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.

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



4 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.

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