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Computing Thoughts
We No Longer Need Power
by Bruce Eckel
September 11, 2009
Summary
There's a saying that's been traveling the business circles in recent years: "Speaking truth to power." It means you are so confident and direct that you can actually tell someone in power what's really going on.

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This is said in a very positive way; you are a strong and valuable person if you can do this. But turn it around and it describes the person in power as so siloed, so out of touch with the world that telling them what is going on in their own company is a big deal.

In the post-connected world, we don't need power. In the pre-connected world, power is both necessitated by and enabled by the lack of information and communication. Centralized hierarchy and control compensates for low bandwidth. And if you're kept in the dark where the mushrooms grow, you can be controlled.

Every day we hear about, and experience directly, how people in power are out of touch and thereby make bad and disastrous decisions. Scott McNealy drove Sun for years based on his obsession with Microsoft, creating an anti-Microsoft instead of building a company with its own personality and directions. Peopleware is filled with examples of misguided management; for example, the "furniture police" who can show with spreadsheets why cramming cubicles closer together saves the company money, carefully ignoring the resulting attrition and decreased productivity. In this TED talk, Dan Pink shows how we've had solid evidence for 40 years that, except for purely mechanical work, incentives decrease productivity (often dramatically). If it's a task that requires thinking, incentives make you worse at the job -- and yet businesses consistently ignore this and use the carrot-and-stick mentality. Record companies are going in the toilet while their executives sue customers rather than figuring out how to adapt to the brave new world of the internet. Universities, originally built around the scarcity of books, are busy marketing the value of the traditional university experience instead of figuring out how to make that experience the best it can possibly be. We should start a Wikipedia-like entity dedicated to capturing stories of business screw-ups -- not that I delight in these things, but when you're advocating for change you need ammunition.

There are so many examples of power behaving badly that Scott Adams sees no end of making his living from it.

Now suppose that, in the connected world, decision-making is just another job. Something that needs to be done, but with adequate information anyone can do. In this world, making decisions doesn't elevate you to king, it doesn't enable you to sell the company for your own benefit or give you a golden parachute if you royally screw everything up, just so we have the opportunity to hire someone with your exceptional decision-making abilities.

You can make better decisions than stockbrokers by throwing darts at the stock pages; there are probably studies showing that monkeys make better decisions than senior management. If it's going to be a crap shoot anyway, why ascribe magical powers to the decision-maker while giving them vast sums and the ability to sell or otherwise destroy the company?

Perhaps there's some way we can eliminate the position altogether. In an open-spaces conference, all the power that was traditionally given to conference organizers is immediately handed to the conference attendees. The result is vastly more satisfying than traditional centrally-controlled, eyes-forward conferences and suggests a sea change in the way we organize everything, especially businesses.

I've been brainstorming about this. One idea is to time-share the management position. Suppose the participants in a company must each take a turn, for a month or two, at the CEO position. It's not what they normally do, but it's a job that must be done so it's shared. I'll wager that because the people doing the actual work (most of the time) are making the CEO-level decisions, they are going to be in far better touch with what's really going on in the company and make better decisions.

Certainly this is a big shift from the way we normally think about company management -- it might work or it might not and the only way to find out is by experiment. It's important not to fixate on the particular implementation ("no judging in brainstorming"), but rather to keep the goal in mind, which is to eliminate power in companies.

Perhaps we can go a step further and eliminate the position altogether. Many people handle decisions via email, which is a queue that holds decisions that must be made. If all the company decisions go into a similar queue, they could be distributed somehow to various people in the company. Some decisions would be more difficult and might need to be kicked back to the queue, or put into a higher-level queue, perhaps ultimately requiring discussion at a meeting. This approach seems similar to the way Craigslist works.

By eliminating the positions of power and giving the decisions to the people who both know more about what's actually going on and are more impacted by the result of those decisions, I'll bet that better decisions will be made. Even if they're only marginally better, you've eliminated both the cost and the tremendous risk of having a king of the company.

This is crazy thinking, and that's exactly what I've been trying to do after seeing the dramatic effects that can be produced by questioning and changing things that we have always assumed are cast-in-stone laws. It's surprisingly difficult and even painful to de-ossify one's mind, but after seeing the benefits there's no other choice.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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