Corruption or incompetence?

American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote a novella in 1941 titled Logic of Empire. One character, “Doc,” described the “devil theory” fallacy, explaining: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

By 1990, this idea was formalized in a book of slang terms used by computer programmers called the Jargon File as “Hanlon’s Razor.” Never attribut e to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. It is a take on the idea of the 14th century Franciscan Friar William of Ockham who—in justifying the concept of Divine intervention—said that the simplest or easiest explanation was probably the correct one.

“The ISO 9000 quality management systems are a set of standards that helps organizations ensure they meet their needs within regulatory requirements related to a product or service.” These standards were designed to provide tailored procedures for a specific company that did not depend on special skills of individual employees. A new employee could take over a particular job more competently by just following the manual.

The simple idea was that an organization could either rely on The People or rely on The System. In practical application though, any “System” requires people to operate it, just like a piece of machinery, and people fail. That brings us back to addressing the cause of many problems: malice—the intention to do evil—or stupidity and incompetence. They obviously figure into the equation.

We try to limit the “work of the devils” through procedures that attempt to find these people and punish them if they get caught. Quantifying success is difficult. It is like law enforcement knows that they seize only a small portion of the total drugs smuggled into a country.

A comprehensive 2002 study found that 90 percent of all major public works projects globally suffered from significant cost over-runs. While most severe in developing countries, studies identified some 40 different reasons for over-runs in the United Kingdom, including incorrect planning, poor financial control on site, inexperience in managing contracts, bad materials cost estimates, and conflict between project parties. Corruption or incompetence?

Conventional wisdom says that the simplest answer is corruption. It is easy to say the system is great but there is nothing we can do about corrupt people. Not our fault.

But being incompetent has its own rewards to the extent we have institutionalized it. When an employee is fired for being crooked, it is the fault of that individual. But who gets fired for hiring an incompetent employee?

Broadly speaking, self-interest is all that matters, and that requires that the institution/organization protect itself from incompetence. Institutions protect their insiders because every insider must hide the self-interest and the general failure of the institution.

Incompetent people and institutions run on the CYA principle—Cover Your “Appearances.” Success has many parents, failure is an orphan. Except, failure from incompetence has many Titas and Titos. We call them excuses.

Failure brought about by corruption is attributed to “human frailties.” Failure brought about by incompetence is covered by “reasons.”

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