Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The box-tickers shall inherit the Earth

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Back in the late 1960s, a Welsh surgeon was returning home late, fell asleep at the wheel and fatally crashed into a tree. My aunt, a doctor, remarked that 30 years earlier a surgeon of such eminence would have had his own driver, and the accident would not have happened.

Probably true. And it reminds us of a time when people who did useful things were given people to work for them so they could do useful things more easily. These were drivers, secretaries, assistants and orderlies. They made useful people’s lives easier.

What is the great-grandson of the 1930s chauffeur doing? There is a worryingly high chance that he is working in hospital administration, perhaps in HR or compliance, and is adding to the surgeon’s workload with every click of his mouse.

Genuinely productive people now form a minority in any organisation

In every organisation, whether in the public or private sector, a great inversion has taken place where the people who do actual, useful work (from surgeons to call-centre staff) find themselves working at the behest of a vast army of box-tickers and pen-pushers who demand that they must conform to a host of metrics and proxy targets so their contribution can fit into a cell on a spreadsheet. Although this caste often uses capitalist language, its principal achievement is a kind of Sovietisation of the modern organisation.

As in the Soviet system, the people who report, quantify and measure things end up with all the power and none of the scrutiny. Rather than fostering motivated teams and trusting them to make decisions, every job is reduced to an algorithm, with the participants treated as wholly interchangeable components. Although beadily focused on the output of productive staff, the administrative caste effectively marks its own homework when it comes to its own activities.

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