Rowan Spazzoli

Strategist. Lecturer. Consultant

Stifling Bureaucracy

I hate bureaucracy.

And many other people do too.

It results in situations like the one I experienced today.

But where did it come from? And why do we just accept it?

The Rise of Scientific Management

During the industrial revolution, the world witnessed machines take the place of manual work. Where there once once a horse drawn cart, there was the steam train. Where there had been hand weaving, the spinning jenny took its place.

People began applying scientific process to improve almost any set of processes. And this permeated into the processes of organisations. Hierarchical and scientific management was born.

This type of management was often called Taylorism, named after one of the early writers on management, Fredrick Taylor. The basic principle was to run organisations like machines. Design them with structure , make the parts (i.e. people) work to their maximum, give them as little inputs as possible and replace parts when they get worn out.

This worked…. depending on who you ask.

Henry Ford adopted this technique. Every person on his assembly line had one job that would take between 30 and 60 seconds. They could be trained on the same day they were hired. And they were only tasked with doing that single job.

And Ford was lauded for their productivity. BUT… they also had a staff turnover rate of between 3 and 5. That meant that, effectively, the entire production plant was replaced every 2-4 months.

People saw that Taylorism worked to increase productivity. And so it spread like wildfire

Same tool, different challenges

The problem is that Taylorism works in a very specific setting. It requires a fairly routine set of tasks, with consistent inputs and outputs as well as an ability to replace the components when needed.

So this hierarchical approach might work for some things nowadays. Maybe some factories have high labour input. Accounting and law firms use a similar process with their interns.

But the reality is that even in places where this system currently applies, it is rapidly fading. Manufacturing jobs are falling away to machines, accounting and law are both becoming more automated, meaning that people themselves need to be more differentiated.

So basically,  this method doesn’t work in any role that values creativity, individualism, self-motivation, autonomy, strategic thinking, critical analysis etc. The parts are no longer as interchangeable. You can’t be innovative on a production line when you only do one tiny task.

Yet, the same Taylorist approach to managing organisations is applied from top to bottom.


No room to move

(NB: this is a bit of a rant, so brace yourself)


Planning with the monkey

One of my favourite blog posts of all time is Why Procrastinators Procrastinate by Tim Urban. In it, he describes two different “brains”, one of the procrastinator, which looks like this:

NP brain

And the brain of the non-procrastinator, which looks like this:

P brain

As you can see, the main difference between the two is the instant gratification monkey. This monkey derails the rational decision maker constantly. He directs the procrastinator to seek food (even if he’s not hungry), meander through the internet, take naps and clean the house. All of this instead of working.

My brain looks like the procrastinators brain. Except the monkey is not a cute, innocent looking creature. I have an instant gratification gorilla called Dave and he is very prepared to beat the daylights out of my rational decision making side as often as possible.

black gorilla closed up photography

Actual picture of Dave, ready to ruin my day (Photo by Pixabay) 

So Dave is regularly able to derail my day. But it’s okay, I’m usually able to recover some productivity. And on deadline days, Dave lets me have an extra bit of time as long as I feed him properly.

A week with no Dave

Dave and I have gotten quite good at living together. However, I have a major problem:

I never take into account that Dave will still be around tomorrow, next week or next month

For example, I’ve said to myself that next week I have no appointments for anything. So I’ll be able to put in at least 50 hours of work. Which would be fine, if Dave didn’t exist.

But he does.

And so I will get some work done.

And Dave will take his share of time too.

I did the same thing with this week. I estimated the amount of time I would have to work based on the idea that I would be completely rational and able to stay focused for an outrageous amount of time.  And I do the same with most of my work.

When I then get to the time that has been planned, I realise that Dave is still around. And I’m sent into a panic when I try and achieve maximum output when, in fact, I have a giant gorilla distracting me.

What are you on about Rowan?

Hold your horses (and monkeys), there’s a point to this.

When I plan my life and time, I do so with the maximum objectives in mind. As if all my time is spent optimally and there are no hiccups along the way. And 99 times out of 100, there will be something that sets me off course. Whether it’s internal, with my instant gratification gorilla distracting me, or external, with my stuff being stolen

This makes me feel like I’m consistently not living up to my expectations. As if I’m failing, again and again.

But I’m not.

I’m actually just plodding along at normal Rowan pace. Though my expectations are set way above that. So I feel as if they are constantly being missed.

I try to plan my life as if there is no Dave. But I should plan it with the active recognition that he is around. That he will be here tomorrow, next week and next month. Therefore I can continue to fight him (and lose) or I can accept that he is going to be here and make room for him.

I should plan for a distraction. For tiredness. For unexpected events.

I need to plan with Dave. Set up time to drift off, allow for naps and the odd derailment.

And in doing this, I’ll set more reasonable and achievable expectations for myself. Allowing me to be less on edge and allowing Dave the play time he needs.

Image was taken at Cape Point a few weeks ago. I’ve uploaded a different picture of this guy before, but I’m still upset he stole our Doritos

Blog: 204/365

Song of the day:  Fin Evans – Never Forget You (Feat. Alex Foster)

New ideas, everyday

A few weeks ago I read a blog by Seth Godin where he said he was completely out of ideas. After 16 years of blogging and over 8000 original posts, he had finally gone dry. The barrel was empty.

This struck a cord with me. I was only 170 posts in and I was starting to feel like I was running low on ideas. All the deep insights I had seemed to been used. Sometimes it felt like I was just rewording old ideas.

Maybe I only had around 150 ideas and they had been spent?

It was only  later, in a follow up blog, that Seth revealed it had been an April fools joke:

And today, give or take, is the sixteenth anniversary of this blog. Not quite on April Fool’s Day a bunch of years ago, but close enough. I feel badly that so many people were fooled by this morning’s post, and I’m grateful to those that wrote in with concern. But no, I was making a point, not telling the truth. It turns out that showing up is a great way to find new ideas, and I have no plans on stopping.

Despite knowing that it was light prank, it has played on my mind quite often. There are some nights that I just sit at the computer screen, not knowing where to start. And others where I’ll write a post, only to realize I wrote a similar one a few months before.

This was again brought to my attention today when a comment on my blog today said that it appeared I may be getting bored.

I thought about this and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t bored. I’ve been really enjoying my blogs over the past while.

Instead, I have run out of ideas. I’ve run out of my well formed ideas.

  • The ideas you spend years thinking of.
  • The ideas that you carry with you through different stages of your life.
  • The ideas that you have convinced yourself are absolutely true.

And now, I’ve started entering unfamiliar territory. A place where I have to conceive new ideas, challenge them and leave them open to scrutiny.

Where they haven’t had years to form. Where they might have gaps. And where I might not fully understand them.

It’s the next phase of my blogging and development. More rapid idea formation and more letting myself go.

I’m not out of ideas.

I’m just learning how to come up with them more quickly.



Image was taken in 2006, and this is a picture of that picture (I can’t find the original). The three brothers are in the picture, with Fabio looking how I feel at the end of the day

Blog: 202/365

Song of the day: Don’t stop me now – Queen

I’ll sell that to you

I’ve been helping my mom move in to her new house over the past week or so. And it’s been a tiring but surprisingly enjoyable activity. We’ve managed to get rid of a lot of junk and reminisce through old photos and other memories.

One thing that I have noticed repeatedly is a strong endowment effect whenever we’re deciding whether to keep something or donate/throw it away. The endowment effect is a theory from behavioural economics that says that people value things much more highly when they own them.

The term was developed by nobel prize winning behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. As per the wikipedia page:

[In the study] participants were given a mug and then offered the chance to sell it or trade it for an equally valued alternative (pens). They found that the amount participants required as compensation for the mug once their ownership of the mug had been established (“willingness to accept”) was approximately twice as high as the amount they were willing to pay to acquire the mug (“willingness to pay”).

And so, there is a lot of stuff we have come across while moving house that we way over value. These are mostly things that have either:

  1. Have a low replacement value
  2. Will never be used again
  3. Would not be purchased again.

The Endowment Salesman

To get around this bias, I’ve come up with a fairly simple system. And I use it when I find that we’re trying to keep something that fits into one of the three points above.

All I do is tell my mom that if she wants to keep it she has to buy it off me. And any money that is made will be donated. Additionally, I set the price slightly higher than it would be at the shops.

So for example, my mom was trying to decide whether to keep a branded set of glasses she was given at an event. She was very ready to put them back in the cupboard. So I grabbed them from her and said that I’d sell it to her for R80. Otherwise we must get rid of them.

And she said that it wasn’t worth it to buy them.

So we donated them and now have less clutter.

By doing this, I take away the ownership aspect which causes the endowment effect. It is no longer your item. It has been donated by default and you need to buy it back. Additionally, by setting a high replacement cost, it means that the item must be worth more than just it’s replacement value (e.g. if it has some unbelievably special memories attached to it).

And hence, we’re able to get around our biases and achieve a much more streamlined life.

Image is of the boxes we unpacked today. We managed to get the contents of the three boxes on the left there down to just one of the small boxes on the right

Blog: 180/365

Song of the day: Black Betty – Ram Jam

Study snacks

Stuhddddy sneeeeeeks!!!

When I lived in res, there was a magical thing called “study snacks”. Every night during exams, at 9pm, bags of snacks would be distributed throughout the res. It was awesome.

Tonight, at around 9pm, I got two different study snack drop offs. It reminded me of res so much, and massively improved my spirits after a frustrating day. It also reminded me of the incredible support structure I have around me.

Thank you to Mike and Kay for being so great, and to everyone else who has been supporting me over the last few weeks ❤️

Image is of my study sneeeeks

Song of the day: Hello Good Morning- Diddy Dirty Money ft TI

Thesis update: not as productive as I would have liked

Blog 98/365.

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The Pomodoro Technique

Today I brought back one of my old study tools: The Pomodoro Technique. The concept is based on an old tomato shaped kitchen timer that is used to break work into intervals into 25min, called “pomodoros”, with a 5min break in betweeen. After 4 pomodoros you take a longer break of about 15-30min

I have an app I use on my laptop that acts as my pomodoro timer and I set the intervals to 40min with 10min breaks. After 4 pomodoros, I take a break of around 30min.

I used to use it while studying for accounting exams, to keep me working for longer periods of time. But the reason I brought it back was just the opposite. I’ve been finding myself getting too deep into my work and not taking proper breaks. And then I lose sight of the bigger picture.

It worked really well today, and helped me gain momentum. I was able to go for longer because of the mandated breaks and I felt less exhausted at the end of the day.

The most exciting thing about this is that I used to need it to get me to start working. Now I need it to make me stop 🙂

Image is of my work setup at the GSB. The screens are intentionally blank because some of the consulting work has sensitive information. Also because I’d only just arrived 🙂

Song of the day: Distruction Boyz- Omunye 
Thesis update: had a fantastically productive day. 8 pomodoros :)
Blog 82/365. Read more about my #365of25 journey here


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