The wonderful thing about I'm the only one
Everything here is my opinion. I do not speak for your employer.
September 2005
October 2005

2005-09-11 »

sfllaw seems to have gotten interested in my last entry, and I'm trying to procrastinate right now, so I guess I'll fill in my next segment a bit sooner than I planned. Read Simon's analysis here.

(Quick response: Simon says many correct things, but I think he suffers from a bias towards ignoring the Exclusivity rule. Most Open Source-type people do, and the failings of Open Source compared to commercial software - and yes, there are some - can largely be explained by this.)

The Meaning of Power

The trick here is not to disprove one of the four rules, which should be difficult; each rule is pretty self-contained and almost "inherently obvious." The trick is to find a way to obey all four rules at the same time. To do that, you have to realize that one or more hidden assumptions - what you used to make decisions for action based on the rules - was wrong.

I'm sure there are lots of "premises" - fundamental assumptions - you can reject in my earlier analysis. That seems to be the way life works. Here's the one that fascinates me the most: the meaning of power.

Power over people comes in many forms. The simplest form is physical coercion; if I push you over a cliff, you're just plain going to fall off the cliff, and all the Quantization rules in the world aren't going to save you. However, this is virtually worthless for getting intellectual work done. You can force someone not to think, but you can't force them to think.

Another kind of power is a bit closer, and many organizations (especially military, and other highly hierarchical organizations) use this as their defining structure: the threat of coercion. There are consequences if you disobey - sometimes even death. So you obey. By doing this, you're "taking responsibility" for the consequences of your actions, ie. Not Getting Punished, so you're in compliance with the four rules. But now you're getting into my earlier comments about dueling stupidities in Company Policy.

There are other kinds of power as well, which are much more subtle but which I think can work much better. Here is one, which Simon also alluded to in his response earlier.

The Power to Control Membership

Also known as "hiring and firing." Here's how it works: if someone agrees with what you're doing, you hire them. If they disagree, you fire them. Repeat this process enough times (people's opinions change over time, of course, and so do yours) and you eventually converge on a group whose interests are aligned. There's no longer any reason why the person with primary responsibility will have to worry about disobedience from the others; the others have a natural tendency to want to do exactly those things that he wants them to do.

Note that this method is different from the threat of firing: that's just the threat of coercion again. There is no fear involved (strictly speaking) in the Membership Control method.

I think people underestimate how much Membership Control is at the root of the problems/successes with most organizational behaviour, because it sounds like such a blunt tool. Firing people just because they don't think the right way? Ouch!

But you do it anyway. When you voluntarily leave a group, you do it to yourself. How about these examples:

  • People who use HTML-only mail get ignored on technical mailing lists.
  • The Apache Core team is selected based on how well the candidates' interests align with the interests of the existing core team.
  • Debian won't let new members in unless they agree to the DFSG (and nowadays, possibly other rules). Conversely: there are no Debian developers that are violently opposed to Free Software, even though such people (often very smart ones) exist.
  • The most successful companies attract the best job candidates.
  • People who really love video games and are willing to work long hours (everyone knows game developers work long hours!) apply to video game companies.
  • "Techies" don't really like "suits", and vice versa. Every company has its place along that continuum, and you won't work there if you can't handle the particular environment.
You can talk about charismatic leaders, information sharing, and natural consensus, and there's plenty of truth to it, of course. But in real life, organizations often stick together simply because the members self-select themselves for compatibility with the goals of the group. Once you have that, your charismatic leader has a much easier job.

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