Given my inclination to see the world through my Rudi Project lenses, I can’t help but interpret things via the chain rings of my cycling mind. I also can’t completely lose the perspectives gained and sanity lost from spending 25 too many years as an academic supervising way too many PhD research projects in the area of sustainable futures for the human race and the ecologies upon which we depend. It’s amazing how the mish mash of ideas and insights pertaining to life, the universe and everything else blend together into fascinatingly disturbing patterns via the slow grind tumble of way too much cycling time.
Here’s what I have come up with by way of a conclusion: as one Tour de France victory after another descends into the hands of the legal profession for resolution, there’s precious little potential for our civilisation to inspire (at least me) any more.
Let me explain this seemingly weird thesis (that Contador’s current issues spell the final kicks of a civilisation in speedy decline) in a manner more akin to Twitter-concise than deep compost academic diatribe. Relatively speaking, of course (I promise not to exceed 200,000 words).
Consider the bicycle.
Was there ever a mechanical contraption that is as pure and total a convergence of function and form? Every part has a visible purpose and every purpose is obviously connected to the purpose of every other part to describe a totality of function evident with breathtaking clarity from every conceivable angle. The bicycle is a masterpiece of comprehensible complexity. We can understand the bicycle as a system through simply observing it in action. Few people would require an instruction manual to enjoy the ride. A bicycle is a stunningly resolvable engineering fractal. Focus in on some part or another, and you can continue to understand and interpret the purpose and operation of each bit as we continue to delve deeper into the internals of each bit we can see. Look at the rear cogs. We can figure out what they do without much in the way of explanation. Now deconstruct the cluster and inspect each bit within. The deeper we go, the more we see, but the patterns of logical connectivity are sustained – even down to the springs that keep the freewheel pawls engaged. Even there, form and function are clear, connected and concise. There are no black boxes within. Parts mesh with parts and all the parts are as self-evidently purposeful at any level of resolution we might seek to apply.
I like to imagine the bicycle as the most complex device we can conceive while still avoiding the mental dislocations of complexity. Anything more complex than a bike begins to require partial views and increasingly specialised knowledge for interpretation. When we try to interpret systems more complex than a bike, we start to loose our view of the forest as its trees come into ever closer view. Like, say, would be the case for a car. Or even a motor bike. As complexity rises, our dissections review ever more confounding details; the fractal transforms into perspectives drawn from different places and spaces. Just try to interpret the machinations of a CDI unit from the perspective we might use to understand the workings of a motorbike chain. As we dig into engines, the colours of our understandings shift from engineering to chemistry; from solids to liquids and the behaviours of gas.
We don’t have these problems when we seek understandings of a bicycle. That’s why, for me, the bicycle represents the upper limit of ‘comprehensible complexity’. At this level, complexity is interpretable via logical intuition alone. There are no surprises or chaotic behaviours likely at less than or equal to the complexity rating of a bicycle. Chaos soon kicks in when we escalate further up the scale. No one person can see and understand all as complexity goes deeper than the level of a bike.
As so it is with the workings of society as well. Consider a business, or other organisation with which you might be involved. Managing a small independent bookshop (with a good cycling section, please), is complex enough (just try balancing the fickle nature of fad following customers and the never ending desperation of wholesalers seeking your wholesale devotions; without even considering the dimension of demented Greed Is Good bankers breathing down your neck). But add a few floors and another fifty staff or so and the can of worms becomes an ocean of maggots. Layers upon layers, and then even more. The complexity builds to preclude even the vaguest possibility that any one person can ever know all that’s going on, let alone to remain sensibly ‘in charge’.
But managing complexity is definitely not a lost cause; or even a cause without merit! No, managing machinery with greater complexity than your average bike is a challenge with huge rewards. Really, just about everything we might ever seek to manage is more complex than we might ever think.
And there’s the problem. You’d be stunned and surprised to know how huge is the gap between knowing that a system is complex and really knowing the realities of complexity as a living, dynamic thing. The almost invariable response of ‘management’, everywhere, is to suggest: ‘yeah, it’s complex and I am so unutterably talented at managing complexity that the issues therein won’t affect me!’ No worries. You see, the problem is, most managers and politicians and policy makers and academics, car mechanics and wholesalers of fruit that I have ever met or known always insist on managing the systems with which they are entrusted in the same way and with the same depth of perception as a mechanic working on a bike. As I said above, the bicycle is, in my view, the limit of comprehensible complexity. Which means that for most people, systems as complex as a bike are as complex as any person can imagine, working alone or while seeking to ‘stay in control’. So… most managers mouth a few platitudes about ‘recognising the realities of complexity’ and then proceeding as though they are tuning a derailleur rather than managing the fermenting ego turmoils of those 500 people under their command.
You might think that only ‘dumb’ managers would manage complex systems in the manner with which they’d play with Logo blocks. But no, that’s definitely not the case. If there is one generic, overwhelming, mass embedded talent in short supply, it’s talent with perceiving, interpreting and responding appropriately to complexity. Which, dear and patient reader, is why the world is in such an almighty mess.
An anecdote from my recent past might illustrate the point. Now you’d reckon that the most likely place where the theory and practice of clever management in relation to complex organisational challenges might take place in a university. Take an academic who’s familiar with the theories, who might have even written a paper or two dissecting the failures of other managers in this regard, and put them in charge. That’s what happened at my local university where my own group of ‘complexity evangelists’ had taken a firm and passionate hold. Then along came the thing we had always feared the most: a reforming professor with an intent to reshape at least this bit of the world into his own image. The image of unrelenting ego backed up by a total absence of talent. Yes, the agenda was as you might guess. ‘This place is way too complex. Why, I think I will clean it all up and put everything into a box of best fit; all pegs to go into one of two shaped holes’. ‘That’ll make the place easier to manage!’. So groups like mine, hexagonal to the round or square shaped holes on offer, were thrown out the door. Into the street. Literally. Five PhD students suddenly had no place to study! And my 25 year career was over; ‘leave your keys on the desk, return your library books and thanks for your time… Turn the light off when you leave’. So long and thanks for all the fish… Naturally, that venture of squaring the edges off an organisation naturally inclined to curves was doomed to fail. The turkey in charge was shown the door, as was his second in command, but too late for us. And for the thousands of students who are now forced to select from individually wrapped, partitioned educational offerings along the lines of a breakfast menu restricted to a Kellogg’s Variety Pack.
No, the capacity of managers to really, truly, intuitively understand complexity is as rare an attribute as the ability to win the Tour de France. But no where else are the delusions of capability in that regard so fundamentally endemic. It’s as though every person who commutes on a hybrid to work genuinely believes that a Paris podium finish is theirs for want of only buying an air ticket to France.
So what are the signs of such misplaced management expertise? How can you tell when delusion rather than talent is really in charge? Easy. For starters, beware the reformist administrator who seeks to ‘simplify and put everything into its more orderly place’. That’s what killed my own group’s passionate crusades. Next, beware the bandaid. Beware that one above all.
Imagine a complex organisation along the lines of a water filled inner tube. If a leak takes hold, you put a patch in place. When the next leak appears, another patch is applied. Then another, and another, and another again. Until the tube is more patch than tube. Then the whole mess starts leaking between the patches that start to fail with time. So you start applying patches between patches and maybe even some latex paint as well. The whole mess starts to balloon like a a dirigible on heat. When the whole show ultimately starts to fail, enter the reforming manager and the inevitable ‘restructure’ or two. So now, the game is to experiment with liquid sealants, say. So the tube that was once filled by air is now a concentrated mess of chemistry writhing under patches that are increasingly loosing their grip. Time to take early retirement, I think!
And that is precisely how policies are increasingly made. Policies, like laws, are all like bandaids in search of a hole. Rarely, if ever, do we see policy that takes the big picture into view. That would take much too much in the way of perception for most managers to comprehend. That would require taking a few steps back to see the forest again. That would require teamwork to realise. And teamwork requires the setting of our usual manager’s egotistical control freak tendencies to one side. How often do we see leadership that genuinely embraces collective vision making and taking rather than just lip service and platitudes instead? Why, that would involve a totally different culture of control than most control freaks would be comfortable with. Sharing your power is a hard thing for most ego’s to really enact. Good management under real world complex settings becomes much more a task of facilitating communication amongst all the stakeholders who might be involved than pretending omniscience and control where control is a delusion in the first place.
Unless your task really is nothing more than the management of a bicycle, the management game is a game in need of a global overhaul. Unless we want to continue to witnessing the wholesale failure of initiatives like that dismal, recent Climate Change Summit (more like a policy patch trade fair than the genuine summit it should have been) and the so-called war on terror (the recent psychotic policies to strip search all air travellers via new radiation machines is one particularly lousy glueless patch), it’s time to recast the real terror of these times as the terrorism of misguided management to conceive of every policy issue and every management plan as simplistically as the organisation of a bicycle or two.
Yes, this malady of misguided management is hitting cyclesport too. Once we accept the transfer of the organisation of our sport from our cyclist hands to the greased hands of lawyers and their warty sort, the sport is doomed and done. Admitting the lawyers into our domain is just like the terminal stages of managing that overpatched bicycle tube. Shifting authority to lawyers is the paradigm shift of playing with sealants after the patches all have started to leak. The whole show is doomed to sink; and stink. Time to buy a new tube instead! Share the leadership on an issue such as this more completely with the riders and their supporters, in turn, and the opportunities for opening up some lateral thinking and enhanced perspective will soon reveal improved opportunities for action and reaction than the psychoses of failed conventional leadership that are now blighting our sport. It’s time to dethrone the current management regime! The UCI are trying to manage our sport with nothing more than a tin of perished patches. Time to reinvent the glue we choose and the very nature of the tyres that drive at least this small part of a world more widely going mad.