Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Bureaucracy, Care & Attention

(There will be some examples of Plan B coming up soon - meanwhile, this started as an over-sized comment elsewhere, so I decided to post here instead...)

I've been thinking a lot about "attention" lately. Then I read Andy's post about Factory Records, Products that don't care if you buy them:

I love the Factory story. Not only did they produce some of my all-time favourite music, but I also find their anarchic approach really inspiring. It's a great example of a particular kind of story: the "we didn't care, and that's why it worked" story.

Anthony commented on this:

I was glad that the documentary on Factory didn't completely ignore the way that the members of Joy Division/New Order got completely shafted by Factory's ad hoc way of working. They didn't seem too bitter about it, but they did lose hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. Ad hoc is fine, but not so much if people get harmed by it in the process?

This all got me thinking...

The Factory approach feels like an antidote to the standard "managerial" approach to running an organisation/etc. It seems to me that managerialism is (among other things) a way of keeping an organisation/project/whatever running in a relatively stable way with the minimum amount of attention to the personal.

By structuring processes to be as rational, predictable and defined as possible, you limit the consequences of not paying attention to the personal (i.e. the fact that your organisation is actually made up of people).

Of course, you also limit things like autonomy and creativity and meaningfulness. If you want a more creative organisation, you can try to dispense with managerial processes, etc. But unless this is accompanied by a much greater level of attention to the personal, this will tend to increase the extent to which people get harmed.

I can see three kinds of response to this:

(1) A tendency to treat the people getting hurt as "collateral damage" - unfortunate, but a price worth paying. (This kind of attitude is in keeping with a lot of the messages we get - from politicians, the media, the education industry - about what life is like.)

(2) A nostalgia for older, more hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of running organisations. There's a cluster of thinkers and writers on the left who exhibit this - people like Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, Madeleine Bunting and Barbara Ehrenreich. (Sennett in particular recants his earlier enthusiasm for the New Left and its desire for more autonomous ways of living.) While this is motivated by a proper recognition of how people get hurt by newer, anti-bureaucratic organisational styles, I think it leads to an unnecessarily bleak position.

(3) A deeper, practical critique of our organisations and workplaces. If doing things together in a creative, autonomous and meaningful way requires greater attention to the personal, then maybe we need to lower our prized "productivity" and spend more time attending to each other as people? Maybe in addition to "doing things badly", The New Sociablism should encourage us to "do things slowly" and "do less".

This could sound like the kind of impractical proposal that requires a different world to the one we currently live and work in. But my experience is that other worlds already exist in the gaps and cracks and folds of the World towards which our attention is generally directed...

Finally, to go back to "We didn't care, and that's why it worked" - I remember my singing teacher telling me at 17, "A lot of people in this school think that you don't care, but I think you do." (By which I understood her to mean that I really wanted to be good and obedient and was putting on a show of rebellion in order to be cool.) I was silently incandescent and would still like to go back and tell her that I did and do care - just not about the things she thought were worth caring about.

So rather than celebrating not caring, let's celebrate choosing what to care about. (And don't "care" and "attention" refer to more or less the same thing?)


arcolaura said...

This reminds me of an incident in my former employment with a firm that did extensive field work each summer. The previous summer I had failed miserably as a crew leader. Things seemed to be settled okay, and I was looking forward to a new summer in the field, but then I found out that I had been on probation all winter and my bosses weren't satisfied with what they'd seen. They had a big new project lined up, and they hired a brand new person just to lead it. They were thrilled with their find: she had all sorts of experience, remote jungle work, everything. Meanwhile I made plans to go elsewhere once I finished my role on the team for this project. The new leader sailed through all the preliminary meetings and so on. But as the field work got rolling, she came into conflict with more and more of the crew. Pretty soon I was the only one still talking to her. I was still talking to all the others, too, and as things heated up, I kept the communication going, helped each side start to understand the other a little, and eventually got them working together again. The crew leader told me she thought my bosses had read me completely wrong, and that I was much more capable and valuable than they realized. But I had burned my bridges already, and I wasn't going to start building them over again. In fact as I looked back on it, I realized that those burned bridges were precisely the reason that I succeeded in bringing that crew back together: I didn't care what happened to me. I was moving on; I didn't care if I got fired, or if everyone ended up hating me, or if nothing I attempted was any help. I was free to just help in whatever way seemed best to me, and help I did.

Dougald Hine said...

those burned bridges were precisely the reason that I succeeded in bringing that crew back together: I didn't care what happened to me... I was free to just help in whatever way seemed best to me, and help I did.

Mmmm. I very much recognise what you're describing.

It's not quite the same, but my girlfriend has been serving her notice on a job that she's leaving after five years. She's said several times that she finds herself doing the job far better at the moment than she has done for months.

I suspect that for most people, even in apparently successful situations, working life tends to distort the whole person - much as earlier industrial jobs might distort someone's physical body.

Anthony said...

One of my professors once said to me at a wine and cheese event after I had outlined my lack of a future planned career trajectory that 'Anthony, lack of ambition is the height of ambition'. This proved to be very influential for me.

I later asked him what he meant (I maybe could have done that at the time!) and he said he was drunk and he hasn't a clue what it means, but it sounds like nonsense! :)

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