Why Advising Others Is Not A Great Business To Be In


Friday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home, has no responsibility for implementing the advice he gives, and shows slides. – Edwin Meese

One of the most useful books I have read on systems thinking is Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers by Mike Jackson, which introduced me to the system of systems model, something that I talk about in the introduction to this blog. It’s from this book that I created the image below.


Now, what’s interesting about this model is the x-axis, the people part. The place where a lot of good real-world happens is in the central column, where you have people who want to try and make things happen and who are willing to work together, even if they don’t always agree. In such situations you have to understand their purpose and once you know what that is you can figure out what needs to be done and how to do it.

This is a good place – it’s the place where business happens. But it’s also a safe space, where you don’t rock the boat and you accept the prevailing ideology because you’re getting paid. For example, if you get hired by a corporation to advise them on something you don’t then go about criticising their practices. If anything you go easy on them. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you and all that.

But there are places where you start to see something more like the right hand column, where people don’t just get along. Russell Ackoff sort of talked about this as a situation where the system does not serve the people in it and where they want to point that out. People who are disadvantaged and want a voice.

Mike’s 2001 paper on “Critical systems thinking and practice” talks about these areas – the complex problems in societies where you have people who are disadvantaged in situations that involve conflict. Solutions that involve “hard” approaches, logic and analysis, or “soft” approaches that don’t question the status quo – find it difficult to deal with “coercive” contexts, one’s where there is an unequal power distribution and the person with the power uses that to “solve” the problem. This raises questions of how to intervene in such situations and how to free the downtrodden – how to emancipate them? Or free oneself.

This kind of change is radical change and you can’t do radical when you’re afraid of losing what you have. People are scared of losing what they have – and that’s why our natural state of being is conservative. We’re biologically wired to “bury the hatchet in the head of a common enemy” – from what I remember of Wole Soyinka. Being liberal is hard – it takes a certain kind of person to be open to others and care about more than their immediate family. And liberals lose when people are afraid – and we’re seeing that all over the world in country after country.

So what’s the solution. Jackson argues that it comes down to helping people help themselves. I remember listening to a TED talk where one of the speakers talked about how their skills in leading workshops went back to training their received during the civil rights movement. These days I suppose that kind of thing is what you find in things like the momentum movement. The kind of things that have actually started to make things like environmentalism and social equality matter in the world today.

I might look at these a little more in the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

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