This is the third of three posts on David Graeber’s notion of the ‘bullshit job’: pointless work that becomes psychologically destructive in cultures that associate work with self-worth. Bullshit jobs can introduce wasteful work on a massive scale, thereby allocating scarce resources and manpower to work that delivers little or even negative impact. In the first post, I explored the kinds of bullshit jobs Graeber identifies and to what extent consultants have such jobs. In the second post, I explained a consultant doesn’t necessarily have a bullshit job herself, since she can apply bullshit filtering. In this third and final post I explore why I think bullshit filtering is of vital importance. Will bullshit filtering also save the day for consultancy?
Building the right thing by democratizing technological development
Many organizations prioritize their ‘interior’ over their ‘exterior’. In such cases, organizations are focused on internal processes, following procedures, and dealing with internal power struggles. Their ability to make an impact in their exterior, the outside world a.k.a. the place where customers live, is compromised and the organization’s ability to deliver value suffers accordingly. This situation can seemingly be countered by busywork, e.g. delivering as many features as possible, trying to speed up delivery, hiring more people to do more work, etc. Such efforts are often backed up by the best intentions, but ultimately foster the poisonous cycle of more bullshit, resulting in more bullshit jobs, resulting in more bullshit, and so on.
Melissa Perri identifies organizations focused on ‘output’ as being stuck in the ‘build trap’. The problem is not the ability of the organization to build things, but rather to build the right things. A relentless focus on value is the only suitable response to the build trap, requiring a mix of strategy, process, and culture bespoke to individual organizations. There’s no silver bullet or magical recipe that gets the job done for everyone. A crucial ingredient in this process of waste reduction is user involvement, which opens the development of technologies to their target audience. Such a ‘democratization’ of technological development has the potential to intertwine product development with the interests of end users and can empower the end user.
Building the thing right by fostering ownership
Our societies are increasingly reliant on technology, which is used in areas ranging from the production and distribution of goods, services, and cultural products to the creation and maintenance of systems crucial for human survival. It’s hard to think of our world and even ourselves without reference to the technological means of their functioning. This also means technological malfunctioning can have profound effects.
Technological innovation isn’t necessarily a recipe for progress or risk mitigation either, since its disruptive effects can be both positive and negative at the same time, depending on who’s at the receiving end of the effects. Think of the disruptive effects of on-line housing platforms like Airbnb for cities like Amsterdam, which to this very day struggles with the impact of successful and pervasive digital platforms on the housing market and tourist industry. In short, technological reliance fosters vulnerability.
Building the thing right can foster more ownership of technological innovations and can lead to more robust technologies. However, the day-to-day challenges of product development tend to obscure the importance of building things right. Not only are organizations often stuck in the build trap that was mentioned above, but the work itself is bogged down by extensive bureaucratization and procedures. This results in a lack of ownership and complacent employees mumbling “I just work here” upon being confronted with a work-related challenge that stretches their professional comfort zone. Even though their jobs aren’t necessarily bullshit, these employees are dragged down into a cesspit of bullshit. As a result, these people either cave in and stop resisting, or leave the company premises altogether.
Bullshit filters reduce noise, bureaucracy, and waste. Combined with ways of working that foster ownership and decision-making power as low in the organizational hierarchy as possible (e.g. the Scrum framework), a sense of ownership can be restored.
This aggression will not stand, man
Why do people continue to suffer through bullshit? This can be explained by looking at how our relationship towards work has evolved historically. In classical times, the aristocracy would disdain work. During the Enlightenment, the toil of working classes was seen as something noble and virtuous by philosophers like John Locke. Present-day objections to the dull and purposelessness of work are seen as being suitably compensated by the ability to fulfill consumer desires. All those hours slaving away behind the screen are supposedly compensated by the ability to purchase objects and experiences. Prosperity extracted from all this hard work wasn’t invested back into the workforce, potentially making the 15-hour work week John Keynes predicted in 1930 a possibility (see the first post in this series), but instead served the interests of those owning the means of production.
Yet the fulfillment of consumer desires isn’t enough, Graeber argues. Our choice seems two-fold: either you choose a bullshit job that pays the bills but wrecks you emotionally and spiritually, or you choose a job that rewards you personally but not financially, leaving you emotionally fulfilled but unable to have some semblance of financial security. Graeber argues, there’s an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work is of benefit to society and remuneration. Graeber rails against this toxic situation that breeds resentment, since people want to feel they are transforming the world around them in a way that makes some kind a positive difference.
“My own conclusion was that psychologically, it’s not exactly that people want to work, it’s more that people want to feel they are transforming the world around them in a way that makes some kind a positive difference to other people. In a way, that’s what being human is all about. Take it away from them, they start to fall apart.” (Bullshit Jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism, Economist.com)
I suggest taking up arms against bullshit. To quote famous rug collector and philosopher The Dude: this aggression will not stand, man.
By introducing an elaborate landscape of waste and noise, bullshit jobs limit the ability of organizations to build the right thing and to build things right. Bullshit jobs establish a focus on an organization’s interior rather its exterior – the outside world where the user and their worries live. What is more, bullshit jobs breed complacency and damage ownership by removing causality from the employee’s professional efforts.
The application of bullshit filters to combat waste and make our highly technological societies more robust features a distinct role for ways of working that embrace empiricism as a key value. Particularly inspirational in this context are the Scrum values of Openness, Courage, Focus, Respect, and Commitment. Together, these values drive empirical decision-making in Scrum (for the non-initiated: the de facto standard when it comes to Agile ways of working), which is founded on the three pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation. It’s an explicit goal of Agile ways of working to obtain and analyze feedback in order to validate assumptions, understand customer demands, and define improvements.
Inspection and adaptation based on transparency has tremendous bullshit filtering potential, provided organizations embrace the Scrum value mentioned above. On this basis, organization honestly assess their process, product, and strategy. However, bullshit sticks and empirical ways of working are neither guaranteed nor easy to put into practice. One important step forward is to keep asking yourself: do I have a bullshit job?
Thank you, David Graeber
As a closing remark, I would like to dedicate this series of posts to David Graeber, who sadly passed away in September of 2020, a few months after I wrote the second post of this triptych. I’m very grateful for having read his books on debt, bureaucracy, and work. ‘Bullshit Jobs’ mentions the joys of creating cat pictures in the boss’ time as a form of quiet resistance, which I think only testifies to Graeber’s character and wisdom. He will be missed. May his thoughts continue to reverberate throughout our current predicament and futures in the making.