Yang: (Sometimes) Ignorance Is Bliss … Unless It’s By Design

(Sometimes) Ignorance Is Bliss … Unless It’s By Design

First, an update on the previous column, a fantasy regarding goats and bureaucracy. It could be real!

Washington Post had a story about a magician, his rabbit and bureaucracy (link listed below.) The magician had to file a “Rabbit Disaster” plan to satisfy an antiquated rule of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Evidently, the magician’s license was contingent on his rabbit rather than on his skills. My column was a pure fantasy, but maybe it was not so far-fetched?! 

Today, I want to tie “compartmentalization” and “ignorance.”

“It is a common sentence that knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of Ignorance? Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down. Knowledge, through frugal and patient centuries, enlarges discovery and makes a record of it; Ignorance, wanting its day’s dinner, lights a fire with the record, and gives flavor to its one roast with the burnt souls of many generations.  Knowledge, instructing the sense, refining and multiplying needs, transforms itself into skills and makes life various with a new six days’ work; comes Ignorance drunk on the seventh, with a firkin of oil and a match and an easy ‘Let there not be’ – and the many-colored creation is shriveled up in blackness. Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all the places of joy dark as a buried Babylon.” from “Daniel Deronda,” by George Elliot

Elliot’s beautiful prose – I can’t possibly shorten it makes anything I want to say about ignorance superfluous. However, I may be able to make a case for how compartmentalization begins the slippery slope into the abyss of ignorance. 

Compartmentalization certainly has given rise to the utterance, “this is not my job.” (This expression is only funny on NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”) The opposite is the advocacy of system perspective in which elements in a system are all interconnected. My favorite example is building the best car. Someone had the brilliant idea of assembling a group of engineers and asking each to pick the best part of the best car (everyone had a different choice of “the best car”… interesting) in the world and put these parts together. And the car didn’t even run. 

While there are certain values to compartmentalization, such as dividing a task for efficiency sake, we seem to have escalated this practice to absurdity in many cases.  For instance, a regulation or code for one area may impede effective work in other areas. GOCO, the “government owned contractor operated” model, is another perfect example.

Allowing a contractor to do the government agencies’ work, the agencies essentially shirk their responsibilities to actually accomplish work and in exchange resort to exercising oversight, a.k.a. back seat driving. Each contractor in turn has only one area of concern, and is not contractually required to understand or care about – in other words, is incentivized to ignore the work in other branches of the same agency. Each contractor carves out its special niche and rakes in fees.

The same niche-enhancing mentality also applies to individual professionals. As we attempt to make ourselves into the “experts” in our little holes, I mean our professional arenas, we neglect areas immediately abutting our professional territory. We develop tunnel vision. We become ignorant of competing aspects.

Some may argue that we are all stressed out at work and suffer information overload already. I say, that’s exactly when we need, ever more urgently, to stop doing the same thing on the same track, stop using the same approach, and begin exploring alternatives. 

Ignore other dimensions of our work, wholly or somewhat related, and we will contribute to the “power of ignorance” that George Elliot so eloquently portrays. How about we start a movement to bring back generalists? Invite a colleague with whom you rarely work for lunch. Sit beside someone you don’t know very well at the next meeting and create a conversation.

Start a meeting by inviting everyone to share a short story that no one knows, and open up our worldview. For introverts, read up on subjects in your peripheral area, or write on a topic not usually of interest to you. Expanding our horizon doesn’t have to be a grandiose program; just a little bit every day can be very refreshing. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Link to WaPo article here.

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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