Illusion of Control

Posted: April 25, 2012 in Ethical decision-making
Tags: , , ,


CCTV camera

CCTV camera (Photo credit: Mike_fleming)

Illusion of Control is a cognitive bias that has two implications in business today.

The first is fairly obvious: Managers often over-estimate the extent of their control over the operations of their companies. I love the story from an old Harvard Business Review about the divisional manager who was troubled by a purchase order for a smoke stack … *just* a smoke stack. It turned out that one of his regional managers had been able to build almost an entire factory without asking for approval; the smokestack was the only component that cost enough to require authorisation from the divisional manager’s office.

Another example I like is the frank admission of former Chevrolet head Pete Estes, quoted in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, that the company

is so gigantic that there isn’t any way to really run it. You just sort of try to keep track of it.

If this sounds shocking (and I’m guessing that, for most readers, it doesn’t), then think of government as an example. Responsible government and the sport of blaming ministers would not be possible if people had realistic notions of how much detail any individual can really oversee.

Activists know this, even if they may not necessarily be familiar with the phrase illusion of control. However there is also a flip side: NGOs and others can also over-estimate their ability to bring about change.

It was last week’s post that started me thinking about this, looking at the hazards faced by the Miskito lobster divers of Nicaragua. Systemic improvements in their conditions seem unlikely in the near future however a concerned person could at least assist individual families through microcredit. This led me reflect that microcredit sounds like a poor man’s alternative, a half-solution. Yet if it’s the only feasible way of assisting, wouldn’t it be better to get some improvement than to throw up your hands and get no improvement?

The point for activists is not to assume that your brilliant solutions will be completely effective once put in place. If you are lobbying for supply chain monitoring, for example, you should presume that any monitoring system is going to be full of loopholes, best intentions notwithstanding.

People have limitations. They build imperfect systems, yes, and proposed solutions are likely to be imperfect also. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

Responsibility is the soft underbelly of fantasies about power

Ivan Illich

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