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September 2005
October 2005

2005-09-08 »

More Logical Inconsistency

Here's another fun example related to organizational behaviour. First, the rule that makes cooperation worthwhile in the first place:

1. Limited Energy: some problems are too big to be solved by a single person working alone.

Another important rule that I've proven empirically by violating it (and observing numerous other violations that weren't my fault) implies that you need to have clear divisions of responsibility:

2. Exclusivity: only one person can take responsibility for any particular thing. If the responsibility for something is divided between two people (or worse, a committee!), then when a difficult issue comes up, each person will hope someone else will deal with it, which means nobody does. The only times this doesn't happen are when one of the members does feel personally responsible and manages to override the other more apathetic committee members - but that's just a messy version of having no committee at all.

Applying the Exclusivity and Limited Energy rules quickly leads us to discover another rule that implies the need for hierarchy:

3. Balance of Power: In the words of spider-man's uncle, "With great power comes responsibility." And vice versa. You can't be held responsible for something unless you have the power to affect it. If you have the power to affect something, then you're responsible for its outcome, because you're the one who controls the outcome; that's what power means.

If we work together to solve large problems (Limited Energy), and only one person can be responsible for a particular outcome (Exclusivity), and the person responsible for an outcome has to have power to control that outcome (Balance), then a logical conclusion is this: for any large problem, a single person must have final responsibility to tell other people on the project what to do, and the power to enforce his decision.

All this is pretty widely accepted and has been the way things have worked for probably hundreds or thousands of years. Unfortunately, there is a fourth rule:

4. Quantization: the smallest amount of power a person can have is power over his own actions. He may deny his responsibility; he may subjugate it to someone in a higher position of authority; but he simply can't give up the power over his own actions. And so by the Balance rule, the responsibility is still his.

This messes up our nice, clean system. Quantization says you can't give someone power over someone else's actions. Balance says you can't give someone responsibility for someone else's actions if you can't give them the power too. Exclusivity says, in that case, that your manager has no power at all. The reason we wanted him to have power was because Limited Energy says he can't do it all himself, and Exclusivity says only a single person must be held responsible for the overall result.

I think nearly all organizational structures violate at least one of the four rules. Hierarchies violate Quantization, or Balance, or both; collective/consensus structures violate Exclusivity; pure individualism (libertarians?) violate Limited Energy.

But I believe all four rules are correct and necessary; every violation leads to predictable failure.

Check your premises.

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