So we agree not to agree?

November 24, 2000

A year ago, John Kay quit as director of Oxford's Said Business School. Here he suggests what prompted his decision and outlines the problems of a 'declining' organisation.

Good morning, and welcome to my first lecture on the "Management of decline". I know that most of you are only here because Professor Whizzbang's course on e-commerce is oversubscribed. But I think you will find it interesting, especially because most of my case studies will be drawn directly from the experience of colleagues here at Isis University. By now you should all have copies of the set text: Don't Rock the Boat: Diaries of a Dead Don by Dr Clarendon.

Clarendon begins his exposition with a memorable account of the boat race of 1978, when the oarsmen maintained perfect rhythm and harmony as the water level rose, quitting only when the boat sank. That image should be an inspiration to us all. If you have problems, then internal dissension or precipitate action, will only make matters worse.

The subject of today's lecture is "How to avoid making decisions". Clarendon is proud that he has only made two decisions in his life. At the age of 18 he chose a scholarship at St Jude's rather than an exhibition at St Henry's and, 45 years later, he accepted the early retirement terms offered under the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Any attempt to make decisions is an invitation to internal dissension and always runs the risk of precipitate action. Clarendon's techniques of avoiding decision-making - dubbed the eight oars of indecision - will serve academics well in reaching the safe haven of early retirement, the objective of everyone in a declining organisation.

Deferral and referral will be indispensable tools of the trade. Academics should practice phrases such as: "This has been a rigorous and illuminating discussion. Perhaps we should reflect and consider the matter further at our next meeting." And, since you can usually expect that only about half the committee will turn up to any particular meeting, the debate can be reprised with a different cast of characters on the following occasion and pursued to the same inconclusive outcome.

Referral is also a safe bet. With literally hundreds of committees to choose from, there is always one that might be consulted. "Perhaps we should find out what the Circumlocution Committee thinks," for example. But academics should be parsimonious with referral. It is important to hold the possibility of future referrals in reserve. Also, being too promiscuous with consultations might deprive you of another powerful tool of procrastination: objection to process and procedure.

You could try something like: "Although I don't necessarily object in principle to this suggestion, I think the way in which it has been brought forward is most unfortunate."

[At Oxford, it was rare to meet anyone who was openly opposed to a business school. But there were dozens of objections to the procedure used to establish one. And the procedural objections were much more powerful than the substantive ones.]

 Focusing on process enables you to bring together all objecting parties - even ones with contradictory aims. And procedural objections cannot be answered by reference to the actual merits of the proposal. Debate on procedure allows lengthy, and essentially irrelevant, debate - the hoped for outcome.

But once procedural obstacles are exhausted, there is always the option of drawing attention to the wider picture - as in: "I don't think we can resolve the salary issue without reference to the wider picture [of academic salaries generally, the future structure of university funding or the possibility that global warming might submerge the institution before it reaches a conclusion]." As it is safe to assume that the wider picture will never be clarified in a relevant timescale, this amounts to indefinite deferral.

But all these techniques are relatively crude. The central skill of indecision is to ensure that no issue involving real choice is brought up in the first place. You should declare yourself an advocate of "building consensus", which means in practice that nothing that might lead to dissension is ever discussed. Obviously this precludes budgeting, resource planning, strategy and policy formation, and quality control: all these things involve contested choices. Declining organisations do without budgeting, planning and quality control. That is one of the reasons they are declining.

Most important are subtle techniques such as ambiguity and precedent. Ambiguity involves appearing to make a decision while leaving different parties with different impressions of what that decision was. As in "the school will contract exclusively with the college for the provision of its post-experience work, and the only work of this kind done by the college will be that commissioned by the school", a carefully crafted sentence that enables both the school and the college to claim a monopoly on provision.

These formulations do not resolve anything, but they do maintain an appearance of agreement until the issue is raised again - with greater acrimony, because both parties believe the matter had been decided in their favour. You can normally escape the fallout and leave the problem for your successors.

Ambiguity goes hand in hand with precedent. You can often avoid decisions by asserting that the outcome is determined by a decision that was made some time ago. This leads to a vicious circle. Once in the grip of precedent, no one dares make a decision lest it might have unforeseeable implications in future discussions of quite different matters.

On this subject and others, I recommend the subsidiary reading for this course. Professor Whizzbang's lectures are full of references to Wired and the Harvard Business Review, but we specialists in decline still find the classics relevant. Francis Cornford's Microcosmographica Academica is 100 years old, but its guidance for the young academic politician is as pertinent today as ever. We will always be grateful to Cornford for the "Principle of the Dangerous Precedent": "Every public action that is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

 As a last resort, try denial. This works best if your procedures are sufficiently opaque that no one really knows whether a decision has been made or not. As Coopers & Lybrand observed of the University of Oxford: "In many cases, university decisions are not specifically made, they just emerge and it is often difficult to tell at which point a discussion became a decision."

This comment caused Clarendon great satisfaction. He believes that, if you can sustain such uncertainty, you are always in a position to refute any suggestion that a decision has been made and restart the argument.

Deferral and referral, procedural objection, the wider picture, evasion, ambiguity, precedent and denial: these, then, are the eight oars of indecision.

Clarendon is sadly missed, but his thought lives on. The master of St Jude's gave a fitting epitaph at Clarendon's memorial service, quoting Dorothy Parker: "When they told me Clarendon was dead, I asked 'how could anyone tell?'" That phrase was so characteristic of Clarendon. I heard it often when I asked what business had been decided at the many meetings he chaired.

Footnote: At the end of this lecture, a Rhodes scholar asked in brash Mid-western style: "Say prof, you guys run the institution this way and you're setting up a business school to teach us management. You're kidding, right." I was able to reassure him. We were kidding. Only kidding.

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