“So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.” – Benjamin Franklin
I came upon that quote from the preface of the book Obliquity, by John Kay. Kay introduces the Franklin quote by relating that: “For over ten years, I built and ran an economic consultancy business, and much of our revenue was derived from selling models to large corporate clients. One day, I asked myself a question: if these models were helpful, why did we not build similar models for our own decision making? The answer, I realised, was that our customers didn’t really use these models for their decision making either. They used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.”
“I realised that our customers didn’t really use these models for their decision making either. They used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.” – John Kay
Kay refers to this behaviour as Franklin’s Gambit, and I expect that we all have experience with it one way or another. Maybe we find a reason to avoid going to dinner with an annoying acquaintance, or perhaps we create a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures a favoured employee succeeds. Sometimes the stakes are incredibly high: if you want to read about some unsettling examples of Franklin’s Gambit, then check out Confessions of an Economic Hit Man., or consider monetary policies and military incursions that were committed from the start and justified with flimsy, fabricated reasoning.
Sometimes we create our own reasons, and sometimes we get others to do our dirty work – that’s where consultants often come in. When I read that introduction to Obliquity, it reminded me of two examples I’ve heard in which this played out in real life.
A friend once relayed to me that his company had brought in consultants to advise about how to improve efficiency (no, I’m not retelling the plot of Office Space). He explained how, for a mind-boggling fee, the consultants had made a series of recommendations. The company acted upon the first set of recommendations, but not the second. In practice, this meant that they eliminated a number of positions, layers, and departments, but didn’t implement the critical step two of filling in with new hires and specialized teams any of the gaps that had been created. The result? Chaos. In retrospect, it is obvious that the company has played Franklin’s Gambit: they knew that they wanted to eliminate a large amount of the workforce, and they needed a consultant to come in to justify the exercise.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the company has played Franklin’s Gambit: they knew that they wanted to eliminate a large amount of the workforce, and they needed a consultant to come in to justify the exercise.
In this second example, a friend was part of a department that had fallen into dysfunction. The employer worked internally to determine the cause: all signs pointed to one source. The employer dragged their feet – they didn’t want to take action. Despite the situation getting worse and worse, the foot-dragging continued until things reached a crescendo. Finally, a consultant was brought in. The consultant essentially pinpointed the cause as being what was known all along. Still, there was no action. Ultimately, a great deal of damage was done before the situation reached a resolution. This example is a little bit different: in this case, the employer knew what they didn’t want to do and brought in a consultant in the hopes that the consultant would suggest a convenient alternative – ultimately, the employer was still trying to justify the (in)action, in any way that was possible.
The employer knew what they didn’t want to do and was trying to justify the (in)action, in any way possible.
Kay warns us to beware of Franklin’s Gambit, and in Obliquity he makes it very clear how he feels about this insincere approach: “Franklin’s Gambit is perhaps the most common fault in decision making – and particularly in public decision making – today. There is an appearance of describing objectives, evaluating options, reviewing evidence. But it is a sham. The objectives are dictated by the conclusions, the options presented so as to make the favoured course look attractive, the data selected to favour the required result. Real alternatives are not assessed rigourously: policy-based evidence supplants evidence-based policy.” (p165)
And I must say, I agree with Kay 100%. I can’t stand duplicity or inefficiency, and this behaviour is both.