Cogito ergo sum

Josef K. was executed one day short of his thirty-first birthday. He never knew why. He was charged (though he knew not with what), tried and convicted, all within the space of one year, then unceremoniously stabbed to death.

Those are the basic facts of Franz Kafka’s novel Der Prozess, first published (posthumously and against the author’s wishes) in 1925. Along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is one of the great dystopian masterpieces of the 20th century. Kafka’s vision of the future is bleak: a world where the individual no longer understands what is going on or why; where the ‘system,’ like Frankenstein’s monster, has taken on a life of its own and no longer answers to its creator.

First edition of Der Prozess with the extraordinarily rare dustjacket.

Lost in translation

Originally written in German (though Kafka was a Czech), Der Prozess was first translated into English by Edwin and Willa Muir in 1937. It is the Muir translation that gives us the well-known English title, The Trial.

At first, this seems perfectly logical—after all, he is on trial. But the so-called ‘trial’ bears little relationship to a modern―or at least Western―legal proceeding. He is not told what crime he is charged with, he is not allowed to call witnesses, there is no courtroom, no judge or jury—in short, there is no trial in the normal sense of the word. Nor does the subtext of an ordeal apply. He does not suffer during his trial. He is not beaten or imprisoned. He loses nothing. Indeed, the only real effect of the trial is that it wears him down. He is frustrated and exhausted by his inability to understand what is going on or control his own destiny.

Lost in translation is Kafka’s real meaning—literally (but perhaps too obviously), The Process. The fact K. is on trial is not the point. The point is how the trial proceeds—incoherently, stupidly, inexorably.

It doesn’t matter what K. does. He cannot prove he is innocent because he has no idea what he has supposedly done. Like a wild animal caught up in the incomprehensibility of a net, he struggles at first, but eventually wears himself out and gives up, overwhelmed by the inevitability of it all.

Prisoners of our own device

Before we laugh at Kafka’s crazy world we should make sure we don’t live in it.

Modern business is enamored with The Process. From the assembly line to reengineering, we are all reductionists, determined to perfect ‘how’ we do it. How can we make this process more efficient? How can we reduce the time it takes to accomplish this task? Smarter people ask, ‘Why are we doing this in the first place?,’ but no one asks, ‘Who could do this better?’ Indeed, the question seems out of place.

The whole point of breaking down a complex operation into discrete steps is to define a process so simple and straightforward virtually anyone could follow it. And therein lies the danger: Because simply ‘following it’ is the worst thing we could possibly do.

Technology changes, competition changes, strategy changes. Even if a process is perfectly in sync with the goals and objectives of an organization when first implemented, it quickly gets out of sync because the world changes. In fact, the more we ‘follow’ a process—the very thing we are supposed to do—the harder it becomes to see the bigger picture. Eventually, it becomes impossible to do anything but follow the ruts we ourselves have worn in the road. As we become more and more disconnected with the world, some steps become pointless, even counter-productive—but we can’t see it, let alone fix it. Ultimately, we find ourselves in a situation where much of what we do no longer makes sense in a larger context.

Drawing by Kafka.

 This is Kafka’s world. Not life and death, but otherwise no different. The process has become the end, not the means; we have lost sight of the Why in the name of the How.

A necessary evil

Of course, we cannot live without processes. They give shape and form to the everyday activities of business. We cannot reinvent the ‘how’ every day we come to work. Processes embody our successes, our failures, our learning. As such, they are important tools, but only that—tools. A fact that is often forgotten.

The challenge? How to get the benefits of process (efficiency, compliance, consistency), without creating an unquestioning, unthinking environment, which, in the long run, dooms any process to irrelevance.

Because processes are the bedrock of large, complex organizations, we must somehow solve this problem. Which brings us back to the Who. ‘Who can do this better?’ The answer: People who know that processes are not carved in stone. People who first ask, What is the right thing to do?, then figure out how to get it done—following a process when it works and abandoning it when it doesn’t. People who think in terms of values, not rules, and who know when to cut the red tape and get the job done. People, in short, who think.

But thinking is hard. How much easier to say, “That’s how we do it,” rather than wrestle through a new or problematic situation. We need to make a new rule: “As of today, you can, in fact, get in trouble for doing exactly what you are told to do.” Because we need people who can think, not just read. It is not possible to create processes or policies that cover every conceivable situation. Life will not fit in a binder, no matter how big. The answer is not to look it up, but to think it through.

And if we don’t think, if our processes do not constantly evolve, what we do will slowly but surely become disconnected from reality. Worse, we ourselves will be nothing more than cogs in the machine and die, as K. puts it— his last words—“Like a dog!”

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