Why goals and control are not enough for business and society


We have been conditioned for a long time to think that setting goals is the way to achieve success.

This may partly be due to the work of Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel prize winning economist who pioneered work in goal-seeking, which spawned fields such as artificial intelligence, decision science and complex systems.

This kind of thinking leads to the unquestioned assumption that the way to make something better is to throw technology at it – a very common theme at present in the energy world.

We think energy markets aren’t working, so the way to make them work is to implement blockchain, AI, machine learning, comparison engines and other types of solutions – which will magically transform it into a clean, lean machine.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

A countering approach comes from the work of Geoffrey Vickers who came up with the notion of appreciative systems.

He argued that ways in which we often thought about the world were inadequate.

The goal-seeking method leads to a narrow reductionist view.

An alternative – the cybernetic view, where there are controllers and actors and one controls the other doesn’t really exist in reality.

Take for example a prison guard and a prisoner. While one is behind bars – both are in prison – and we know how the environment can quickly turn good people bad.

Vicker’s approach is one where life is experienced as a flux of events and ideas – brought out in the picture above from Checkland.

Imagine a loud, raucous party. You arrive, having been invited. You meet a few people, get to know more. Over time, you make friends, have conversations, even throw your own mini-parties in a corner of the room. Then you leave – but the party carries on.

That’s pretty much how life works.

Appreciating the world, or life, then means perceiving it in the first place and making judgements about the things we see.

Those judgements are usually about fact – what we believe is – and value – or what is good.

Given our perceptions and judgement, we can envision what might be and take action.

And we do all this not to meet goals, as a rationalist approach might assume, but to maintain relationships – our place and friendships at the party, if you will.

All this activity results in standards – our expectations of fact and value.

What needs to be seen is that our previous experience results in standards which are then modified in the light of future experience.

At a very basic level, this is what happens when companies become more diverse – the introduction of new thoughts and approaches from a greater range of individuals can change our standards.

A few years ago, no one would have questioned mostly male panels. Now it would be a brave organiser that didn’t have any women up at all.

Why does thinking about any of this matter?

It’s easy to be cowed by what seems like the unstoppable march of technological progress – the bots are going to take our jobs and there will be nothing left for humans to do.

Except to be human – appreciate life as it is and aim for better standards and relationships in business and society.

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