“The great challenge of the 21st century isn’t churning out more toxic junk – it’s learning to make stuff that’s not toxic junk.” So said Umair Haque in today’s Harvard Business Blog.
Umair’s challenge reminds me a science fiction book that I read years ago. Some bright young man, working in a high rise building slowly worked out that the papers in his in basket, and every one else’s in basket, never left the building. They were working on a closed make-work system and the papers were designed to circulate endlessly without achieving anything in particular.
Most people know that they work in non-jobs. I’ve even asked people commuting on trains into London what they do. Some people laugh outright and say nothing. Others will tell me some detail – like how to maintain the railway tracks. Few people refer to the bigger picture though. They know where the water cooler is. They know when they get paid. They haven’t much of a clue about what their organizations do. More importantly, they don’t care ~
- They assume it is normal not care.
- Feedback loops are very slow so they don’t see any consequences.
Provided money is paid into their bank accounts, they assume it’s fine not to care too much.
Empty lives ~ lives we cannot call our own
Sadly, most of us do not feel that we are able to live full lives. And even if we wanted to care, do we have the understanding or the competence to manage systems?
Systems surprise us
Lets take the example of Facebook that Umair uses in his example. Facebook grew out of a college-student prank. I am sure many people think it is evil. Without knowing the facts, I am sure College Adminstrators thought that at first. Now they just send requests for donations! Simply, Facebook is a good example of how good things come out of laziness or mischievousness. Our drive to take short cuts can innovate.
The converse is also true. Many of the people who are sleep-walking through non-jobs believe they are doing good.
Very simply, the interaction between the system as a whole and our individual actions is too complex for the one to be reducible to the other.
Systems must be managed as systems
We have to watch the system itself. We need metrics for a system, and we have to understand its possible trajectories.
We have to understand the complex way individual actions interact with the system and the slowness of the feedback loop connecting the two. Because of that slowness, individuals need feedback about their individual actions over and above the trajectory of the system itself and their effect on the system. All three sets of information must be available.
Let’s use an example uncluttered with the emotion of who-did-what
Let’s take the weather.
Weather systems vary world over and predicting the weather varies. In some countries, the weather is very predictable. In others it is quite changeable.
I lived in a place where it only rained from November to March. In that time, we needed to
- Grow all the food we needed
- Collect all the water we needed for the dry months
- Protect ourselves against too much rain (floods, in other words).
It was well known that in the north of the country, that the rains would fail in 1 year out of 3. We would never know which year the rains would fail and if we were wise, we kept enough food and water for three years (1/27 or about 3% chance of running out). There was still the possibility of a drought four years in a row. So we needed a plan for that too.
Managing at system level
In the south, rains failed on average, every 2nd year – so they had to plan harder. In the north, we knew the basic parameters and we knew we had to
- build enough dams
- move water around
- store food
- and build big drains because when it rained, it rained! It came down in buckets. The drains had to be massive.
We could mismanage this system easily. A full dam looks like excess. Why not use the water? Why be so prudent?
We could blame shortage of water on climate change. It could be true, but if we haven’t stored enough water for what we knew already, which was the average frequency of droughts ~ well what can anyone say? Recklessness is recklessness.
The system can be managed at system level. And should be.
Managing at individual level
Now let’s look at the actions we needed to take at individual level. My individual actions will not affect the presence or absence of a drought! It won’t affect the presence or absence of dams or drains either. If I judge my individual actions by the state of the system, I will get confused and become helpless and inactive.
But if I know that the dams are insufficient and the price of water will be high during a drought, I can store water for gardening and non-drinking purposes like flush toilets. That is a judgment I make as an individual. I can ask myself will I have enough water and what am I going to do about it?
Actually, the house I lived in was plumbed to use a reservoir of water collected from the roof, but the reservoir had been removed when adequate dams had been built. So my decisions work both ways. Sometimes the munificence in the system allows me to take no action.
The general rule is that I had a multiplicity of choices to make at individual level to ensure that I had sufficient water for my needs and i made my decisions by taking into account all the factors at the system level.
Managing at the collective level
We can also manage our collective response at system level by voting for more dams, or by cooperating or not cooperating with rules prohibiting sinking boreholes to use underground water, for example.
My individual action alone won’t influence the system but some of my individual actions have some influence on the system!
Now that I understand the system and the actions available to me, I can decide what I am going to do to maximize my interests. These are steps that I take.
- I learn the basic parameters of the system to be managed (enough water for three years).
- I judge the health of the system for myself (shall I keep my reservoir to collect rain water or not).
- I judge the state of the polity and figure out whether to engage to improve the system or not, as the case may be.
- I judge whether I will act against public interest and use underground water (for example).
Those are my choices. Similar choices will exist for any system.
If I were to pick on any one feature that can be influenced to change the state of the system, it is the state of the polity. If I cannot pull people together, I have to wonder what will happen to the systems. Will they spin out of control, as they did with the banks, and if that happens what will I do then?
I think what Umair was trying to get across was that many people have already opted for 4. They don’t care and are cashing in and running ~ though it is not quite clear where. But then when we are deranged, do we need a ‘where’? If that is what he meant, then I agree, and I think we should turn our attention to engaging effectively – to pulling people together. That won’t stop disasters. After all, even in a healthy polity, we might still have 4 droughts in a row. But we can be certain that in an unhealthy polity, we withdraw, we become apathetic, we don’t even try.
Time to cross reference with the work Donna Meadows has done on managing systems and the work Karl Weick has done on systems. Enough for tonight while I look those up!
My three points are this
- The systems as a whole must be monitored at system level
- Our individual actions will be judged against a simple criteria of fulfilling our own needs
- We also have some individual actions that affect the system.
- Because our individual influence is weak, we should put our energies into building involvement in the polity. The more people are engaged, they less they will behave cynically.
But nothing will insure against bad things happening. The system happens at another level. Paradoxically, when we understand that, we are more likely to manage our affairs in ways that system events don’t destroy us.