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.
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.
Could we start with the most obvious example: The US Government. We could timeshare the president, all positions in congress, all department heads and all others above whatever is the entry level civil service position. A simple lottery would be a great selection method.
I don't know if things would improve, but it is hard to imagine it being any worse.
I believe that is actually more like how it worked when the system was created. The founding fathers never intended for there to be such a thing as a "Professional Political". The politicians were supposed to be average people taking their turn helping to serve their country.
You have a hold of the wrong end of the stick. People don't take power in order to make decisions, they make decisions as a side effect or perk of taking power. People want power for more direct reasons: better food (stolen from others), better shelter (stolen from others), better sex partners (power is sexy, but it can be stolen from the partner, too), and above all to keep power away from their enemies so that they can't be forced to work (or slave) for them.
There's a traditional Malay story that orangutans can really talk, and long ago humans heard them talking and enslaved them. Now they stay up in the trees and make sure we never hear them talking. Very sensible of them, for what else can you expect? We are chimpanzees (of a third species, Pan pseudo-sapiens).
This has been a running topic of discussion in the Agile community for some years. The solution I favor is what some people call the "servant leader" approach. In that model, the purpose of management isn't to be in charge and make decisions. It's to figure out what the people actually doing the work need to be effective and make sure they get it.
Emphasizing the real work like that also puts the focus on the customer, because they're the ones ultimately judge the product. Instead of worry about what the CEO wants, everybody pays attention to what the customer wants, and the CEO is expected to fall in line with that.
I think this is partially missing the point; the hard part of leadership is not so much making the decision, as achieving a consensus and persuading everyone in the team or the company to pursue the same goal (when that's necessary). People differ vastly in their ability to persuade others.
Also, an open-space conference is a special case because the people who attend the conference are spending their own money (and time), so who better than them to decide what they want? You don't have the conflict of interest that happens in a company where you are spending someone else's money. The most dramatic version of this conflict is in unionized workplaces, but it comes up in any company.
The challenge is to maintain the conceptual integrity (as in the homonymous chapter of Brooks’ TMMM). Good leaders make decisions based on a certain vision they have for the product or the company. If you want to make sure that one decision doesn’t inadvertently undoes a previous one, a good vision has to be shared, understood and accepted and decisions have to be evaluated based on if they advance, hinder or are neutral with respect to that vision.
The problem with this idea (and with similar ideas e.g. communism) is that it makes a bunch of assumptions that have been shown to not hold true and are often hilariously ludicrous.
1. Everyone will be willing to put the greater good ahead of their own personal interests.
If you think this is true, you are probably high on some really good pot. Even when working for the greater good is ultimately better for them, people will largely do what that see as immediately advantageous to them e.g. block an intersection in heavy traffic. In fact certain 'upside-down' concepts can only be understood by realizing this. For example, reducing the number of roads in an area reduces traffic congestion (with the same number of cars.) If people did what was right for the greater good, more roads would improve traffic but because they don't, reducing the choices they have improves flow.
The fact of the matter is that the more the members of the group as a whole ignore their personal interests, the greater the advantage any single individual gets by pursuing them. In game theory this is called "The Tragedy of the Commons". Not only is this concept crucial to understanding the challenges we face with the environment and our natural resources, it even explains unintuitive behaviors seen in social insects. Dictators are created from anarchy.
2. Most people are rational.
Talk to some people on the street. Listen to a townhall meeting on healthcare. This is obviously not true and shown not to be true in repeatable scientific studies.
3. Groups make better decisions than individuals.
If you think this, read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. There are so many examples of how groups make some of the worst decisions. This is why pure democracies don't work. Everyone thinks of Athens as the source of modern democracy but Athens failed because of the choices made by it's citizens. As a group they decided on a disastrous military adventure that some of their brightest citizens warned was foolhardy. Ethnic cleansing, lynchings, witch-hunts, bubbles are all derived from group-think.
In most primitive cultures we are aware of, the head of the clan or tribe acts like the servant leader you talked about.
Among the ancient Celts, the king was responsible for distributing its riches among the free men, and kings were ranked according to the bounties they were able to give.
There was a similar custom called Potlatch among ancient american-indian cultures, a big feast during which tribesmen would consume, dilapidate and exchange all the excess riches of their respective tribe, making luxurious gifts to one another. Highest prestige (hence influence) went to the tribe and people able to make the most somptuous gifts.
The king of France in the middle ages was sacred, and as all the barons and nobles, was appointed by God as a warden of His terrestrial realm, not to exert power.
All these examples, while being diverse, share a common pattern: Sense of Community (ie. being part of one common order) is so strong that it is more and more binding as one climbs up the power ladder. Power is balanced with responsibility, but a responsibility one owes to the gods, the ancestors, or the whole of humanity. These society are essentially static and traditional.
There is then a discrepancy between this environment which has proven to foster such degradation of power, and the capitalistic environment most companies are part of.
As James points out, this is not the kind of society we are leaving in anymore, for better or worse. You cannot value at the same time individualism, creativity and the endless possibilities of the human being; and adherence to the traditions. And this is getting worse when scaling.
Unfortunately, and this is a sad truth to say, we still need power. This is not to say that we should not struggle to get rid of it.
Um, the idiom about "speaking truth to power" didn't get popularized in business circles. It comes out of social justice movements. I'm glad you attribute it to the circles in which you first encountered it--I mean, you seem sincere--but there's something a little Orwellian in the implicit assertion that speaking truth to power is a virtue that the business community discovered and enshrined. On the contrary, it's pretty much from the exact opposite pole, socio-idealogically.
Second, have all the interesting and tractable technical problems been solved, that we need bright technical thinkers to become tenderfoot philosophers? Hasn't everyone quit taking Wired seriously? For crying out loud. To weigh in on 9/11 with Anarchism Lite, based chiefly on the transformative juju of edupunk, Craiglist, and the futurewebs, is embarassing. 9/11 opened the door to an American president overturning any number of important legal and military precedents regarding the weilding of power. There's a bajillion hard and important questions there. It might be a generation before we sort them out. If you're going to rethink power, how do you miss those?
Crazy thinking is all very well and has my full support. Crazy publishing does not. Crazy thinking is an exercise; when you're done, throw the thoughts away and start again. (Cf the "spike" practice in Agile programming.) Most of the value is in the flexing, not the thoughts themselves.
> 1. Everyone will be willing to put the greater good ahead > of their own personal interests. > > If you think this is true, you are probably high on some > really good pot. Even when working for the greater good > is ultimately better for them, people will largely do what > that see as immediately advantageous to them e.g. block an > intersection in heavy traffic.
As evilly cynical (and amusing as ever) the assertion, there is documentary evidence to contradict. Saw it myself on the TeeVee just the other day. Some towns in Denmark (IIRC; it was one of those quasi-Communist Europe countries, anyway) were having to put up with accidents at various kinds of intersections. What they did: remove all traffic lights, signs, etc. The result? The citizens (Danes, let us assume) took more careful trips. Accidents dropped significantly.
It worked, of course, because Danes are far more socialized and civilized than the Average American Redneck. To (mis)quote Shakespeare, "the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves". Societies can prosper without being entrenched in Rand-ism or Social Darwinism. We just need to eliminate the Rand-ists. Soylent Green seems the most effective alternative. Just kidding. May be.
> As evilly cynical (and amusing as ever) the assertion, > there is documentary evidence to contradict. Saw it > myself on the TeeVee just the other day. Some towns in > Denmark (IIRC; it was one of those quasi-Communist Europe > countries, anyway) were having to put up with accidents at > various kinds of intersections. What they did: remove > all traffic lights, signs, etc. The result? The citizens > (Danes, let us assume) took more careful trips. Accidents > dropped significantly. > > It worked, of course, because Danes are far more > socialized and civilized than the Average American > Redneck. To (mis)quote Shakespeare, "the fault lies not > in the stars, but in ourselves". Societies can prosper > without being entrenched in Rand-ism or Social Darwinism. > We just need to eliminate the Rand-ists. Soylent Green > n seems the most effective alternative. Just kidding. > May be.
That's not news to me and it does not contradict the assertion I made in any way. It confirms it. Standard traffic lights and signs would work perfectly if people were more concerned with the greater good. But they don't. There's significant personal gain involved with breaking the rules or at least bending them. And because the lights and signs are there people don't feel it's necessary to consider how their actions affect others. It's not the driver's fault if a pedestrian crosses against the lights and is killed or if a car runs a light and is T-boned.
By removing the traffic signals and signs, all drivers now become responsible for their own actions and the cost of not doing so is high (e.g. a vehicular manslaughter sentence.) Instead of gunning the engine whenever the light turns green, people go when they've determined it's safe to do so.
I'm not sure if you think I am advocating libertarian ideas here or what. I think libertarianism sufferers from the same types of logical flaws as communism.
Nice idea, Bruce, but it assumes the people who have power in the feudal institutions we call corporations are interested in relinquishing it, for any reason whatsoever. I don't think this is the case. See the book Life, Inc.
> 1. Everyone will be willing to put the greater good ahead > of their own personal interests.
Democracy doesn't rely on this assumption. Democracy relies on balance of power, and the trust that comes from this balance. I would like to note that the other points you make could be traced to the issue of trust.
> 2. Most people are rational.
They actually are quite rational. On the other hand, all people, even intelligent ones, are very easy to deceive (just ask any magician). Blaming people for being easy to deceive is blaming a victim in my book. If people make irrational decision, usually there is some influence you can trace this to. I don't like when people reject democracy on that basis (like you do), when in fact what they should do is to reject the manipulation.
For example, the health care debates in U.S., it was Sarah Palin who claimed that universal health care would kill her child. Similarly for claims about the British system. People are not to be blamed here, manipulators are.
And again, this is also an issue of trust. If people trust each other, they can cooperate (for greater - their own - good). Otherwise, they won't. It's that simple.
> 3. Groups make better decisions than individuals.
They mostly do, and sometimes they don't. The problem is that it's easy to pinpoint individuals that were right ex post facto, but it's hard to have them in power when it comes to the decision itself. In other words, enlightened absolutism may be in theory excellent form of government, but in practice, there is minimal chance that the enlightened ones will be at the power to make the right decision. Ultimately, the corruption by power overshadows any (if there is) advantage of having a single decision maker.
There is actually a substantial amount of evidence that democracy (and direct especially) works a lot better than other forms of government. The reasons for this are several, and mostly support each other.
> > 1. Everyone will be willing to put the greater good > ahead > > of their own personal interests. > > Democracy doesn't rely on this assumption. Democracy > relies on balance of power, and the trust that comes from > this balance. I would like to note that the other points > you make could be traced to the issue of trust.
I didn't say Democracy depends on this. I was addressing the suggestion that "We No Longer Need Power".
> > 2. Most people are rational. > > They actually are quite rational.
Scientific studies show this to be incorrect. It is for this reason there is game theory and behavioral game theory. The former being the mathematical study of what people would do if they were perfectly rational (it doesn't actually have to be a person) and the latter being the study of what people actually do in the corresponding situations.
> For example, the health care debates in U.S., it was Sarah > Palin who claimed that universal health care would kill > her child. Similarly for claims about the British system. > People are not to be blamed here, manipulators are.
It feels good to believe this (I have in the past) but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is true. Then the for a pure powerless organization to work well, we must eliminate all manipulators, right? What's the plan? Put them against the wall and shoot?
> And again, this is also an issue of trust. If people trust > each other, they can cooperate (for greater - their own - > good). Otherwise, they won't. It's that simple.
OK, well come back to this idea when everyone trusts everyone else implicitly. The problem is that the more trusting people are in general, the greater the benefit of violating that trust and the stronger the temptation.
> > 3. Groups make better decisions than individuals.
> There is actually a substantial amount of evidence that > democracy (and direct especially) works a lot better than > other forms of government. The reasons for this are > several, and mostly support each other.
What evidence? The only direct democracy I am aware of was a dismal failure and it was only direct if you ignore slaves and women. Are there any current direct democracies?
Flat View: This topic has 21 replies
on 2 pages