Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems’ thinking — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’

This is the second in a series: click this link 201702-effective-action-2-systems-engineering-to-systems-politics. The first is HERE.

This paper concerns a very interesting story combining politics, management, institutions, science and technology. When high technology projects passed a threshold of complexity post-1945 amid the extreme pressure of the early Cold War, new management ideas emerged. These ideas were known as ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’. These ideas were particularly connected to the classified program to build the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s and successful ideas were transplanted into a failing NASA by George Mueller and others from 1963 leading to the successful moon landing in 1969.

These ideas were then applied in other mission critical teams and could be used to improve government performance. Urgently needed projects to lower the probability of catastrophes for humanity will benefit from considering why Mueller’s approach was 1) so successful and 2) so un-influential in politics. Could we develop a ‘systems politics’ that applies the unrecognised simplicities of effective action?

For those interested, it also looks briefly at an interesting element of the story – the role of John von Neumann, the brilliant mathematician who was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, the project to build ICBMs, the first digital computers, and subjects like artificial intelligence, artificial life, possibilities for self-replicating machines made from unreliable components, and the basic problem that technological progress ‘gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’

An obvious project with huge inherent advantages for humanity is the development of an international manned lunar base as part of developing space for commerce and science. It is the sort of thing that might change political dynamics on earth and could generate enormous support across international boundaries. After 23 June 2016, the UK has to reorient national policy on many dimensions. Developing basic science is one of the most important dimensions (for example, as I have long argued we urgently need a civilian version of DARPA similarly operating outside normal government bureaucratic systems including procurement and HR). Supporting such an international project would be a great focus for UK efforts and far more productive than our largely wasted decades of focus on the dysfunctional bureaucracy in Brussels that is dominated by institutions that fail the most important test – the capacity for error-correction the importance of which has been demonstrated over long periods and through many problems by the Anglo-American political system and its common law.

Please leave comments or email dmc2.cummings at gmail.com



7 thoughts on “Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems’ thinking — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’

  1. > There will be a desperate scramble for new ideas. This usually happens in response to an event like 1929 or 9/11

    Errrm, I can’t think of any *good* ideas that came out of 9/11. I can think of many outstandingly bad ones. I agree that upheavals lead to openings for new thought, but neither is an inspiring precedent to cite.

  2. So in order to get effective results at the level you are describing, I think one needs:

    -A team with complete autonomy
    -A situation where the survival of the team’s autonomy is either largely guaranteed for a time horizon necessary to achieve the mission, or where there’s natural alignment between keeping the team alive and making progress towards the mission
    -Imaginative team leadership that: reasons forward from first principles, benchmarks progress against absolute rather than relative standards, and has a high degree of self-awareness and courage / competence
    -And some competent executors who believe in the mission and can get shit done

    I suspect that if you have those conditions, some form of intelligent management will spontaneously arise, and when those conditions disappear, management will degrade no matter how strong the principles it is grounded on.

    I am very skeptical of large organizations’ abilities to maintain these conditions for any length of time. At best, they can play host to transient teams of this nature, especially during crises or extraordinary circumstances. Occasionally, the senior management of a company with a sufficiently strong monopoly that they can ignore shareholder pressure (cf. Google, Apple), might comprise such a team.

    Unfortunately for democratic governments, winning elections and working towards the long-term betterment of humanity seem to be mostly orthogonal. I have some hope that they intersect on competence, especially as the internet erodes the incumbent advantage and lets outsiders win more easily. (However, they then have to figure out how to govern, in the limited span of time that they have in office).

    I see more hope in the private sector (I’m voting with my feet: I run a software startup). Unfortunately solving a lot of the hard, important problems don’t align well with team survival (ie, making money). However, my hope is that we’ll see a rise of private organizations that have already set aside enough money to survive that then tackle problems that traditionally would be the sphere of governments.

    One angle I think is worth pursuing is finding ways of increasing leverage, so that smaller teams can have bigger impacts. Rather than trying to make huge organizations effective, make it so small teams that are already effective can get a lot done. This has happened pretty dramatically in software; my two person team is doing things that a fifty person organization would have struggled with ten years ago, because we are building on top of an incredible stack of technological advances (Amazon Web Services, Github, nodejs, modern web browsers with fast javascript engines, and about 10 different SaaS companies we use to outsource most of our operations such as Librato and Baremetrics to name some of my favorites). It’d be interesting to find ways of expanding that approach into other domains.

    Side note: Anyone who’s interested enough in management theory to read this post would probably also enjoy this brilliant article on management in an expanding-complexity world: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/05/28/the-amazing-shrinking-org-chart/

    • Thanks for such a considered reply.
      1. ‘Unfortunately for democratic governments, winning elections and working towards the long-term betterment of humanity seem to be mostly orthogonal.’ Yes this seems largely true and is the heart of the problem. What structural rule/incentive changes are needed to fix this? Hard. How to implement against the whole system (all parties plus officials) who will fight? Harder.
      2. Agree that many problems could be solved by private companies if Govt set a reasonable set of rules for platforms and didn’t regulate everyone into the normal lawyer-governed nightmare.
      3. Agree re the small team point. Problem: in software there is an ecosystem devoted to nourishing such companies, but in government the ecosystem treats high performance teams as a virus to be expelled…
      Thanks for the link.

      • Is this series of a posts a lead-in to you proposing some answers to the challenges posed by #1? Or are you stuck and thinking out loud? I agree with you this is the most important problem facing the world, which is why I’m chiming in…

        I have ideas, but they all fall in the “sounds okay on paper but no idea if they work in the real world” category, especially since my experience is all in business / tech, not politics.

        For the sake of brainstorming:

        -Citizen’s Dashboards. Politicians get away with terrible policy because citizens generally learn about what they do via news, which has no long term memory, and tends to be purely qualitative rather than quantitative, so it rewards symbolic short-term actions. If there were high-quality “State of the… [insert political entity]” dashboards freely available to the public showing the view that a high-powered manager would want to see, heat maps of various issues with the ability to drill down, the ability to see change over time, etc., holding politicians accountable would be much easier.

        Advantages: could be done by anyone, unilaterally and unofficially. Challenges: data availability, marketing it / getting voters to use it (though I could see that happening virally if the product was good enough and it started in the right markets), and I’m honestly not sure how big an impact it would have in the best-case scenario.

        -Building the HR department for politics. Proselytize a vision of competent politics to a group of young, competent people. Help them find jobs, either as candidates if they have the charisma, or staffers, have the politicians run under existing parties to avoid too much of a fuss. Start going after local jobs where the political bureaucracy is small and weak enough that a good team can totally replace it. Govern, achieve some wins, use them to recruit more people, and expand. Basically, the long, slow slog of starting a new political party, but without calling it a political party so that existing political parties don’t fight it.

        Not sure where on the spectrum it should fall between highly structured corporation and loose coalition, and not sure how to make it financially sustainable. Challenges I see would be: very slow process (probably a full generation), ideological drift as it gets bigger (since essentially it’s a culture-building exercise), the egos of the politicians you help get elected. The advantage is that if it works, you’ve built a whole generation of great politicians. I wonder how much similar things go on already behind the scenes… Organizations like https://80000hours.org/ come to mind, but I don’t know if they’re focused enough on gaining power to achieve something like this.

        -Doing an end-run. To your point #2, private companies trying to replace government run into regulation hell once they get big enough. However, that very feature of government means that its reaction time is slow, and companies that are doing something weird enough can often get too-big-to-kill before government knows what hits them. If Facebook, or Twitter, or Google had happened on a slower time scale, government would have destroyed them, but they got too big to outright crush before it was obvious to politicians what an existential threat each was in its own way, and they’ve all completely transformed the landscape politicians have to work in. Uber is an example of where its so transparent that it is attacking government that government does react in time to fight back, and Uber may still win in the long-run anyway. So the challenge here is to think of an innovation that is a) something you can sell for a profit, b) oblique enough / weird enough that government doesn’t know how to react to it initially, and c) has a transformative effect on whatever problem you are trying to solve. I think all three conditions are possible, but I don’t have any great ideas right now that someone isn’t already trying.

      • Re. teams:

        Fred Brooks wrote about much of this back in the early 1970s; ‘The Mythical Man-Month’. The concept of the surgical team – everything focused on providing the support and resources necessary for the master surgeon to do their work (1). Interesting that some of the best insights come out of the two biggest single projects of the 1960’s; Apollo – and the second biggest – the development of the IBM System/360.

        (1) instructive anecdote: in the mid 1990s I worked for a startup; specialist printing hardware and software. We looked at – and became – the UK distributor for a particularly exotic Japanese reel-to-reel continuous-feed laser label printer. They came over and talked about the machine and left us one to play with. We had three weeks…

        At that stage – after much effort and incremental improvement by the Japanese software team – the bletcherous losing Japanese firmware could print simple labels up to 2cm x 2cm.

        We gave the thing to our best coder… one of the best hackers I’ve ever known. We moved him out of the office and into an attic in another part of the technology park – location secret from the rest of the company to prevent interruptions. In stereotypical hacker fashion we arranged an endless supply of caffeine, nicotine, and pizza. We left him to it.

        Three weeks later we just about had to pick the Japanese off the floor when they saw what we – HE – had done. Our uber-hacker had thrown away the entire firmware and started from scratch. In three weeks he had written and debugged a preemptive multitasking real-time operating system for the printer – which could now print labels of up to A4 size in arbitrary positions and orientations; could print multiple graphics and barcodes – and could even automatically print sequential serial numbers.

        The difference between the productivity of ‘average’ and ‘very best’ is often greater than you would imagine – and in no field is this more true than in software engineering. The high-performance individual can be as important as the high-performance team.

  3. Hi Dominic,

    I think you’ll find that what sets Buffett (and Munger) apart from most leaders is how their ‘action logics’ (aka Ego Stages) have continued to grow over their lifetimes – in steps from the more conventional Expert/Technician and Achiever through to the (far rarer) post-conventional Strategist and Alchemist.

    Take a look at Ed Kelly’s PhD research on this: http://integralleadershipreview.com/8992-transformation-in-leadership-part-2/

    Others can and do go through the same transitions. There are even successful controlled trials on interventions to nudge people along. At least one local authority CEO I know of was deliberately recruited as he was the only applicant who reached the ‘Strategist’ stage. And the Chief Exec of one County Council was knighted for the turnaround he was able to bring about, in a major English county – to a considerable extent due to using these understandings (he acknowledged this in his words of acceptance).

    So, please take a look at this crucial factor, on top of the ones you mention – IQ, will power, management ability and metacognition.

    I would add that Prof Jake Chapman – who wrote ‘System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently’ (Demos) was able to help leaders grow up through these action logics – by using a mix of systems thinking-related exercises, and Prof Kegan’s Immunity to Change exercise. He measured these leaders both before and after a one year course at the National School of Government. They shifted! (In the same way Buffett shifted).

    Interestingly, when he his Demos publication came out, Whitehall beat a path to his door. Everybody loved it. He was invited to speak about it all over the place.

    Eventually he realised that almost no-one was actually making the changes, applying the systems-aware approaches he was talking about. And he also concluded that the only ones who actually tried to, were the ‘Strategists’ – rather than any of the more commonplace leaders. Intriguingly he even noticed that the few ‘Strategists’ he was teaching somehow felt drawn to each other and formed their own little friendship group, which continued to meet years after the leadership course was over. This sounds like a new form of homophily, not previously noticed. Rather than homophily by race, class, profession, sex, age, or suchlike – it was by action logic/ego stage. Something very similar was found when 5,000 such action logic assessments were done as part of a big intervention in the Dutch Antilles to unlock development and entrepreneurialism.


  4. This was emailed to me, Im copying it below…

    In July 1969, the Apollo mission successfully took men to the moon and returned them safely to earth. They managed to build spacecraft that could go around the moon and return to earth without any critical failures and a failure rate for non-critical parts of just 1 part per million.

    Have you read the Feynman minority report on the Challenger disaster, in which he criticizes low failure-rate estimates such as this? If not, I think it’s worth a read; it also discusses the kind of organizational-competance issues you are interested in:


    Feynman also says some more about this in “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington”:


    On the subject of institutional competence, I suppose you are familiar with Tetlock’s work on superforecasting and the ongoing work with IARPA to study good forecasters and build better forecasting techniques?

    A main idea coming out of this is that you can gain an awful lot of ground just by keeping track of the quality of predictions made (so that you notice which political pundits make good predictions, and know how good they are; and similarly know the quality of internally produced predictions).

    Have you heard about Robin Hanson’s proposal for modernized government?


    The main idea behind this is the “prediction market”, an institution in which you put money behind your forecasts in order to incentivise good forecasting. Robin Hanson proposes to turn this into a main institution of governance. I think there are some problems with this, but it is the most innovative proposal I’ve heard of, and perhaps the problems could be worked out.

    (The main problem is that a prediction market can become an assasination market: if you predict that someone important person will die and everyone else doesn’t predict it, you can make a load of money.)

    There may also be something of interest for you in the Center for Applied Rationality. They too have a mission of reducing existential risk by raising the level of competence of the right people.

    The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford also studies existential risks, with a slant that may be interesting to you. It’s broadly part of the same community as CFAR. Effective Altruism is an associated movement, as well — somewhat (not totally) concerned with existential risk, but very concerned with effectiveness (though not exactly organizational effectiveness in your sense).

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