HAL, Parliament and Business

“Open the pod bay doors HAL”

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So goes the chilling line in the classic Clarke/Kubrick SciFi “2001 A Space Odyssey”. HAL, the super-clever, artificially intelligent computer has just killed all but one of the crew on a mission to Jupiter. The sole survivor, Dave Bowman, is outside the mothership in a pod vehicle, trying to get back in. HAL refuses. Despite having no background music (or perhaps because of this), it’s an incredibly tense moment, superbly created in this 1968 (yes really!) movie.

H. Moebius Loop

It’s not until the sequel, “2010 Odyssey Two”, that we learn what the problem is. HAL did not become some self-aware monster a-la the Terminator series. His creator, Dr Chandra explains “He was instructed to lie……The situation was in conflict with the basic purpose of HAL’s design: The accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment. He became trapped. The technical term is an H. Moebius loop, which can happen in advanced computers with autonomous goal-seeking programs……HAL was told to lie by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn’t know how”

Parliament

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If you live on planet earth, you’ll be aware of the current series of “crises” facing our political establishment.

Now, unlike many people, I actually think that on balance, our politicians do a pretty good job. Most of them fought long and hard to get a job which is in no way guaranteed. They work very long hours for surprisingly little money (barring outside interests), and so in general, and with caveats, I am prepared to suggest they are a force for good.

But I think our current predicament is very similar to HAL’s. 52% of the country instructed Parliament to take us out of the EU based on a binary-choice referendum. The problem is that our relationships with the EU are far from binary or simplistic. Indeed it is the most complex socio-economic mechanism on earth. The referendum result offered no solution on how the extraction was to happen, or indeed what the end-state should be. As a result, the various processing units (MPs_) within are own decision making computer (Parliament) are locked in conflict with each other, unable to reach consensus.

Business

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So what can business learn from this?

  1. Probably the easiest lesson is that before anything is agreed (and remember “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed“) , the advocates of that course of action need to have a plan. Not necessarily massively detailed, but something that will credibly stand up as a business case and allow a decision to be made within the responsibilities inherent in being a director.
  2. The second lesson is that if your team, or at least the majority of them, are not on board, the wheels will come off the wagon some way down the track, regardless how much cajoling, encouragement and pressure you apply.
  3. The third lesson is that you leadership team need to be equipped with all the facts. They need to be able to have an open conversation in the board room without fear of reprisal. If you have an issue with certain members of your board, those relationships need addressing, nurturing, or in extremis, someone may need to go. That pain is far more preferable than being unable to decide anything at all.
  4. Finally, whilst hope and vision are a good things, they need substance. “Spin” can rapidly lead to lies, and as HAL so presciently showed us over 50 years ago, even the simplest lie can spiral out of control to have devastating consequences.