar to those who experience discrimination, whether in terms of race, gender, age, intelligence, class or culture. Women experience exclusion through exclusive reference to the male gender in documents supposedly relevant to both female and male. Unwritten rules may specifically exclude those of a particular ethnic group or class. Non-English speakers, for example, may be handicapped in their access to information. Skilful neglect of certain categories can ensure that any initiative will be subsequently undermined.
3. Over-simplification: This technique is typical of those forcing through an agenda in which it is convenient to exclude categories and especially the relationships between them. Many declarations of principles and ethical charters follow this pattern. This is commonly justified by the necessity to render the text simple enough to be communicable to the media and to various constituencies. Unfortunately the process of simplification seldom ensures the memorability of the text and tends to guarantee limited life for initiatives based on such oversimplification.
4. Over-complexification: This technique is widely practiced by experts to limit access to their field of knowledge. It becomes a means of requiring that the expert be personally consulted in order to convey the insights in practice.
5. Narrowing the time-frame: This technique consists of elaborating initiatives without any reference to historical precedents from which insights might be usefully obtained to ensure the viability of the new initiative. By encouraging ignorance of the past, in pursuit of the current initiative, there is every probability that the new one will remain equally unmemorable. Similarly, by avoiding sensitivity to more than the short-term future, factors in the medium and longer term (that will probably counteract the initiative) can be ignored.
6. Focusing on the inaccessible: In one form this technique involves one of the parties in a decision-making arena indicating that they are prepared to go ahead ‘only if everybody else agrees’. This gives the appearance of a positive approach. It is especially successful in avoiding decision-making if it is unlikely that others will agree in this way. In another variant, the party indicates that it is only prepared to consider an issue within a broader framework (eg., not overfishing of a particular species but of fish stocks in general). This ensures avoidance of decisions if other parties are not prepared to explore broader issues even though there may be scope for agreement on narrower issues.
7. Ignoring cultural variants: This technique emphasizes paradigms typical of a dominant culture to ensure that alternative cultural perspectives are demeaned, ignored or treated as irrelevant or outdated. Faced with this inadequacy, a response may simply be to provide translations without recognizing that these do not necessarily provide an adequate vehicle for other cultural perspectives.
8. Favouring the fashionable: At any one time, there are fashionable conceptual approaches to issues, and consultants ‘on the circuit’ who enthusiastically promote their use. By encouraging institutions to take up a succession of particular fads, a broader view of the range of possible initiatives is inhibited. No sense of the strengths, limitations and complementarity of the fads emerges.
9. Rejection through negative association: Genuine innovations can be successfully marginalized and rejected by focusing attention on any disasters associated with their development.
10. Disqualification: Evidence and insights are easily dismissed by claiming that proponents are in some way unqualified to comment on the topic in question. Many conceptual innovations have been subjected to this process, especially since it is difficult to be ‘qualified’ in a field which is only in the process of emerging.
11. Conceptual ‘roll-on, roll-off’: This process involves apparent acceptance of a new perspective – but for a period only. When collective attention is focused elsewhere, decreasing weight is attached to the new perspective, until it can finally be ignored.
12. ‘Classification’ to protect interests: New insights and approaches can be effectively quashed by appropriating them – whether in the national interest or under corporate copyright. This process may be undertaken preemptively by requiring that all personnel sign nondisclosure agreements. Nobody is then qualified to comment publicly on issues documented in classified documents.
13. Exertion of pressure: This is one of the most developed techniques. It can be effectively used in any peer group simply by implying that failure to act in a particular way will cast an unfavourable light, prejudicing career advancement, funding, honours, etc (‘the stick’). Pressure can be increased by offering rewards, career advancement, or promises of honours (‘the carrot’). Pressure can be further increased by unadulterated bribery and intimidation (including threats of exposure or even physical violence).
14. Delay: This classical technique may be used in combination with several others. A variety of excellent reasons may be found to delay decision-making until ‘the right moment’.
Do these techniques resonate with your experience? Do you have other techniques to share?
To find out more:
This blog post is based on an extract from “Reframing the Art of Non-Decision-Making: Conceptual gerrymandering on a global scale” which was published in laetus in praesens on 9 January 2017. See: https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs10s/nondecre.php
Biography: Anthony Judge is an independent researcher based in Brussels, Belgium. He has a long-term interest in interdisciplinarity, general systems and cybernetics and their relevance to strategic thinking. He thinks and writes creatively, critically and independently about a wide range of issues. Additional details can be found on his Wikipedia and LinkedIn pages.