On the work environment at Stafford Beer's consulting firm, Sigma, in the late 1960s and the scope of projects undertaken.
Mike Kent, a former colleague of Stafford Beer at SIGMA and a career professional in the same industry, shares his memories and experiences from his time at SIGMA. Our discussion on July 30, 2021, offers a glimpse into the work culture at Sigma and the nature of projects undertaken by SIGMA under Beer's leadership. The conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Mike: I worked in Sigma from 1963 to 1969. I joined the company after responding to an advert posted by Stafford. My background is varied. I started my career as a mechanical engineer, then I worked as a civil engineer in East Africa while in the merchant navy. After that, I worked for a nuclear power company, and then I joined up with a single consultant and we did some production control for a man named Sparks who owned large greenhouses on the South Coast of England, and I believe this is what caught Stafford's attention. I worked on about three or four other projects before my time with Sigma. One of them was the berth utilization study for the Port of London Authority.
Evgeny: What was your impression of Stafford Beer, the man who hired you?
Mike: Stafford was a good salesman, and I think he was good at marketing. He and other top people like Lance Perrone tapped into various sectors. As far as I remember, Stafford always had a cigar in his mouth. I do not recall him drinking, but I heard rumors that he carried a flask. His cigar was the most distinctive thing about him. He would wave it like a baton, and sometimes it would hit the desk and jump up in the air, turning cartwheels.
Evgeny: What was Sigma like as a company? Was there something particularly “cybernetic” about it?
Mike: Sigma felt like Stafford's shop, and I would even say it felt like Stafford's empire after he left. There was nothing cybernetic about the company. In fact, I found a report that said we had not done any cybernetic studies because no basic research had been sponsored.
Evgeny: Were politics involved at any point during your work there?
Mike: I did not get any political impression from Stafford or the people around him. He was more religious towards the end, quoting strange people from India. I thought this was just a flavor, but he may have been religious all along.
Evgeny: Who were some other people that impressed you at Sigma?
Mike: I enjoyed being around bright people like John Culhane and Jonathan Rosenhead. We often met for coffee, talking about jobs and picking up tips. It was more technical than social, but still enjoyable.
Evgeny: Can you tell me about your experience working with Spencer-Brown?
Mike: I did not know Spencer-Brown well, but he was always walking around the corridors. He seemed to be a waste of time. I would not put him in touch with clients, but I would use him for specific tasks.
Evgeny: What was it like working with Beer?
Mike: Working with Stafford was fun, interesting, and exciting. He kept me on my toes because he was slightly random. He would start doing one thing and then suddenly switch to another. Stafford was a bit complicated to work with. When it comes to his abilities, I'm torn between seeing him as a genius or a charlatan. However, I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he was a genius. In my chats with Stafford about various projects, he used to say certain things that I thought were charlatan-like. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed talking to him, and he would never fail to entertain me. I don't believe that being entertaining necessarily makes someone a charlatan. Stafford was an excellent salesperson, and he managed to win us many projects.
Evgeny: How did you feel when Beer left?
Mike: When Stafford left, I was surprised. I thought that things were going well, and I was confident that our partnership would continue to flourish. Overall, despite his flaws, I would still be willing to work with Stafford again.
Evgeny: Some people told me that Stafford’s reputation at Sigma vacillated between being called a genius or a charlatan. What did you make of him?
Mike: I would say he was a bit of both but I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was a genius. He had a number of things he used to say I think were charlatan-like. That's why I say that most of my chats with Stafford in terms of projects and things like that, I was looking to be entertained and he entertained me, but I mean that doesn't necessarily make him a charlatan. I mean he was very good. At selling, I mean we got projects because of him, and I know that for certain anyway. I was slightly surprised that he left I must admit, because I thought things were going well, I knew things were going well
Science in General Management (Sigma): an Operational Research consulting firm ran by Stafford Beer in the early 1960s after he left the steel industry.