The myth of in-control thinking

Published on Tuesday, June 9th 2020


Suppose we were to start doing things differently in the Netherlands. Suppose we were hit by a huge, comprehensive crisis, a traumatic experience that showed us our world doesn’t quite work the way we always thought it did, or liked to think it did. The crisis would prove that the truths we always held about managing organisations weren’t true after all. In short, we’d go through a major, decisive experience together that could teach us a lot of important lessons. How would we reorganise our society? What lessons would we incorporate in a curriculum designed to instruct all management afresh? Would we still value the management of an organisation higher than the workmanship on the shop floor? Would we still decide to elaborately describe every little change we want, in fat reports, and then use those reports to make all the decisions? Would we still try to be in complete control, although we all know there’s no such thing?

Life is full of unexpected events and in industry it’s no different. In physics this is very aptly described as the three-particle problem. When three (or more) balls (particles, people, managers) move around and influence each other, the outcome is hard to predict - if not impossible. The nice thing about this notion is that you do have a clear idea of how many balls and movements there are. So if you manage to make small changes, step by step, you’ll get there in the end. But what if you’re playing billiards and suddenly a bowling ball appears on the green baize for you to deal with?

Up to the end of the 17th century we Westerners were convinced that all swans were white. Then one day the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Australia. This came as a shock to zoology. What was this? How did this happen? And how could we scientists have been so dim as to not to have thought of this? In hindsight it made a lot of sense; after all, there are brown bears as well as white bears. But sometimes we really don’t see things coming and we don’t take the great unknown into account. It caused creative thinker, writer and statistician Nassim Taleb to come up with his black swan theory. According to Taleb, society is blind to ‘coincidental events’, to things we cannot or refuse to see coming. We assume everything will take place in the realm of normal expectations. We are eager to deny coincidences and we make predictions based on existing patterns that we can picture in our imagination. However, in an increasingly complex society - with more and more billiard balls on the baize - such coincidences and rare surprises have an ever-growing effect on normal life. Taleb called 9/11 a typical black swan: we knew terrorism existed, but we never thought Al Qaeda would hijack four American planes to teach the United States a lesson. Back in the age when man roamed the steppes as hunter-gatherers, life was orderly and within the boundaries of what was ‘normal’ - barring the odd lethal snake or flash of lightning. In the urban societies of the Middle Ages there were more black swans, like the bubonic plague or an invasion of another culture. In our age, black swans are the order of the day.

The reason that this myth of being in control even exists, and is the highest good in management circles, is largely because people don’t read the works of cybernetics pioneer William Ross Ashby properly. Ashby was an IT hero, an accountancy genius, and a good friend of his contemporary, Alan Turing (the hero of all computer nerds). For those who don’t know, cybernetics is the science concerned with controlling human systems through technology. In his standard work, An Introduction to Cybernetics, Ashby wrote about the much acclaimed Law of Requisite Variety, stating that you are in control of a system (or a department or a business) if you have a solution in advance for every possible disruption that might occur. He thought and wrote about control a great deal. His example was a London street where traffic lights were to be placed in order to achieve perfect circulation of traffic. This proved impossible because there were too many other influences. His conclusion was that the pursuit of being in control should not be our standard approach.

Fortunately we have made some progress since Ashby’s days in understanding complexity and how complex systems like IT should be organised. But this has not yet filtered down to every boardroom. I think there’s a lot to be gained by society if we manage to erase the glorification of being in control from the curriculum for new directors, and allow the notion of complexity to take centre stage.


Hans van Bommel,
Digital Transformation Accelerator