How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? – Charles de Gaulle
If you look at the vast collection of literature that is loosely categorised as self-help you’ll find lots of tips to make things better.
Life hacks, they are now called – as if you can find a clever route that will make all problems vanish.
I suppose there are hacks that help you in practical ways.
A quick search suggests that you could grow rose cuttings in potatoes – that’s pretty useful information for some people.
But there are other problems that are less well served by looking for a hack.
Especially problems that involve working with other people.
This is something that those of us that are technical find hard to learn.
For example, do you believe that for a given office based task there is an optimal solution?
For most real world tasks there is more than one way to do it – and the approach you takes sits on a continuum between doing everything manually and automating everything altogether.
Take a practical example like checking whether a bill is right.
You could get out a calculator and work through the numbers.
You could create a spreadsheet and recreate the bill.
You might create a script that processes a file with the billing data and gives you a result.
You might be comfortable with one or more approaches but others will start to struggle at different points based on their skill sets.
The optimal approach then, if you want to work with others, is not one that depends on the solution but one that depends on the people involved.
And this is something that is not always easy to appreciate.
Peter Checkland, in his book Soft systems methodology in action writes about the problem of getting different people to go along with a plan of action.
This is the basic issue faced in a large number of problems – from how you do a task with a co-worker to how you decide which projects to do in your company and how your government makes policy decisions.
The thing that underpins it all is a process of politics – the activity by which different people figure out how to get along.
Checkland talks about the importance of achieving an “accommodation” in order to make meaningful progress.
An accommodation is something that people can live with, something they are prepared to go along with.
It differs from consensus in that people don’t have to agree that something is right or that they like it – just that they can accept it.
The point Checkland makes is that if you want to improve a situation you don’t need to find consensus.
It might be nice to have a consensus, to be in a situation where everybody agrees that a particular course of action is the best possible one.
In reality, such situations are rare.
Real situations have more to do with culture, politics and power than they have to do with technical virtue.
And culture, politics and power influence the stand people take on a particular issue – and the challenge you face is one of getting them to go along with your idea – to ‘accommodate’ you.
And people who don’t understand that struggle to get their projects through organisations, big or small.
This may seem like a technical and fairly pedantic point.
But it’s important for any non-trivial organisational problem you might come up against.
If it’s just yourself you have to convince, then that’s easy.
If you need to get another person or a group to go along with you, you need to understand where they’re coming from – their interests and what they can live with and decide whether you can live with that.
And if you’re rigorous in the way you approach that need for understanding, you will probably make meaningful progress in whatever project you’re trying to do.
In short, learn how to do politics because it matters.