International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Original
upon a time, in a land not so far from ours in space and time,
there lived the Paperclip Counters. As their name suggests, the
Paperclip Counters spent most of their time counting paperclips.
They sat at tables of eight in a big room of twenty tables and
counted paperclips. One by one and two by two, they counted them
into little boxes: large paperclips, standard paperclips, small
paperclips. As well as the traditional silver paperclips, there
was a range of coloured paperclips: green, blue, yellow, red,
gold, and black. Some boxes were for only one colour; others were
for a mixture.
On one side of a
paperclip counter as they sat down for work would be a mountain of paperclips;
on the other, a pile of small, empty boxes. When the mountain became
a molehill, someone poured on more paperclips; and when a substantial
amount of boxes had been filled, someone came and took them away and
replaced them with empty ones.
All the paperclip counters did the same job and were paid the same salary.
The only person who was different was Mr Clipper, who ran the enterprise.
Some people whispered that Mr Clipper was greedy and exploitative, but
these were seen as envious and mean-spirited. Most paperclip counters
were glad of their jobs, and respected Mr Clipper as a successful businessman.
Hed even had a profile done in the trade publication Paperclip
So minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, for months and years
on end, the paperclip counters counted paperclips. They occasionally
saw Mr Clipper coming in and out of his office, but they never spoke
to him. Three or four times a year, he would address them as a group
to put, as he liked to say, paperclip counting into its larger context.
One day, Tom, who had not long been a paperclip counter, made it his
business to speak to Mr Clipper. He knocked on Mr Clippers door
and asked if he could have a word. Mr Clipper in a spirit of
being available to his employees invited the young man to sit
down. Tom knew it would be unreasonable to expect a busy man like Mr
Clipper to know his name, so he briskly introduced himself with the
words, "Mr Clipper, Im Tom. Ive not been with you very
long, but I cant help feeling we could be counting paperclips
rather more efficiently than we are. I hope you dont think me
"Not at all, Tom," said Mr Clipper, interested. "Im
always open to new ideas."
"Well, the problem is people dont care," said Tom. "They
just come in and count paperclips no more than they have to really
and then go home. I heard one person say they do enough not to
get noticed. We need something to motivate them."
"And you have some ideas about that, do you, Tom?" asked Mr
"Yes, sir, I do," said Tom. "Id like to outline
them now, if I may."
"I tell you what, Tom," said Mr Clipper; "Im a
bit busy at the moment; but if you write your ideas down for me, I promise
Ill look at them and get back to you."
Tom had prepared for this. "I have them here, sir," he said,
producing two pages of A4, which had been paper-clipped and folded.
"Ill leave them with you. I hope we have a chance to talk
later in the week."
A week later, a memo went round announcing that Tom had been made Paperclip
Counting Manager and would be implementing new ideas to increase the
performance of paperclip counting across the board. Having been formally
appointed, Tom set about putting his ideas into action. He divided the
paperclip counters into teams of eight (since that was the number on
any given table, it seemed a logical choice) and appointed one of the
eight as Team Leader. This caused some resentment, and there were a
few unkind suggestions made about Tom kissing Mr Clippers posterior.
Tom didnt care. It was only to be expected that they would resent
his success; they hadnt thought of it, and they were jealous because
With the teams and Team Leaders in place, Tom encouraged them to compete
with each other for the good of the business. He wanted to publish a
weekly league table, but Mr Clipper vetoed this on the grounds that
it would cause too much resentment amongst those that came at or near
the bottom. Tom was not too deflated, and a week later suggested a bonus
scheme. It was only fair, he said, that those who regularly counted
more paperclips than others should see their efforts rewarded. Mr Clipper
gave this his blessing, and Tom introduced three levels of bonus. Those
who consistently failed to reach the lowest target would have their
performance looked at with a view to helping them meet the minimum threshold.
The introduction of the bonus scheme produced a dramatic increase in
the number of paperclips counted, and Tom was summoned to Mr Clippers
office at the end of the week to be congratulated. "I wanted to
take time to acknowledge your positive contribution to paperclip counting,
Tom," said Mr Clipper. "Congratulations. Youve done
Tom had a very good weekend. He was, after all, an important man in
paperclip counting. Tom was Paperclip Counting Manager, in charge of
one hundred and sixty people. Toms decisions mattered.
The following week was not so good for Tom. Things started going a little
awry on Tuesday, when long-standing clients phoned up to complain that
their delivery of standard-sized silver paperclips had contained lots
of blue and red paperclips for which they hadnt asked, as well
as paperclips of the wrong size. By Thursday, a sufficient number had
phoned up for Mr Clipper to be worried. Mr Clipper summoned his manager
and asked him to find out what was happening. Tom was angry. He felt
the paperclip counters, in their resentment of his success, had sabotaged
his plans. He called a meeting of the Team Leaders and emphasised the
importance of quality as well as quantity in their work. He wouldnt,
he said, tolerate shoddy work or excuses for shoddy work.
The Team Leaders took this message back to their teams, where it was
received cynically. Those who had struggled under the new scheme said
that it was an inevitable consequence of getting people racing against
each other. Those who had done well didnt care; they had done
what theyd been asked to do. It wasnt their fault if management
hadnt thought it through properly.
Harriet, one of the more ambitious Team Leaders, went to see Mr Clipper,
and subtly though not too subtly suggested that, while
the bonus scheme was a good idea, it hadnt been implemented carefully
enough. At the moment, all that was happening was that the output for
a particular team was being ticked off as they were collected
which was necessary for the implementation of the bonus scheme
but, she pointed out, there was no way of tracking them once theyd
left the building. Her idea was to colour-code the teams and number
the paperclip counters within the teams, so that Green 4 would directly
identify a particular paperclip counter. This would ensure that paperclip
counters did not neglect the quality of their work in pursuit of the
bonus, and would simply require a small sticker on every box a paperclip
counter filled. She went on to suggest that anyone who failed to meet
certain quality standards should forfeit their bonus.
Mr Clipper was impressed, and assured Harriet that these ideas would
be duly implemented. When Harriet had left, Mr Clipper summoned Tom.
"Tom, Ive just been listening to some very interesting suggestions
from one of your Team Leaders," said Mr Clipper, "which I
think we should put in place right away."
"Oh, really?" Tom did his best to sound pleased.
Mr Clipper outlined Harriets ideas without further attributing
them. Tom listened without interrupting, though he nodded and tried
his best to smile. Mr Clipper finished by saying, "Just as people
deserve to be rewarded if they do more work than someone else, they
likewise shouldnt be penalised for the mistakes or sloppiness
of others. I think this creates greater accountability amongst the counters,
which can only be a good thing. I look forward to seeing these measures
Tom assured Mr Clipper that it would be done. He would like to have
been told the Team Leaders name. He also felt that it was wrong
of the Team Leader to have gone over his head to Mr Clipper. They should
have come to him with their suggestions; he was Paperclip Counting Manager,
after all. Of course, it was possible that whoever it had been had just
wanted to make themselves feel important.
Two days later, the Team Leaders announced to their teams that the boxes
they were filling were now colour-coded to identify their team, and
numbered to identify them individually.
One of Harriets team asked, "If everyones responsible
for their own work, whats the point of having teams or
Harriet said, "We have other duties."
"Oh, yeah, like what putting the stickers on the boxes?"
Everyone on the table laughed, except Harriet, who blushed.
Once the system had bedded in, it became routine for the daily figures
for every counter in the room to be placed on the desk of every team
for the counters to check their own numbers and see how well others
were doing. The list was not a league table in accordance with
Mr Clippers wishes but simply a coded alphabetical list
of counters with the figures next to them. Thus: B1 xx (xx being
the number of boxes achieved the previous day, and B1 being Counter
1 from the Blue Team). It soon became apparent who the star counters
were the big hitters, as Tom called them though most counters
easily managed to make the first bonus threshold, which made Tom think
that perhaps hed set the bar too low. He was annoyed at the way
the counters were operating within the bonus scheme. If you were going
to miss the second or third threshold, then you might as well miss it
by a lot as a little. There was no point nearly getting onto the top
level of bonus. You either did or you didnt. No-one rewarded you
for busting your gut trying and failing. Consequently, those who were
comfortably established on one of the levels tended to slack off at
the end of the month, knowing they would still hit the minimum target
for that level. It infuriated Tom, and he spent a good deal of time
wondering what he could do about it.
The trouble was that anything he wanted to implement would have to be
cleared with Mr Clipper, and Mr Clipper had made it clear he wanted
a period of stability. Tom, having no-one with whom to discuss the problem,
began to focus on it. One counter, who had never hit the top bonus,
was right at the top end of the second level with a week to go; but
rather than putting in an extra special effort in the last week to try
and achieve the top level, he simply slacked off (unacceptably in Toms
view), finally coming in at the lower end of the second level. Tom decided
to have a word.
"Richard, I wanted to have a word about your figures," Tom
began. They were sitting at a table in a small meeting room.
Richard, who had always managed the second level, said, "Fine."
"I was a bit disappointed you didnt manage the top bonus
level last month," said Tom.
"Not as disappointed as I was," replied Richard.
"But you didnt try for the last week," said Tom. "You
just settled for the second level."
"What do you mean?" Richard, a paperclip counter for four
years, took offence at the suggestion. "I did the best I could.
I always do. Im sorry you dont think its good enough."
"Richard," said Tom soothingly, "youre one of our
most valued and experienced paperclip counters. Im just interested
to know why your figures fell off so dramatically in the last week."
"Well, if youd bothered to check, youd have found out
that I was on Small-Mixed-Colours for the last week which are
always the hardest to count because theres more chance of making
a mistake. Everyone slows down when they do Small-Mixed-Colours. If
you get the Small-Mixed-Colours wrong, youre more likely to get
a complaint than on any of the others. I was on Standard-Silvers the
first week, Large-Silvers the second, and Standard-Single-Colours the
third. I just did the hardest at the end last month. You wouldnt
have noticed if Id started with the Small-Mixed-Colours. If you
really want me to get the top bonus, you could let me do Standard-Silvers
all month, though I dont think the other counters would approve."
The meeting hadnt been quite what Tom expected. He believed Richard
about being on the Small-Mixed-Colours (if only because hed be
unlikely to lie about something that could be so easily checked), but
wondered if that was the whole story. Tom was convinced that there were
counters who were comfortably making a certain level, and then easing
off so that they only came in at the bottom end. The top level, after
all, was only ever just made. No-one ever did it with plenty to spare,
though it often looked like they might with a week or so to go.
On a more personal note, Tom didnt much care for the staffs
attitude to him. When he was passing the figures round, some of the
older counters would take the opportunity to tease him. "Your mum
must be very proud of you," said Martha one morning; "what
with you being such a high-flyer in paperclip counting at such a young
age." She was nudged by one her colleagues, who said, "Dont
tease him, Martha. Hes got a younger brother whos very big
in drawing pins."
Everyone seemed to think this was hilarious. Tom smiled grimly and moved
on to the next table.
Ben, on the Red Team (or R2, as he liked to call himself), was endlessly
sarcastic. "Where would the world be without paperclips?"
he would ask rhetorically. "I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat
thinking about it. Imagine a world where you had to get by with just
staples. Dont get me wrong; Ive nothing against staples.
Some of my best course work was held together with staples. But it has
to be said they lack the elegance of even your average paperclip.
Ive always said, if Im going to be counting things that
hold bits of paper together, Id rather be counting paperclips
than anything else."
Very funny at least, his fellow Red team-mates all thought so.
Tom simply ignored him.
The next day, Sue one of the younger members of the Yellow Team
held up a red and gold paperclip (obviously a result of faulty
manufacture) and said, "Behold! My magic paperclip!" She announced
she was keeping it to show to her as yet unborn grandchildren. "You
dont mind me keeping it, do you, Tom?" she asked.
"No, of course not," said Tom, somewhat irritably. He was
annoyed mostly with himself because he couldnt be
sure if she were making fun of him or not.
Amanda, on the same team, suggested that there should be a magic paperclip
every week with a prize for the counter who found it. "You could
suggest it to Mr Clipper, Tom, as a way of further motivating the troops."
"And you can say you thought of it all by yourself," Sue said
Poor Tom; it was quite lonely being a high-flyer. He smiled thinly and
carried the figures to another table. Paperclip counting had begun for
© J Gilles 2006
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