(credit: Sarah Slade CC BY)

The wisdom of the process

We are often tempted to act impulsively, even though it is not in our interest. Good processes can help us avoid giving in to short-term temptations

One of my oldest memories is learning how meals worked: if I ate what was on my plate, I could have a dessert (which was often one of my mum’s superb home-made puddings). If I didn’t, then I couldn’t. That was the mealtime process.

And it worked, for me and for my two sisters who came behind me. The process meant there was no pleading or negotiating — it was just the way it was. The same for all of us, at all times. It was only much later that I realized why that process was in place. Leave children to choose whether they’ll eat their beans, carrots or cauliflower first, and dessert afterwards, or whether they’ll start with the pudding or the cake and then — if they’re still hungry — have some vegetables, and we can be pretty sure what they will prefer. It’s not necessarily that kids don’t like vegetables, it’s just that they like sweet stuff more.

Arguably, that same process still guides us as adults. We no longer have to obey our parents, yet despite the attractions of a piece of black forest gateau or banoffee pie, most of us still have them at the end of our meal, rather than at the start. And our daily life is full of such processes we follow without much reasoning — often without any reasoning at all.

In traffic, we stop for red lights and we give way to main roads. At work, we don’t just go and occupy a meeting room without booking it. The prevailing processes make traffic safer, and at work they stop us being an arsehole — even if we are tempted to go through the red because we are in a hurry, or to just grab a meeting room because we forgot to organize one, and we really need one. They also mean that when we are on a main road, we can proceed smoothly, and when we have reserved a meeting room we will not have to contend with squatters.

“Did you guys book this room or what?” (photo: Kazuya Minami CC BY)

Maybe you follow a process for exercising (I do: I go running in the morning on fixed days — no need to ponder, and my gear is ready as I get out of bed), or perhaps you don’t drink coffee after 2pm. The processes that guide our actions can take the shape of habits, of rules, or of fixed procedures, but they’re always a systematic way of doing things, without requiring us to do consciously think about which way to proceed. And often they help us act against our base, short-term, self-interested impulses.

One such process caused a fair amount of commotion in the British House of Commons last Monday. Unless you have just come back from a trip to the outer reaches of the solar system, you will know that the atmosphere in the UK’s parliament is a little febrile. On 18 March, the country was less than two weeks away from exiting the EU. And it was still not clear whether (a) this would actually happen and (b) if so, whether it would be according to the withdrawal agreement that the government and the EU have negotiated, or without a deal at all. The agreement has been put to a so-called meaningful vote twice. On 15 January of this year it was voted down by 432 votes to 202, the worst defeat for a British government in modern history. On 12 March, parliament got a second opportunity to approve a marginally modified version, and again voted it down, this time by 391 votes to 242.

Prime minister Theresa May was intending to put the same deal to a third vote, in a final attempt to get parliament to support it. As I am writing this, the EU is saying it will only grant the extension to the UK’s leaving date Mrs May is asking for, if the deal is approved. (Things have since changed slightly, but approval of the deal is still crucial in the weeks ahead). However, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, threw a spanner in the works.

The Speaker is an important character in the Commons. Elected by the MPs (usually unopposed), he (or she — one woman, Betty Boothroyd, held the post between 1992 and 2000) is the person calling for “Order!” when the debates get too rowdy. But the Speaker also has a final say over how the House conducts its business, and is, in particular, responsible for deciding which tabled motions and amendments are put forward to be voted on. And on Monday 18 March, he announced that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be brought back to the house, unless there were substantial changes compared to the previous two instances.

He was not acting on a whim, but relying on long-standing rulebook of parliamentary practice known as Erskine May, after the clerk who produced the first edition in 1844. It states that a motion or amendment “which is the same, in substance” as something already voted on in a session of parliament should not be brought forward again in the same session.

“Order! Order! I am the defender of Parliamentary Practice!” (image via YouTube)

From a distance it is not so hard to see why this process is in place. Quite apart from the waste of parliamentary resource that repeatedly putting a motion to a vote represents, it is questionable whether legislating through grinding down the resistance of MPs achieves good laws. Many reactions to the Speaker’s announcement were predictably self-serving, and actually illustrate why a process that surpasses the partisan tendencies of MPs is important.

The proponents of the withdrawal agreement were dismayed. The Solicitor General, who advises the government on legal matters, said the country is in “a major constitutional crisis”. Of course, they did not appreciate this process, since it prevented them achieving the outcome they aspired to. In contrast, members of the hard-line European Research Group welcomed the news because they believed it made their preferred result, a no-deal, clean break exit on March 29thmore likely. And pro-EU Remainers were pleased too, because they believed it made a delay (or indeed a revocation) more probable.

Very few people supported the Speaker’s move because it is the prevailing parliamentary practice, and most evaluated it according to the outcome they find most desirable. You may find this disappointing (I certainly do), but it is how we tend to react when things don’t (or indeed do) go our way. Yet, processes are not good or bad because, in hindsight, they delivered a particular desirable or undesirable outcome.

Processes are good when they embody key trade-offs at a time where our short-term wants may lead us to ignore them. They are established when the mood is calm, when there is no pressure, and when it is possible to come to a reasoned conclusion about the trade-offs. A good process ensures that I go running four times a week, even if on a particular morning I don’t quite feel like it; a good process ensures that meeting rooms are available to people who planned for them, and not to people who sneak in and occupy them; and a good process ensures that laws are not made by tiring out the members of the law-making body until they’d vote for anything just to make it stop.

A good process has the wisdom of calm and measured decision-making built in. And it is the best defence against acting according to our impulses.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on March 22, 2019.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius