Self-licking ice cream cones

In a comment to yesterday’s post on leadership, Dave Tate introduced me to the phrase “self-licking ice cream cone.” According to Wikipedia,

In political jargon, a self-licking ice cream cone is a self-perpetuating system that has no purpose other than to sustain itself. The phrase appears to have been first used in 1992, in On Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones, a paper by Pete Worden about NASA’s bureaucracy.

I touched on this in Maybe you only need it because you have it. Now that I know a vivid description for such things, I’ll have to use it more often.

Update: Maybe there should be a term for something that isn’t quite a self-licking ice cream cone, a system that serves some purpose other than sustaining itself but is still primarily about self perpetuation. Or maybe there should be a scale, say from 0 to 100, for the extent to which an organization is useless and self-perpetuating.

I’m reminded of the Blue Bell Ice Cream advertising slogan: We eat all we can, and we sell the rest. A self-licking ice cream cone would correspond to the employees eating all the ice cream, a sort of ice cream co-op. An organization that isn’t entirely about self-preservation might be one in which the employees manage to sell 20% of the ice cream.

Related post: Parkinson’s law

15 thoughts on “Self-licking ice cream cones

  1. Alex: I believe life has a higher purpose than itself. I believe God created life for His purposes.

  2. In Russia we have the follwoing joke:

    A little bridge was built.
    To keep it in a clean state a yardman was hired.
    A manager was hired to control the yardman.
    An accountant was hired to give salaries to yardman and manager.
    A director was assigned in order to manage this team.
    Due to shortage of finances they decided to fire the least important worker — the yardman.

  3. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

  4. “A self-licking ice cream cone would correspond to the employees eating all the ice cream, a sort of ice cream co-op.”

    Not quite, I think. A strictly internal co-op would reduce consumption of external resources, a SLICC just generates busy-work. (SLICCs might hinder workers from generating negative productivity and so serve a “productive” purpose in a dysfunctional organization. If a person cannot be removed from an organization or trained to be productive, assigning busy-work may be a less negative option. Human pride might also make busy-work more attractive than begging alms, especially when combined with willing or even willful ignorance–and rebelling against busy-work can require substantial courage.)

  5. Alex,

    It pretty much is. You make up your goal whether that be a creative one (“make make scenes everywhere”), a self one (“get through and love someone”), or a religious (“do what this version of this deity says”), or anything else.

    John, If you do whatever a God says she becomes the SLICC. :)

  6. Indeed, that’s the problem with supernatural hypotheses, they just postpone the SLICC dead-end.

    Anyways, I meant life as a collective, not as individual. The SLICC notion strikes me as a very good metaphor of what the whole life thing is about. After all, any self-perpetuating mechanism with sufficiently large likelihood of spontaneously appearing during the lifetime of the universe, will, by definition, most likely exist in the universe. Perhaps several times over.

    It would be interesting to know whether other SLICCs exist in the universe. Maybe the supernova-planetary system cycle would be one of those, although, these, without an external source of hydrogen eventually run out of gas…

  7. The buck has to stop somewhere. It makes more sense for the buck to stop with a self-existent Creator than with matter. Sorta like Zorn’s lemma.

  8. This is another manifestation of Coase’s Ceiling: the energy that an organization is capable of producing is linear in the size of the organization, but its internal friction is superlinear, so that a size is reached where the total energy output is dedicated to overcoming the friction. For most organizations, this size is somewhere between 35 and 100 people. No organization containing more than 100 people can perform any actual work at all.

  9. @Frank Wilhoit

    That’s why large organisations are partitioned into smaller, quasi-independent organisations which share common goals, infrastructure and some other services.
    It is empirically not true that organisations containing more than 100 people do not perform any work. Take Apple, Google or Goldman Sachs, for example: they’re all large, highly profitable organisations.

  10. Academia comes to mind. By the time you get done with all the work required for your contribution to perpetuating the institution, you might even have a little bit of time left over to do research.

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