When I was a teen-ager, a younger and thinner Jack Nicholson starred in a movie called Five Easy Pieces. I remember little about it today except for the famous diner scene. Nicholson tries to order wheat toast but the rigid waitress not only keeps insisting there are no substitutions, but won’t even charge him for a sandwich and just bring him the bread, toasted.
The scene was emblematic of the frustration in that time for people who blindly followed the rules, no matter how nonsensical those rules were. (A tip of the hat to my friend Robin for reminding me of the movie when I was noodling on this topic.) It’s a recurring theme in American society: sixteen years earlier, Jack Finney’s book Body Snatchers, was a riff on the bland leading the blind during the blacklist. And the fact that that story of people turning into automatons has been remade multiple times indicates that the concept still resonates.
In fact, I think it’s getting worse.
People are going overboard. I’m not talking about people who are rude or outrageous, who head out the door every day hellbent on continually shredding of the social contract (although those people aggravate me too). I’m talking about people who feel compelled to follow the rules so strictly that they not only waste their own time, but worse, ours as well. Just last week, I encountered multiple examples of this.
No. 1: Distrust But Verify. A friend of mine, a freelancer like myself, had been asked by an agency to work on a long-term project. There’s always a lot of administrivia involved in new working relationships, but this one had an unexpected twist. The agency wanted my friend to undergo a credit check. Wait a minute. The agency is paying my friend, not the other way around. Shouldn’t the agency undergo a credit check? But no. Somewhere along the way, the agency executives had determined that a credit check contained some sort of vital information about how someone would do their job. “If they don’t pay their bills, they’re not going to meet their other commitments,” I hear them saying. I can only assume that at one point, the agency heard of someone who was delinquent in their debts as well as their deadlines, and decided that they would gauge everyone by that same yardstick.
No. 2: Legal Beagle. Frequently the material I write for corporations has to undergo a legal review to ensure I’m not making any unsubstantiated claims about their technology. Usually I can accommodate any legal review easily after receiving a redlined document with the word can changed to may or some such nonsense. But this week, I was called into an audioconference with one lawyer, two marketing executives, an editor, and a project manager, all to argue about how we were going to attribute every single claim made in the story, even those relating to industry standards and what’s generally referred to as “common knowledge.”
No. 3: More is Always Better. I’m working on a white paper for another client that involves a very enthusiastic marketing executive who loves his work. Normally, I find people who are passionate about what they do much more interesting, but this guy is really beginning to get on my nerves. Every time he reads a draft of my paper, he suggests additional topics to cover and additional people to interview (I’ve already interviewed six, when two is the norm). There’s a process, and it doesn’t allow for constant tinkering. Otherwise, we’d never get done.
No. 4: Worst Practices. All this solidified for me when I was interviewing an IT executive for a story and the topic of best practices came up. “I’m always suspicious of the phrase best practices,” he said, his congenial tone suddenly becoming harder. “Best practices for whom? Somebody decides that because something worked for them at one time and one place that it should be applied everywhere.” The example of changing your computer password every four weeks came up – yeah, it seems like a great idea, until you put in the caveat that no password can be repeated. Eventually, the poor users can’t remember what they’ve used and has to write everything – including the new password – down.
And don’t even get me started on politicians who make laws in response to one person doing something stupid and the rest of us having to follow yet another law.
It all comes down to a cherished concept of mine called critical thinking, something that doesn’t seem to happen very often. It involves people taking the time to ask themselves whether their course of action makes sense in a broader context. Yes, they may have been told to follow instructions and not deviate from the process, but is that logical? Is it still applicable in this particular situation? The world would be a much better place if people would just stop and realize that what they’re doing isn’t an improvement, but rather is just a moronic and annoying waste of time for everyone involved.