Did Gordon Brown’s Problems Start with Europe?

June 25, 2008


The Irish No vote to the proposed European Treaty has thrown the the EEC’s plans into disarray. Ought we to assume that the decision to avoid a referendum in the UK was one of the earliest and most persistent of factors which has damaged Gordon Brown and his Government?

I am wary of arguments that are based on identifying an episode or event which ‘caused’ subsequent changes. ‘For the sake of a nail, the shoe was lost’, runs the nursery rhyme. The implied logic is that of the catastrophe theorist who knows of the mathematical possibility that a flap of a butterfly’s wing can influence the specific path of a Tsunami, half a world away.

That’s why I am cautious in claiming that Gordon Brown’s subsequent misfortunes stemmed from a decision to avoid a referendum on the new Treaty for Europe. Maybe the decision produced a catastrophic change in fortune, ending the honeymoon period, and the so-called Brown Bounce. On the other hand, maybe it didn’t.

The Case for Catastrophe theory

The rise and fall of Gordon Brown’s fortunes seem to follow the pattern of Catastrophe theory. The theory associated with Rene Thom demonstrates how in highly turbulent conditions, unpredictabilities are resolved as a system ‘flips over’ into a more predictable and radically different state. The collapse of a fire-damaged building, the floodwaters that breach a river’s banks, even the apparently calm exterior of a student who wreaks mayhem on an unsuspecting campus are all examples that seem to fit the pattern.

There is much that seems borrowed from catastrophe theory in the newer metaphor of a tipping point.

The basis of both Catastrophe theory and Tipping Point theory is that complex systems may change their conditions in complex and unpredictable ‘non-linear’ ways. Graphs go haywire. As Yates put it ‘The centre cannot hold’.

According to such models, it may be that today’s unpopularity of Gordon Brown reflects a flip-over, after an initial period of pseudo-equilibrium. Subsequent financial and economic woes merely helped demonstrate the new conditions in the system.

The Government will have to find some way to work its way out and upwards in public esteem. This may be through another rare tipping point (Margaret Thatcher may have experienced such a point through the Falklands war, many years ago). Or there may be a gradual readjustment as some of the current anger directed at the Government subsides over the next year or so.

The Case against Catastrophe Theory

The popular understanding of Catastrophe theory is based on one of the more simple versions that has been examined. More complex versions do not easily become represented as having the famous cusp of uncertainty.

There is every likelihood that the political conditions impacting on a Party’s popularity (as an output variable) will require one of the more complex sets of constraints for its modelling.

I hope some more mathematically-skilled colleague will provide a more informed analysis than I am capable of.

My suspicions are more by analogy with the processes of change encountered in processes of change and innovation. The popular theory is that uncertainties (and creativity) occur in a ‘fuzzy front end’ after which the system is plannable and predictable. The chaos subsides into calm. The conventional wisdom of Catastrophe theory is that Systems flip over shift from instability to stability.

Some voices have warned against the dangers of any received wisdom. Systems theorist Ilfryn Price describes this as The Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group (acronym Cowdung).

A second line of thought offers an alternative perspective on change has been attributed to the behavioural theorist Karl Weick. Weick argues that social change is essentially a matter of the meaning attributed to that change.

From this Weickian perspective, Gordon Brown seeks to influence the electorate by offering a coherent ‘vision’ or ‘big idea’. If the leader fails, it is because the electorate makes a different sense of the leader’s vision.

Sense-making theory is not opposed to catastrophe theory. Indeed, Weick has provided striking examples of how sense-making breaks down under conditions of crisis.

The Mann Gulch disaster is one of the best known of his studies.

However, the processes turn out to require a highly improbable combination of triggering circumstances which contribute to a shift or breakdown in sense-making. The space shuttle did not fail only because of a faulty O-ring. And Gordon Brown (on these arguments) is not in trouble as a direct consequence of a bad initial decision over the European Treaty.

What Do You Think?

One of the few undisputed bits of evidence in the tale of Gordon’s rise and fall, is that he scored highly in popular polls when he became Prime Minister, but the popularity seemed to change quickly.

The switch seemed consistent with the mechanism of a tipping point or a catastrophic systems failure. Alternatively, this is the way we make sense of a complex political process, and may not reflect a radical and irreversible disruption in public perceptions.

What was it that Harold Wilson said about a week in politics?


How a press blunder can be career threatening

August 9, 2007

images.jpgA young executive provides a story in good faith to a journalist. Now her career is under threat. It’s a lesson in catastrophe theory. We compare the case with that of a project team whose actions escalated to threaten a corporation’s good name

This week a press item outlined a fascinating human interest story. Journalist Eve Tahmincioglu had developed a story from Kathy [disguised name] who had been given PR responsibilities to publicise her organization. Kathy was very inexperienced, and was highly motivated to supply the story. Then Eve received an email from Kathy suggesting that the story had been a hoax.

“Hello Eve, my name is (Kathy) and I just got into the office after being out of town for 2 weeks; the CEO just informed me about an article, and apparently someone in our office tapped into my e-mail which was left on my desk and made up all those things about our company. This makes our business look really bad. I’m not blaming you at all; we are holding a staff meeting to find out who is responsible for this. If there is any way you can remove the article sooner that would be most appreciated.”
… As a journalist, an e-mail like this is probably one of the worst things you’ll ever receive. There is nothing worse than putting out bogus information …

The story is a good read. Suffice to say, that Kathy had not been working under close supervision. I won’t spoil it any more for you, as I want mostly to consider an angle not covered in the original. My ‘take’ is the way in which dealings with the press can indeed be career threatening. Also, that the danger can spring up very quickly, and become difficult for those involved to prevent something very nasty happening to their company, and (obviously) to their own prospects.

The project team and the press release

Once upon a time (as all good stories start) there was a project team, who like Kathy, has been given an assignment with a PR component. Also like Kathy, the team was motivated, energetic, and (well let’s say) a bit impulsive. Also the episode went close to being career-threatening for the team members.

The team were working to a brief from a project sponsor who had wanted them to develop some good PR for the company. They had shown considerable creativity in beefing up the story until it was really quite newsworthy. So much so, that it attracted TV as well as press attention.

In remarkably rapid time, the media brought its own version of due diligence into play, by checking the authenticity of the claims. The story was largely accurate, but it implied that it was endorsed by a very senior person in the organization involved in the story. The VSP’s office brings the press enquiry to his notice. VSP is very angry, and refuses to have anything to do with the press or with the story. Calls for explanations. Project team and various senior executives have a very tough time dealing with angry VSP who fears for the corporate reputation of the company. Things calm down when press decide there is no story and no point in taking it further.

What’s going on?

As a business case study I would be inclined to leave it at this point. Maybe suggest a few pointers for discussion purposes.

Several possibilities seem to be worth considering. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1 The foolishness model. Kathy was foolish. The project team members were pretty foolish. Couldn’t they see the dangers coming up, particularly considering their relative inexperience. The VSP was foolish for not dealing calmly with the matter, which turned out OK in the end.

2 Weick’s catastrophe models. Karl Weick has deeply examined sources of crisis and catastrophe. In airline and rail disasters it seems that several low-probability events crop up in ways that would be hard to anticipate. Faced with the terrifying and unexpected, many people become fixated on inappropriate explanations of what’s going on.

3 Risk management models. High profile and expensive projects are increasingly subject to risk-management processes. These reduce the dangers associated with the known types of risk.

4 Denial. There are various versions of this in social psychology. Psychodynamic theories suggest that ‘dysfunctional groups’ hold on to inappropriate explanations before and long after a crisis occurs. The consequences include scapegoating, (it’s all his fault) and preoccupations which detract from effective efforts by the group members to deal with the task before them.

5 Social pressures. Versions of undue acceptance of authority, for example of a team leader and their judgements. These were the effects revealed in the famous Stanley Milgram experiments (I was only obeying orders).

Whichever sorts of explanation you might favour, I’m inclined to build a few special contextual factors into the equation. The inexperience of Kathy and of the project team in dealing with the press. The lack of judgment of possible consequences of actions and possibilities of unintended consequences in each case.


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