You might have noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet on the blogging front recently. There have been many reasons for this, not least that my day job has been very busy but another overriding reason is I have been trying to stop myself blogging anything too political. The political landscape in the UK is—well—bizarre to put it kindly at the moment. I look elsewhere and I see other nation-states subjected to different types of unforeseen chaotic disruption too. I can resist the temptation to blog on items related to politics no longer 🙂 Now, before you tune out, don’t worry I won’t be touching on anything too controversial—but I’d like to look at some of the political narratives that exist in the world and what this might mean for our organisations and our attempts to change them.
The Dumbing Down Of Narrative and the Prevalence of False Dichotomies
A few years ago there was a referendum in the UK (no, not that referendum) over an ‘alternative voting system’. This would have represented a change from a first past the post system to something closer to proportional representation. Now, let’s ignore the pros and cons of the proposal for a moment and look at the way that the choice was presented as the narrative it created is quite significant. The billboard below was posted in Portsmouth (a city in the UK with strong naval & military heritage) at a time when there was allegedly a lack of funding for essential equipment for the military.
It implies and hints (without explicitly saying it) that there’s a binary choice: Either have an alternative voting system or give our hard-working military the equipment they need.
On the face of it, that’s a compelling argument isn’t it? Why waste our money on something as frivolous as an ‘alternative voting system’ when our brave women and men on the front line are at risk. Except, my friends, as you have probably already detected that argument is garbage. In a civilised society there ought to be a way of doing both; we are being presented (by some very carefully designed propaganda) with a classic false dichotomy. We are presented with an ‘either/or’ discussion, to which we really also ought to ask ‘what about neither, what about something else, what about both? What other possibilities are there?’ We also ought to ask “Who is trying to convince us of this message, and why?’.
False Dichotomies and the Creation of a Political Narrative
This type of repeatable phrase acts like an ear-worm, it’s concise and repeatable, elegant in its design even though it is logically flawed. Yet, like an acorn in the soil it grows—but rather than a beautiful oak tree that an acorn produces it spawns a potentially toxic narrative. It blinkers thought, it closes down debate. It’s possible for anyone to shut down an argument “So, you’re saying you don’t support our troops then are you?”. It’s almost possible to imagine the arguments in coffee-shops and the trolling on Twitter. The message is carefully crafted with enough emotion to immediately trample down all but the most determined of logical opponents. It creates the narrative that there’s one right path and we must follow it (in this case, rejecting the alternative voting system). It seeks to project a lovely linear landscape on what is really a messy, complex situation. It fools us into compliance, barely asking why or who it is benefiting. And sadly, history shows us that it works.
This might sound rather abstract and unrelated to business analysis but the same patterns appear in organisations, in my experience at least. Cunning political foxes emerge and carefully craft their sound bites and build narratives to suit their own political ends, offering repeatable phrases and false dichotomies that others pick up on. Perhaps you’ve heard things like:
“But we’ve got to do [X] it’s a burning platform” (It’s unlikely it’s really ‘on fire’, and the consequences of doing nothing might well have been vastly overstated—doing nothing might buy time for a more thorough exploration of the ‘art of the possible’)
“Well, they’re either with us or against us” (Can’t someone partially agree?)
“If you’re not agile you’re waterfall” (Really? Aren’t both of these things actually human constructs; change could be delivered with either, neither or possibly combinations of both. There would be pros, and in some cases significant cons of doing that, but who decides what is ‘agile’ and what is ‘waterfall’?)
“We need to be a Level X maturity not a Level Y” (But who defined ‘maturity’? What other scales are there that might be more appropriate? And why do we even care?)
I could go on, but you get the picture. These type of false dichotomies start change initiatives off on a fixed and often irreversible direction. If it’s the wrong direction, then no manner of tweaking methods and methodologies on how things are delivered are going to matter.
The Unaccountable and Disappearing Politician
So, where do these false dichotomies come from? Where did the alternative voting system poster come from? It’s hard to know, isn’t it? If you look closely you can just about see a URL: no2av.org.uk. This URL was presumably related to a campaigning group—the website no longer exists. There’s no accountability, the group that propagated the message have disappeared into the shadows…
This seems like a perfect parallel for organisational change, where an exec imposes change without sufficient analysis. Change takes time, their focus changes and they move on. Yet the people they have imposed the change on are stuck with it. Over time these poor recipients become cynical and fatigued by the constant whirlwind of ineffective change that does little more than dance around the edge of the real problem areas. A new exec is installed, and the pattern starts all over again.
The Role of the BA in All of This
So why does any of this matter? As BAs it’s absolutely imperative that we spot, call out and (where needed) challenge these types of political narratives and false dichotomies. Of course, we absolutely should do so with rapport, and in a way that is suitable for the context we find ourselves in, but we have to be aware of the politics that are going on around us. It’s probably true to say wherever there are people there will be questions of power and politics. We need to spot the sound bites, ensure that unheard and marginalised voices are heard and represented, and call out petty politicking.
It isn’t easy, it won’t always make us popular, but surely it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. And isn’t that what matters?
What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com