Skilled incompetence: the Fyra case

How skilled leadership blocks systems thinking

In this post, I explain the concept of ‘skilled incompetence’ (see also an earlier post on Resolving wicked problems: rules of the game) and how it could be applied to a real case, for which I use the Dutch high-speed rail debacle of the Fyra. The parliamentary inquiry into this case has just started (18 May 2015), so I may have to update this post over the next few weeks. We’ll see …   Meanwhile I haven’t come across any mention of ‘skilled incompetence’ (in Dutch: ‘vakkundige onbekwaamheid’) in the media so for, possibly because Dutchmen think it cannot exist in The Netherlands, with their proverbial bluntness and all. I wonder … [See also update below]

Skilled incompetence       … is the term coined by Chris Argyris (1993) to denote the mechanisms by which otherwise intelligent leaders or managers use their highly developed communication skills to – consciously or unconsciously – suppress honest and detailed argumentation about the strategies needed to address the very problems they are facing. Such leaders, politicians or managers seem to get along well with everybody, but can in fact by very destructive to organizations or government programmes. In short, skilled incompetence = wary, circumspect communication behaviour (the ‘skill’ part) that commonly prevents complex, systemic problems from being thoroughly addressed (the ‘incompetence’ part). Even shorter: the “Yes Minister”-syndrome.skilled incompetence

The main mechanisms    … involve the avoidance of interpersonal friction by discreetly maintaining cordiality and circumventing any suggestion of embarrass or threat. E.g. if a vice-president argues strongly in favour of a particular idea or strategy, a manager or departmental head may respond just by mentioning his/her views instead of sharply ventilating his/her deep concerns about the proposed solution. By doing so, he can be seen as not standing up for his ideas (making it easy to ignore them) and may lose the trust and respect of his co-workers and  superior. The result will be a strategy or policy based on ignorance rather than insight. Similar things can happen if lower staff is asked to come up with ideas, especially if higher echelons send ambiguous or mixed messages (e.g. about who is really responsible for strategy development) that diminish effective management.

Unlearning routines     … of skilled incompetence can be quite a challenge. Most people are hardly aware of the defensive routines they are using. The unstated rule in most organizations is that uncomfortable situations shall not be discussed. Argyris suggests a way for raising awareness about these routines and mechanisms by focusing  on those ideas, feelings and assumptions that are normally kept out of the discussion and on the ways in which discussions tend to unfold. I will explain this further down by using the case of high-speed rail in Belgium and The Netherlands, especially the case of Fyra International, an international high speed train service that operated during 2012-2013, but had to be stopped due to serious technical and decision-making problems. A parliamentary inquiry into the debacle of the 11 billion euro plan is currently underway (18 May-12 June 2015). Clearly, the trust issue has now spilled over to parliament.randstad

The need for high-speed rail             … is obvious: there is an extensive network of high-speed rail lines in Europe, especially in the larger countries such as France, Spain, Germany and the UK, with trains happily cruising along at speeds of 250 or 300 km/h, replacing kerosine-guzzling planes. It is clear that the Dutch metropolitan area known as the ‘Randstad’ (or, if you like, HollandMetro, roughly consisting of the four cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague with a total population of 7.1 million inhabitants within a radius of about 40 km) ought to be linked up to Brussels and beyond (London, Paris), as well as to Germany (Ruhrgebiet), see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail_in_Belgium. The Thalys international high-speed train service has been in operation for a number of years now, without major difficulties (Amsterdam-Paris in 3h18, 9-11 trips/day). It is the new, higher-frequency service ‘Fyra’, between Amsterdam and Brussels, which has suffered a major hick-up in 2013 because of serious railway carriage problems.

The main person responsible      …. was Tineke Netelenbos, the Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management from 1998 to 2002. Early 2000, the construction of the high-speed rail line was well underway and time had come to call tenders for the Fyra’s operation (by the Ministry) and for rolling stock (by the ‘unsubsidized’, more or less private Dutch Railways operator, NS). Both tendering operations were in the form of EU-wide, open tenders, which in both cases had disastrous results. The operational licence was obtained at too high a cost (€ 178 million/year) by NS, and the rolling stock purchased by NS was insufficiently reliable and had to be returned to the manufacturer at a direct loss of € 88 million, thus turning a non-starter into a disgraceful debacle.

Open tenders      …. can be seen as the main reason why things went wrong. For a variety of reasons (state revenue, pro-European attitude, deregulation and privatization), then Prime Minister Kok (PvdA), his Minister of Finance Zalm (VVD), and his Minister of Agriculture Brinkhorst (D66) were all in favour of EU-wide open tenders for the Fyra project. In the background there was Mr. Geelhoed, a key advisor of Wim Kok, with a staunchly pro-European and neoliberal worldview and a strong interest in infrastructural development and legal issues. At the time, public tendering was not (yet) required by the EU, so private tendering was common practice in all other EU countries. There was no reason for The Netherlands to stick to public tendering except to impress the EU Commission and to make life difficult for the NS.

What could have been done?      This is a difficult question to answer. In May 2000, Mrs. Netelenboos sent a letter to the Prime-Minister to plea for private tendering. Mr. Kok tore up this letter in June 2000, because Mr. Geelhoed († 2007) considered its contents legally explosive. The tendering process started in July 2000. Was the plea by Mrs. Netelenbos strong enough? What about the concerns of the Belgian railways, NMBS, from 1996 to 2013? For the sake of argument I will assume that the plea by Mrs. Netelenbos was insufficiently strong. Argyris suggests a model for reflecting on the best way to discuss a particular problem (see below). The point in time is May 2000, when Netelenbos intended to make her last stand in favour of private tendering. Of course, it is not sure if a more powerful stand would have saved her day.

Argyris´ exercise   To become aware of skilled incompetence it is good to outline (from the perspective of Tineke Netelenbos, May 2000):

  1. Key organizational problems: How to avoid that public tendering will force NS: (1) to submit an overly competitive bid for fear of a foreign competitor to operate on the extremely costly Dutch high-speed rail line (€ 10 billion); and (2) to accept the bid of a cheap, but less reliable train. (Note: this is but one way of framing the problem. Other ways of framing are equally possible, e.g.: how to deal with risk by NS with regard to the treasury? Or, how to improve communication between civil servants and NS staff? Multiple ways of framing (i.e. definition of the problem – and solution – space) is a key characteristic of complex or ‘wicked’ problems. See Williams & Van ‘t Hof, 2014).
  2. Strategy for discussing the problem: (1) in the case of private tendering the NS will come with a good bid (€ 100 million/year); (2) higher bids are not economically feasible, although it would be the only way for the Dutch government to earn back part of its € 10 billion investment in high-speed rail.
  3. Successive discussion topics, anticipated responses, and reactions: (1) it is absolutely necessary to reason from the business case, anything else will not serve the client (e.g. in terms of reliability, ticket price, number of seats, frequency); (2) the NS is not a bureaucratic organization, but a highly professional and competitive business; (3) if it is in the Dutch interest that the Dutch Railways (NS) will operate Fyra, then French and German bidders must be kept at a distance, even if this is against ideas of other cabinet members about European competition and integration.
  4. Ideas and feelings ‘unfit’ for communication: The advisor of the Prime Minister, Mr. Ad Geelhoed, pays insufficient attention to the practical implementation of the Fyra project. He is very much entrenched in his neoliberal, ‘the market will sort it out’ worldview. In this case, this worldview carries too much weight with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, co-responsible for these investments, should accept ‘his’ loss. The hopes of Finance Minister Zalm to recapture part (25-50%) of the enormous Government investments by open tendering are unrealistic. The pro-European ideas of Minister Brinkhorst are wonderful, but they are totally irrelevant to this case, unless we think it is in the Dutch interest to have French or German operators on the € 10 billion high-speed rail, simply because The Netherlands are too small to be able to pull it off.

Final warning and advice      Good politicians are skilled communicators. A successful politician who is a skilled communicator is usually excellent at concealing problems.  It is extremely important to reveal and overcome these defensive routines; otherwise they will pervade organizations or policies and prevent us from reaching our goals, especially if these goals involve improving complex, wicked situations. A crucial part of overcoming skilled incompetence is recognizing wicked problems for what they are. The next step is to select and apply a suitable systems approach. ‘Wicked solutions’ provides such an approach. But beware, such an approach works best with involvement of key stakeholders.

  • Argyris, Chris. 1993. Beware of skilled incompetence. R & D Innovator, 2(10), 51–100. Retrieved from http://www.webcitation.org/6DSynnVq5.
  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from http://gum.co/wicked.

P.S. The French and German railways (SNCF and DB) never responded to the tender, much to the surprise or regret of many a Dutch politician. Arriva Netherlands (with an offer of 100 million) was in fact British, later German). French interests are currently mostly in the form of Veolia shares. The worry is of course that foreign ownership may one day lead to profit maximization rather than service optimization, especially in a context of possible high-speed, long-distance, low-carbon transport monopolization. How can Zalm and other neoliberals maintain that this is not a problem in the light of what happens between KLM and Air France (not to mention the plunder during the Napoleonic era, the aggressive land grabbing by Louis XIV and the theocratic genocide by Henry II).

P.S. 2: Complex or wicked problems are such that skilled leaders can easily avoid answering the right questions. Members of parliamentary inquiry teams and journalists have no knowledge of the nature of wicked problems and how the systems approach can elucidate them. Are the right questions being asked? E.g. ‘What were the causes of the deep miscommunication between the Ministry and the Dutch railways (NS) and what efforts towards inter-organizational learning have been made to resolve that?’

P.S. 3 [2 October 2015]:  Over the past years there has been a change in the way government deals with the procurement of major items, such as railway stock, rescue helicopters, or fighter aircraft. There used to be a well-established consensus culture (the so-called ‘polder system’), which was quite successful in dealing with all sorts of things. This sensible culture has been thrown overboard in an effort at liberalization and possibly to save some money. Part of the new system is probably still having the old ways in mind, while other parts are not quite used to the new ways. Another problem is that of keeping the right inter-organizational distance from each other, which seems to be impossible, with catastrophic results, especially where foreign actors are involved. Things are much easier to handle for countries endowed with industries that produce such major items. In the Netherlands this has led to the development of distrust and misgiving. The question is whether these problems are transitional or permanent. And if they are transitional, what inter-organizational learning could allow a faster transition.

P.S. 4 [29 October 2015]: The Fyra report by the parliamentary commission has been released, see http://www.tweedekamer.nl/nieuws/kamernieuws/onderzoek-fyra-reiziger-de-kou (in Dutch, no translation available). The main conclusions are: 1. the interest of the traveler was ignored; 2. parliament was not informed properly, but should have insisted on good information anyway; 3. the Dutch state and National Railway company (NS) forced each other into impossible situations; 4. inspections of new railway stock were minimal and insufficient; 5. the tender favoured AnsaldoBreda in a way that was unbusinesslike; 6. a new solution for a railway service to Brussels must be found that is both fast and affordable. In my view the key conclusion is nr. 3. The report fails to point to the underlying factor, which has to do with worldviews of decision-makers (and their advisors, such as Geelhoed), on privatization, tendering and pro-European railway competition. Perhaps a non-high speed solution (of the 200 km/hour variety) will be fast and affordable enough to link Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam to Brussels and the rest of the European high-speed railway network. A systems approach would help to make that a reality in about two or three years time without more disastrous decision-making. I wonder …

P.S. 5 [13 November 2015]: In this morning’s edition of Trouw – a Dutch newspaper – an article by Cees Zweistra, a PhD student at Delft University, on the communication mechanisms in the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment that may have contributed to the Fyra debacle.  The Ministry used to be packed with engineers who knew their stuff, but is now filled with legal specialists whose job it is to place all risks on the shoulders of private sector bidders by putting out iron-clad open tenders. Zweistra argues that the (technically) lay lawyers were not equipped to guarantee the fundamental responsibility of the Ministry that hired them, because the engineers of the Ministry were no longer allowed to deal with engineering matters, but only supervise the engineering process, which has been reduced to legal requirements. This looks to me like a clear case of “skilled incompetence” as I suggested above. The difference with more classical cases is that here the incompetence (which is another word for ‘stupidity’) has been institutionalized. How does it work? The legal approach to engineering: (1) conceals complex, systemic problems and the deep concerns and suspicions that may reveal them; (2) replaces trust and respect to be able to discuss complexities with the distrust of legal clauses; and (3) sends a thoroughly dichotomous message of legal surety and engineering risk to all parties. This works well with run-of-the-mill engineering, but is a recipe for failure when things become complex.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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