Waylaid by the trivial?

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Should pupils change into indoor shoes in school? How can heads of year ensure that they wear their ties in assembly? What is to be done about teenage girls who roll their skirts up at the waist to bring them alarmingly high above the knees?

It's not that such questions - each within my personal experience - are unimportant - it's more that when they come up in management meetings, everyone falls on them with such obvious relish and relief. They're more manageable, somehow, than the hard matters of school improvement.

I knew a head once who shamelessly used this principle - which he called "diving eagerly into the alluring shallows of the trivial" - as a ploy to keep his governors away from anything too significant. He always claimed that his most successful diversionary tactic was to suggest in a budget meeting, at which jobs could have been at stake, the idea that all pencils, on delivery, should at once be cut in half. "Kept 'em going all evening,"

he said.

Too much of that kind of displacement activity is obviously a handicap to any organisation. It's used as one of 13 examples in a pocket-sized manual called A Little Book of f-Laws, by the American management thinkers Russell Ackoff and Herbert Addison. Under the heading "The less important an issue is, the more time managers spend discussing it", they explain that the trouble lies in the way we like to talk about things we think we know about - and most of us know lots about unimportant things: "The more something matters, the less we know about it."

For the UK, the publishers have included comments by Sally Bibb, a British management writer - "A voice from another generation, another gender and another continent." She adds the thought that "managers feel comfortable discussing trivial issues because there's less at stake".

The answer, she suggests, is to remove the fear of making mistakes: "In the best organisations, people have no qualms about changing course, or admitting that they were wrong," she says. "The aim is to resolve an issue."

A Little Book of f-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management, by Russell Ackoff, Herbert Addison and Sally Bibb (Triarchy Press, price pound;5).


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