Blank piece of paper held up

The “Taboo of the Blank Slate” (Why Work Levels Are Rejected)

E. Forrest Christian Theory 1 Comment

The levels of work from Requisite Organization / the Glacier Management Method / Stratified Systems Theory are routinely dismissed out of hand, almost without review. It’s an instinctive rejection rather than rational at any level. What drives this?

While doing some research, I came upon Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. In it, Pinker describes the modern taboo against the belief (even thinking the thought!) that people may have some innate differences based on genetics. His descriptions of the problems that came upon academics who discussed the genetic basis for various things outside of humans got me thinking about why Elliott Jaques’s work is rejected, and even why it is doomed to not be accepted by the Human Resources and Organizational Design folks.

I’m not the only one who has observed this odd phenomena: Jerry Harvey covers it fairly well in his essay “Musing About the Elephant in the Parlor or ‘Who the Hell Is Elliot Jaques?'” (reprinted in the GO Society’s book). People who know that work levels will solve their current problems will not implement them. While I believe that Harvey has made some excellent points, I think that Pinker adds something important.

“Anyone can become anything.”

It’s the philosophy of the Blank Slate, the tabla rosa, that humans are born totally malleable, that the brain is a blank piece of paper on which anything can be written. Given the right inputs, you can make anyone become anything, if you start early enough. Nicely democratic in some ways, of course.

It’s an axiomatic statement, one that is built into so many beliefs. To challenge it in the United States is to side with the Nazi philosophers and other racists who believed that whole people groups were less worthy of life than others. The problem for RO advocates is that they are challenging this core belief, the idea of the blank slate.

Which is why you get called fascists.

It’s not just the progression charts, which one can argue are inherently problematical if you take them too seriously. The entire idea that some people are even currently more fit to be someone else’s boss is an attack on this idea. And the idea is taboo. Merely thinking something differently is anathema.

It’s interesting that the angle that Michael Raynor took on RO in The Strategy Paradox: Why committing to success leads to failure (and what to do about it) was that it was about the size of work. I don’t recall him mentioning that you needed people who could actually do that level of work, just that work needed to be done at the right level, and that it had to do with the level of strategic uncertainty.

Jaques’s statements that the curves actually would free minorities from oppression (by demonstrating individuals’ fitness for particular roles, or capacity if developed) are beside the point. The fact that he had to say that isn’t.

Image credit: caderno em branco. Public domain.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 1

  1. “Anyone can become anything”? Hardly! With a sarcastic undertone, if I wish to become an airplane or a horse can I? The relevant point is anyone can become anything within the confines of their own physical and mental capability.

    What is being called into question here is the validity of the ‘American Dream’. The simple fact of the matter is that individuals inherently understand their own potential. Sure their socialization in the world may have skewed their confidence in believing what they are and are not capable of however for the most part adults learn to appreciate their own capability. Not every American citizen is pining to become the president. If you asked some might even say I’m not smart enough to be the president. Others would respond that they have no interest in politics, they won’t be owned by the establishment, etc.

    Why are some people entirely satisifed executing level 1 work? Perhaps it is because they are working at their full potential capability and they are successfully applying their skills and knowledge to a task they value doing. Jaques’ point was it is entirely condescending to trivialize the value that these indivduals add by calling into question the significance of their contribution, or the breadth of their aspirations.

    The risk with stratified systems theory is that individuals are classified and pidgeon holed. Herein lies the reluctance to broadly accept the theory and employ it within organizations. The fact of the matter is organizations apply that much anyway. In most cases they promote people who are capable (and yes occassionally they misjudge). The fundamental problem is the RO community spends too much time trying to convince organizations that there is the existence of supporting science versus merely advocating the application of requisite managerial practices. The conversation does not need to focus on the significance of work levels, as virtually every author who has written about the subject has concentrated toward, but rather can be one that discusses the practicality of requisite managerial practices. The propensity to present and then defend the validity of stratified systems theory is a serious impediment to tapping the real value associated with Jaques work: the implementation and use of requisite managerial practices.

    I suspect even Jaques would observe that if his disciples could simply get organizations to employ the ten or so requisite managerial practices that business and society would benefit immensely.

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