Millstones of Progress

Milestones-of-ProgressIn a technological society many of us dream of being entrepreneurs, breaking out of rule-bound bureaucracies to try a new idea. However, a successful new organization has to deal with a world full of bureaucracy, so to do this, it grows its own administration. As it grows, its administration – a millstone around its neck – is apt to grow faster. And administrative millstones tend to grind very slowly.

In general, a millstone is any rigidity that inhibits flexibility to change. Static, forever systems are an illusion. Any burdens or obligations that bind us to the status quo can be thought of as millstones. Administrative bureaucracy is only one type.

However, bureaucracy is a big millstone. David Graeber sees our whole economic system as mired in bureaucracy. A big chunk of many sectors merely administrates: Defense. Health care. Education. Finance. Non-profits. The list has no end.

Graeber complains that in universities, meetings, grant writing, and credentialing stifle creativity. Politicians bemoan bureaucracy, but their own rule making perpetuates it, oft to favor one cause over another. We say that we have a free market economy, but much of our work consists of meetings, certifications, audits, contracts, applications, approvals, and litigation – abstractions from reality all.

Any big organization, not just government agencies, accumulates its own bureaucracy. It’s the classic way to communicate, to standardize, and to assure completeness. Simple rules, like mandatory checklists, may save time and errors, but many rules rankle those who wait, decipher legalese, comply, struggle to remember passwords – and fill out forms over and over. There must be better ways to meet the challenges of complexity.

Dividing work into specialized silos generates bureaucracy that attempts to integrate pockets of expertise. Learning a medical specialty or the research edge of a technology may take 10 years or more. Acronym laden silos have trouble communicating with each other. Using cost systems or other overlays, administrative bureaucracies attempt to control silos that the administrators poorly understand.

Another millstone is “technical debt,” a software phrase describing work that must be done to make a software package work as its users expect. Technical debt is an obligation to do work in the future. In software, it is backfill work that keeps a package integrated, documented, interoperable, updated, etc. – inglorious but necessary. Software is like a living system with a birth-death cycle, in technical debt all its life. Nerds must birth it, mature it, and retire it gracefully when its time is up.

Technical debt piles up by racing ahead on a conceptual software framework without tending to detail, beginning with not deeply understanding the purpose of the package. Technical debt breeds buggy software and vice-versa. Software bogged in technical debt is in danger of becoming “vaporware” – undeliverable hype. Working off technical debt improves what non-geeks think of as quality. Blogs about technical debt delve into all aspects of software, including “shelfware,” systems installed, but not used. (How many apps do we grab but not use? What’s the purpose of the apps that we do use?)

Technical debt appears to be a growing problem. For example, this spring’s SXSW Festival in Austin ended a tradition of announcing a whizbang breakthrough. Instead the news featured “issues,” like President Obama’s admonition not to be “absolutist” about encryption that can’t be cracked (FBI vs. Apple). Or that the long-awaited driverless vehicle’s prime time is probably delayed until after 2020. Or whether the F-35 can ever live up to its promises. If the rate of technical debt creation exceeds the rate at which it can be worked off, a dream becomes a mirage.

Technical debt also explains much about other systems, like cities. Few cities are designed. They just evolve – largely through economic system “rules” of the time. But once massive infrastructure is in place, revising it to be more resilient is monumental. Since cities live on energy, losing it is a disaster. Picture, if you can, a total disaster, a big city cut off from transport and electricity for months – no food; no fuel; no water; no sewage system; no phones; and after batteries run out, no broadcasts. Some occupants might function at a reduced state on wind and solar power. Others might flee to a safe haven, if one can be found. Could such a mess be prevented? If so, how?

Cities can’t be moved like tents, so few options to build resilience are easy. Dire scenarios are so painful to imagine that we hope against hope that magic technology will prevent them. Developing flexibility to become resilient takes a huge shift in worldview – a broader definition of waste than merely what customers won’t pay for.

We skimp on preparing for lesser disasters, like hurricanes. Why? Existing bureaucratic rules perpetuate physical and bureaucratic growth, assuming that growth will always resume – sometime. Developing resiliency appears to be a drag on growth.

Author Dmitri Orlov describes the millstone effect as a “technosphere” parasitic on the entire ecosphere, including humans. Orlov’s technosphere describes the same phenomenon as Wackernagle’s human ecological footprint growing beyond earth’s capacity to support it, but Orlov’s metaphor better explains the role of human short sightedness. When the technosphere’s economic rules and beliefs no longer serve us, but we serve them, nothing curbs its voracious eating. At some point, this parasite becomes a runaway killing its hosts, including the humans who created it.

Of course, our biggest millstones are environmental tails, ignored or underestimated, but necessary to remediate. Having acquired a lot of them, this is a very heavy debt. And perhaps our biggest millstone is not our recognized environmental tails, but trying to keep our monstrosity of development flexible enough to adapt to big changes. The story of the Alaskan village, Kivalina, is a small, understandable example of our emerging predicament.

So how do we get this millstone off our backs? Simplifying work processes, including bureaucratic ones may only make more efficient the parasites eating the ecosystem.

Instead, let’s seek a way to organize that is better than bureaucratic controls, less biased toward top down, central control by “experts.” Bureaucracy’s flaws are well known. Checklist audits nitpick details without getting to the root of problems. Feedback is slow, so updating rules is burdensome. Learning is slow. Training emphasizes compliance – with regulations, with certifications, and even with “excellence award criteria.”

Bureaucratic rules do not overcome rancorous differences over the purposes of the rules – disagreement over what any organization should be doing. But the psychology is that if an organization hits its performance numbers, financial and otherwise, it is legally protected and doing well. People overwhelmed by procedures don’t ask deep questions.

Bureaucracy is based on a mechanistic view of performance. Set measureable goals and drive group effort toward them. How well this works depends on the goals and whether the measuring process is humanely administered or a tool of hierarchical tyranny. But it’s not great. Management by measurement substitutes abstractions for reality. Those at the top of the pyramid usually set the goals based on their beliefs.

What’s our biggest millstone? Probably hierarchical, bureaucratic organization and the system of beliefs that perpetuates it.

We need a new system of organization, more organic and faster adapting; quicker and deeper at learning, and capable of communicating a broad bandwidth of human understanding – which is more than mere information. To so much as try this, people must be willing and able to take responsibility for doing the right thing and for judging what the right thing is. To self-govern in this sense, people must be motivated both to serve all stakeholders and to keep our ecological hosts healthy – a different idea of “true north.”

Balancing multiple, conflicting goals requires more from us than simple mandates to maximize profit, and more than technique based excellence. For example, designing products for cradle-to-cradle performance is much more than designing an artifact. It’s an exercise in multi-stakeholder process design. Engaging in that requires long-horizon values as a guide star – a new true north – plus broad systems thinking.

Without escaping our box of business-as-usual delusions, we tiptoe around the edges of change, merely tweaking the current system. Changing us is a mighty tall order, but if we continue to chase the ideals of technology and expansionary economics, we risk subjugating our humanity to artificial intelligence, and risk living our lives in thrall to mindless commercialism. Conclusion: we need a revolution in belief systems, a transformative worldview, one in which we realize that we are symbiotic with nature’s reality; that we must take care of nature if it is to take care of us.

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