Sunday, July 24, 2016

Considerate Coordination

It is estimated that between 1959 and 1961, between 20 and 43 million people died in the Great Chinese Famine. During the Great Leap Forward, policies were enforced to shift people from agricultural work to iron and steel production. An instruction was given, but there was great distance between the decision maker and the the decision implementer. Out of authority and respect, even if the subsistence farmer thought it was not a good idea to melt their tools - they did as they were told. Mao famously made grand tours to see for himself what was going on. 'Management by walking around' is unfortunately hardly effective when people are super keen to please you. The truth of a bad policy can be hidden if there is a massive incentive to please those further up the chain.

Mao on a plane - going to see if his plans were working

Knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge are two separate things. Even understanding ourselves is hard. We have to be patient and forgiving. We have to be willing to change our minds and adapt to new information. To adapt to new feelings. The world is uncertain, complex and ambiguous. As soon as we break the link between our world and the ability to respond to our world by giving decision making away, things change.

In the work world, there is a ladder away from the actual work. As people get more authority and seniority, they get more ability to dream but outsource the doing. The problem with this is that the practical constraints of the world are seldom a part of dreams. If you decide to do something, but then in doing it get more information, it can change the decision. If you thought something was easy, so start it and then discover it is hard, you can decide to stop because there are other things that are more important. If you think something is easy, and so ask a junior to do it, it will play out differently. If that junior is super keen to impress, they will work hard well beyond the point you would have given up. By the time they 'confess' to difficulty, they can have massacred an army of their time.

The most powerful explanation I have seen of Tacit Knowledge and the dangers of not empowering people is in the book 'The Future and Its Enemies'. If you combine Virginia Postrel's explanation, with Tim Minchin's idea of being micro-ambitious and Friedrich Hayek's ideas on spontaneous order, you get a powerful case for empowerment. The problems in the world aren't going to be solved by huge dreams. They are going to be solved by individual relationships solving small problems together. They are going to solved through people 'coordinating in intricate and mutually considerate ways'.

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