IMT Syndrome

I describe below an ‘IMT Syndrome’ that has had a powerful negative impact in most walks of life. The practice is the inevitable consequence of mistaken beliefs and understandings about the nature of social, political, and economic phenomena.

In My Time Syndrome: a harmful condition

The concept is simple: at all levels of most societies there exist men and women who are intent on rapidly transforming the fortunes of the particular activity they happen to lead at that time through command-and-control from the top. They implicitly believe that they are uniquely qualified to do so. They see that as their mission in life. Curiously, they see nothing wrong with that delusion.

An integral part of the concept concerns the conviction that the activity in question was in chaos and turmoil before the latest leader took over, that he or she would put everything right, and that after the departure of the ‘leader’ the transformed activity would continue to function smoothly without the need for further change.

Significant impact on society

The fundamental problem with IMT is that the next leader is also an ardent believer in the concept of rapid transformation imposed from the top by a ‘determined, focused, and energetic leader’. He or she would start with the same assumptions: the activity is inefficient, chaotic, or in decline, it requires radical transformation while that person is in charge, but after a brief and necessary upheaval the activity would enjoy a lengthy period of tranquility, order, and improved performance. Then the next leader comes along and the process starts again.

In effect, activities are subjected to continual enforced turmoil geared to the achievement of some idealised state of perfection in a short period of time. The actual picture is not seen, or could be ignored, by those in charge because they come, wreak havoc and then depart to repeat the cycle elsewhere.

People who come under the influence of the leader (a nation, company employees, etc.) pay a heavy price for the IMT Syndrome. They are tossed this way or that in line with changing conditions imposed by the latest leader. They are required to put up with appalling restrictions on their ability to run their life or to exercise a reasonable degree of local autonomy and decision-making on the basis that the turmoil is necessary as a temporary expedient to achieve ‘the plan’. The turmoil of course is continuous. For example, the National Health Service in England has suffered eighteen major reorganisations in the last twenty years. Every upheaval promised an increase in local autonomy and accountability, and each underlined the important role played by staff at all levels. In practice, however, each reorganisation took decision-making further away from the frontline.

This is not an isolated case. In fact as life becomes more complex (and more globalised), and as elites feel they are losing control, steps are taken to exercise more control over events and outcomes. And as these efforts fail more extreme measures are taken to bring more pressure to bear on people and activities. The US government and its apparent drift to what seems like madness illustrate the point to perfection. In fact, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators share this same vision.

To some extent the ‘leaders’ should not shoulder all blame for this lunatic state of affairs. First, the public (the population, shareholders, board directors, team supports, etc.) expect those they appoint or elect to make a substantial impact. If a football team fails to score then the manager is sacked and a new person is appointed (usually at a higher salary and one who had just been sacked by another club because of lack of achievement!). Second, most of us feel we are indispensable and our period of office should be crowned with unrivalled success.

Built on a false premise

However, the most serious aspect of the IMT Syndrome is the false beliefs that lie at the heart of the concept. Social, political, and economic phenomena are implicitly treated as linear, Newtonian, systems. Hence they are seen as predictable mechanistic activities with stable cause and effect relationships. Hence these activities are assumed to obey universal laws, making them amenable to command-and-control methods of management.

The process is, therefore, straightforward. In the beginning there are perceived shortcomings. An ‘expert’ is recruited to deal with this unacceptable situation. He or she is expected to know the universal laws that apply to that particular activity. More importantly, the ‘expert’, it is hoped, would have the necessary ‘leadership qualities’ that would enable him or her to bring about the desired changes. Ruthless focus on targets and results are deemed to be essential.

Are they all stupid?

Not at all: the above beliefs are upheld despite clear evidence that they are questionable because the alternatives are highly unattractive. Most leaders appreciate the weaknesses that litter the whole process from start to finish. Their response is to change jobs often. The alternative is unthinkable. Those selected to occupy a leading role would have to point out right at the start that most social, political, and economic activities do not operate in the mechanistic manner seen on an industrial assembly line. Life evolves in a slow and unpredictable way. The potential leader would have to point out, therefore, that he or she could only exert limited impact on events. The immediate response would be highly predictable: the candidate is not up to the job. A more capable person should be found. The more radical response is equally unattractive to the elite and to the sustainability of the status quo: there are strict limits to what a ‘leader’, any leader, could achieve in a short while. Why should we pay so much for his or her services?

The potential leader, and the elite, would have lost a great deal, but society at large would not be happy with such an outcome either. History suggests that people are more comfortable with an assumption that events are predictable and controllable and that there are men and women (priests, politicians, inspired leaders, experts, etc.) who could take charge and be relied on to prevent mishaps, improve performance, and guarantee outcomes. If one person is unsuccessful, then another is appointed with much fanfare in the hope of restoring normal service. This is easier than revising the basic design principles on which society is founded, with the attendant multitude of adjustments that would have to be made.

In other words, the present viewpoint is based on a collective (but implicit) decision to ignore all evidence to the contrary in favour of concept that promises order and predictability no matter how illusory that promise might be.

Wasteful chaos

The IMT Syndrome is geared to acquisition of control and creation of order. As described above, it produces nothing of the sort. It simply generates the wasteful chaos that is in evidence in the National Healthy Service, in the example given above, at one end of the scale, and the global turmoil seen on the world stage at the other end.

What begins with the wish of the people at large to gain a measure of security and predictability ends up with even more turmoil and lack of personal input and influence over all aspects of life. More often than not observers are astonished at the flow of events and the obvious stupidity of many of the decisions taken when seen in hindsight. The latest war in Iraq is merely a striking example in a long string of decisions that affect most people at all levels of social, political, and economic organisation. The war started with a simple aim (we are told!): to rid Iraq of a sadistic dictatorship and weapons of mass destruction. The declared aim was achieved quickly, but what happened next was enhanced turmoil and uncertainty.

Healthy chaos

Real democracy, autonomy, variety, etc. are criticised because they threaten to generate chaos. As argued above, the current way of doing things is not devoid from chaos. To be specific, most social, political, and economic interactions involve a degree of chaos. To be even more precise, these interactions have a natural tendency to acquire more entropy with the passage of time; an increase in disorganisation.

The important choice is not between chaos and no chaos, but between wasteful and healthy chaos. Social, political, and economic phenomena behave as complex adaptive systems. Numerous chaotic local interactions in these systems combine to produce global (system-wide) self-organisation. This is not a new idea. Adam Smith described it, in the field of economics, as ‘the invisible hand of the market’:

“[Every individual] neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

Classical economists asserted that people, involved in local chaotic buying and selling and guided by nothing more than the invisible hand of a market free from external intervention, could settle the three fundamental economic questions of what goods and services to offer, how to produce them, and for whom. The market self-organises itself with the help of a few simple rules and little interference from above. This remains the view of most liberal economists, and one that is supported by more and more politicians throughout the world.

Oddly, the same view is not extended to other phenomena in the social and political spheres. The implications, it seems, are too uncomfortable to ponder! And yet, without changing attitudes to allow leaders to be more in tune with the real need for participation, autonomy, and personal authority at all levels little will be achieved. Social, political, and economic activities could not proceed in a vacuum; management and direction are necessary. However, there is a huge chasm between oppressive control and management based on consensus and cooperation.

What is the difference? This is a simpler question than might seem on first inspection. Successful management sets out to provide the right conditions for local chaotic interactions to proceed in a way that leads to the emergence of self-organisation at the global level. These conditions have been fully examined in the context of complex adaptive systems. They are now relatively well understood. More to the point, they are reasonably intuitive. At heart, most people if they were allowed to give rein to their opinions would readily enumerate features such as variety, cooperation, local decision-making, and participation as practices that would offer positive results.

Key Points

Before my time there was chaos and inefficacy, in my time there was necessary turmoil to achieve fast results, and after my time there will be little need for change.

The next ‘leader’ follows the same path: continual upheaval imposed from the top.

The syndrome is based on a false premise of linearity leading to wasteful chaos.

Obsession with efficiency leads to loss of variety and ‘redundancy’, which in turn leads to crises (sometimes caused by minor perturbations).

As elites feel they are losing control (increasing complexity), the process becomes even more obsessive. Control freaks come to the fore. Name your candidates!

‘Leaders’ and ‘experts’ understand the pitfalls of this practice, but the alternative is unthinkable (loss of position and rewards on the part of the expert, and society would feel unhappy too).

Complex adaptive systems thrive on variety and the healthy chaos of regulated local interactions. In a slowly evolving system, the role of the all-powerful individual leader is not only unimportant but it could be counterproductive.

This is understood and in fact valued by liberal economists (the invisible hand of the market), but for some reason it is not seen as of relevance to other social and political phenomena. Can you guess why this is the case?

Management (at all levels) would have to change radically; with consequential effects on the way society is structured (elites, hierarchies and rewards).