Forget changing light bulbs. If you want a brilliant example of inefficiency, just ask yourself this: how many middle managers does it take to arrange a refund?

For three months now, I have been asking myself this question, and I've been asking a growing number of middle managers too.

In late August during a visit to London, we decided to visit the city's latest showcase and tallest building, the Shard. Scratching at the doors of heaven at 308 metres tall, it offers the best view you'll ever get of the flat, grey and unremarkable expanse of London from above.

Since going up tall buildings is what tourists do in big cities, we went online and "invested" in tickets costing an eye-watering 90 ($175).


With more than 15 million visitors a year, London tourism takes its inspiration from herding sheep. Thousands of slack-jawed tourists are spat out of subway stations and shuttled around via open-topped buses to join a multitude of long and slowly moving queues that showcase one of the world's most majestic cities.

The Shard is one of the newest, coolest places to queue and, due to demand, tickets can be bought online for dedicated viewing slots.

When we arrived for our slot, we were told by the Shard management (not, at this early point, the middle kind) that the viewing platform was booked for a private function and was about to be closed to the public.

Since we had spent the GDP of a small nation buying the tickets, I was most displeased to hear this and politely requested to see a manger (of the middle sort). At this point, it is important to understand just how much the British love being polite. They practically invented manners, and it is from them that we colonials have inherited (although lately mostly rejected) all of the things one would associate with good graces: RSVPs, please and thank you m'am, holding one's little finger at right angles when drinking tea.

The Shard's customer services manger embodied this mentality, being effusively apologetic, taking full responsibility and even facilitating a rushed and disappointing trip to the top before promising a full and speedy refund.

And so our journey through the layers of British middle management began. Over a three-month period, dozens of emails were exchanged between myself and six different people at four different companies.

Although each of them were generous with their apologies and optimistic about the imminent return of our cash, none of them followed through with a result and, every time I (politely) pointed this out, I was (politely) informed that the matter had been passed back through a growing warren of ticketing agencies to yet another middle manager.

It seemed that all of England was extremely appreciative of our patience, extremely sorry about the delay in facilitating the refund, and extremely incapable of arranging it.


Normally quests like this simply aren't worth the time, but in this instance it felt like I was being crushed with a passive aggressive and overwhelmingly polite strategy to wear me down to the point where I would (politely) give up.

I didn't and this week, to my huge surprise and delight, I got my refund. I tasted victory and it was sweet.

The Shard itself has a simple slogan: "Inspiring Change." Which is a lofty goal. But sometimes the simpler objectives are the harder to achieve. What does it matter if your head (or the top of your building) is in the clouds, when the systems and people who run it are scuttling around like blind mice in the basement?