Thursday, May 31, 2007

Two more arguments for unity

I discussed in an earlier post some arguments for why it may be a bad idea to put off efforts to deal with large-scope problems "until we have all the smaller-scope ones completed."

This, again, is flying in the fact of exactly the opposite trend among many business leaders, who have jettisoned concern about long-range planning, or else reduced it to a horizon of 3 months and call that "long-range". And, it flies in the fact of advice from many PhD advisors, who try to train their students to focus on smaller, shorter-term, more "realistic" problems.

The implicit sense is that the total energy and effort required to complete a task gets larger as the scale of the activity gets broader. In mathematical terms, it is assumed that effort to do a credible and useful job is a "monotonically increasing function of scope."

I completely disagree with that, and feel that by the same logic, no one should study astronomy, or even make a map of the stars, until we understand atoms perfectly. Or, perhaps, no one should study sociology and government until we understand everything there is to know about individual people.

It seems obvious, on reflection, that we can learn a lot about people by observing precisely the emergent phenomena around us. We can learn a lot about air by observing the weather, clouds, thunderstorms, and tornadoes that we would have a hard time "seeing" in a beaker of air, regardless how well and how long we studied it.

Also, we would have to explain why it is that it is far easier to describe the equations governing water in pipes in our plumbing than it is to describe molecular quantum mechanics. That, alone, seems to be a counter-example that disproves the hypothesis that larger things must be harder to get a useful handle on.

This is particularly true when large scale phenomena are actually causal, by all our standard definitions of that word, and the small scale phenomena of which the large is composed is not causal. Pretty much any electronic device is an example of that, where we rely on the statistical behavior of "current", without actually caring whether particular electrons move or kick back and chill, so long as most of them do what we expected every time.

Newtonian and Laplacian bases of description.

These are big words but relatively simple concepts. Newton described things in terms of points, so we might describe a ball's motion by listing where it was at time "t" for t=1, t=2, etc. to whatever precision we desire. To describe anything "large" in size therefore takes a "large"number of such measurements, and is correspondingly expensive and difficult.

Note importantly that the Newtonian method is always, literally, "full of holes" at the times we did not specify. It is an incomplete description, but works for many purposes, especially if we "interpolate" and "extrapolate" to "fill in the missing pieces" and "connect the dots."

That's not the only way we can describe the position of a ball. An alternative method, equally capable of being "complete" to whatever accuracy we desire, is to start by stating where the ball's average position will be over the time period of interest. That's the first data point.

The second data point could be the "standard deviation" or other measure of the variability of the ball's position over the time period of interest. (Or, we could pick as second and third data points the maximum and minimum positions of the ball over the time period of interest.)

Now here's an interesting thing. The way Newton described things, with three data points of the temperature today, we'd have the temperature at Midnight, at 12:01 AM, and at 12:02 AM., and not know very much that people care about, regardless how precisely those three measurements were taken. On the other hand, if I tell you the average temperature today will be 83, with a low of 55 and and a high of 92 F, I've also told you exactly 3 things, but they contain global information, not local information, and are way more helpful to you in selecting
clothes to wear, etc.

This is another counter-example, where a global measure is actually far easier and more useful than an arbitrarily precise local measure.

The specification of something, starting with the "low frequency, large scale" average color, then adding successively higher frequency variations around that base color, is basically how the jpeg images are encoded. Again, if a progressive jpeg is downloaded, you may be able to see in the first few seconds that it's not what you want as it emerges from the mist, and move on to something else. Meanwhile, viewers of TIFF images, are waiting for the top row of pixels to arrive, then the second entire row., then the third entire row, etc. You could need to download most of the picture to see what it is and whether you want it.

JPEG's can be arbitrarily precise, as precise as TIFF images, but it is seldom necessary for what humans do with images.

All the above is one set of arguments for why "large scale" properties are no harder than "small scale ones", and are often easier, and should not be neglected just because they are "large."

And, for phenomena that are "context dependent", as so much is, it may be far more valuable to us to get the first few "moments" of a distribution (the average, the standard deviation, etc.)
than to get the first few data points of the time-series. So, it can be far faster for many real decisions we need to make.

And, in physics, there are conserved properties such as "total energy" and "total momentum" that don't care at all how these rearrange themselves at the local internal level, so long as the overall total remains constant as seen from outside.

A completely different case for working from the top-down, instead of the bottom up, is called precisely that - "top down design" and "top down computer programming". A few hundred thousand person years of experience programming have led experts to believe that it is much more effective to describe a problem starting at the top, in very broadest terms with the least depth, and work our way "down" into successively more detail -- than it is to go the other way.

The other way, bottom up, in fact, is viewed as the major source of time-consuming "bugs" and conceptual errors that are very hard to resolve and hard to locate. In fact, if an organization ever gets an "Escher waterfall" shape in place, and realizes it is flawed, they might simply choose to live with the pain of the flaw, because of the amount that has been vested in "getting the pieces right" so far, the pieces that everyone has adapted to and is willing to accept as "the devil we know" rather than "starting over." At that point, as Zorba the Greek might say, we have "the full catastrophe" of a flawed design that no one wants to let go of, even though it is demonstrably broken.

With top-down design, the details rest on the the larger and larger contexts, not vice versa.
This is great, because the things most likely to change are the details, not the largest contexts.
If we rested everything on the details, every time a detail changed we'd have to redo the entire program. If we rest on top-down hierarchy of contexts, usually all but the very last few, the most detailed, remain constant over the life of the program, and the amount of change to code required is minimized. Most of the code, the upper levels, remains stable and validated and doesn't need to be touched. In the "bottom up" world, if you change one detail, you probably need to rewrite everything.

So, what I'm arguing is that these principles seem to apply as well to descriptions and measurements of our social organizations. Top down metrics may be much easier to do and reveal everything we need to know much faster than trying to get a huge number of detailed data points at the bottom levels.

In my mind, then, the mathematics and science argue strongly for working top down, and getting the large conceptual pieces resolved before worrying about the details, not the other way around. This progression seems, also, to match up with what Fisher and Shapiro are arguing in "Getting to Yes", that our problems only seem intractable because we're trying to resolve them at the most detailed level of "positions" when we could and should move up a few levels to "interests", where it is far more likely that we can find common ground.

For these reasons, from the discussion of fraying and gaps in human responsibility of synthesized tasks, and many others, I urge exploration of the "larger issues" at least in parallel with the "smaller" ones.

There are two final reasons I'll add to the mix.

First, although scientists tend to forget it, the entire enterprise of science is a social entity, and, as scientists seem always shocked to rediscover, the enterprise rests on a political and social matrix in which it is embedded.

Put most simply, if the social interests and the scientific interests clash too much, it is the scientists who will be out of jobs, not the society. If the society collapses politically, or has a global thermonuclear war or global biological war, the rest of science becomes moot. It doesn't matter how precise you are when you're dead.

There is, in other words, some timetable, some urgency, to getting sufficient data together to make some very large, very important decisions that will need to be made soon, that will dramatically effect us all. A response to the global rising epidemic of drug-resistant Tuberculosis is one, and what trade off civil liberties should have versus the rights of "the public" to be protected from people who are carrying infectious diseases. Ditto for AIDS.
What we should do about the "middle east problem" is another.

We don't have time for Science to analyze molecules sufficiently well to be able to tell us who to vote for in 2008, and that won't happen regardless how long we wait. The data and factors and variables of interest to us don't even exist at the molecular level. The universe is not deterministic upwards, as physics has shown us finally.

So, if we have some hard, global decisions coming up, we cannot wait for a bottom-up assembly of concepts and fragments of knowledge to succeed, because even if it were possible to happen, which it seems not to be, it would take "longer than we have."

We have, maybe, a decade or two to decide our fate, in some rather permanent and irreversible ways.

Given all the above, this argues that at least some effort should be given to looking for a "top down" approach to understanding how things work and what our options are. In that conclusion, I find myself in complete agreement with the teachings of the Baha'i Faith, which I will close with, as quotes from

But First, Unity

Is unity a distant ideal to be achieved only after the other great problems of our time have been resolved?

Bahá’u’lláh says the opposite is the case. The disease of our time is disunity. Only after humanity has overcome it will our social, economic, political, and other problems find solution.

Today, several million people around the world are discovering what He means. We invite you to explore His message with us.

I didn't set out to "prove" that the Baha'i's are "right" and that is not why I raise the issue now. I raise it because the group has been focused for 150 years on precisely this core issue of "unity in diversity", the one that the rest of academia is finally recognizing, and the group has studied first hand by direct experience what it takes to make that work in various parts of this actual planet we live on. That experience is hard-won and we don't have time to replicate it.

In that regard, it seems "due diligence" to at least read what they have to say.


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On Pyramid Schemes

The reading today is from the gospel of John Gall, "Systemantics - The underground text of systems lore - How systems really work and how they fail." page 79


On the edge of the desert, a few miles south of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, stands a ruined tower of masonry some two hundred feet high, surrounded by great mounds of rubble. It is the remains of a gigantic Pyramid. It' ruined state has variously been attributed to time, weather, earthquake or vandalism, despite the obvious fact that none of thee factors has been able to affect the other Great Pyramids to the same degree.

Only in our own time has the correct solution to this enigma been advanced. In conformity with basic Systems Principles ... the answer was provided by an outsider, a physicist unaware that there was nay problem,who, after a vacation in Egypt, realized that the Pyramid of Snofru had fallen down. ... It is clear that the thing was almost complete when it fell.

... Unknown to Snofru, [his] achievement hung by a thread. It was at the limit of stability for such a structure. Snofru, in expanding the scale, unwittingly exceeded the engineering limits. It fell down.

Example 2. The pyramid of Cheops.

Cheops, son of Snofru, vowed not to make the same mistake. With great care he constructed his pyramid of finely dressed limestone blocks, carefully arranged to distribute the stresses. His pyramid did not fall down, nor did those of his immediate successors, which were built in the same way. But the Egyptian State, subjected to unbearable stresses by the building of those monsters of pride, collapsed into anarchy. Egypt fell down.
Thus ends the reading for today.
Let us pray.

further reading -
Failure is our most taboo subject

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Scale and Scope-Creep

Our mental model of the nature of the world dominates our thinking on what kind of problems we should be starting with.

The classic view, emphasized repeatedly by academics to new students, is to keep the focus narrow, to work on the smallest problem possible and do it well. Large problems are "bad", and very large problems are "world hunger" or impossible:

But, if we look at problems like antenna radation with near and far fields that are both easy, and just a middle field that is difficult, we have to ask if the actual curve doesn't look more like this one, with "easy" parts at each end and the "hard" part in the middle. At the low end, one thing dominates and other terms can be ignored. At the high end, a different thing dominates, and everything else can be ignored. It's only in the middle that nothing can be ignored and the problem becomes too hard to do.

An example was the water in the faucet. At a molecular level, we can model the motion of several, possibly 100 molecules. More gets harder and harder. But if we keep going up to the level of ten to the tenth molecules, we get solvable problems, just with different terms. We now have terms like "water pressure" and "volume" and "flow rate" that mean nothing at the molecular level. At the water level, looking back to the molecular level, it now looks hard, what with all the probability distribution functions and quantum mechanical effects and waves instead of particles, etc.

But, as Marsden Bloise pointed out in an article I read long ago that simply transfixed me, the reality of LIFE is that it has a "curiously laminated" quality, with levels that make sense to us (cells, organs, systems, people, teams, companies, planets" separated by stuff between the easy levels, like filling in an OREO brand cookie, that is squishy and hard to analyze.

That model, then, is more like this picture:

The conclusion is that LIFE has levels at which there are meaningful concepts, separated by spaces in which we can't find meaningful concepts. Each of the levels we know of has academics studying it, and they are treated as if they were entirely different universes, not different parts of the very same single LIFE object.

So we have Politics and Sociology and Psychology an Biology and Cell Biology, which hardly ever talk to each other, but, in reality, are just different aspects of the same LIFE entity that humans are in the middle of. As we begin to understand that these levels interact, perhaps even causally as seen from above (but not from below), we begin to figure out that there is really only one large complex thing here, not many small distinct separate things. We have to unfragment what we know about LIFE and reassemble the pieces.

ANYWAY, my point is that sometimes LARGER is actually EASIER, as the study of "water" is much easier than the study of "quantum mechanics of a dense population of H20 molecules."

So, the same thing is true, in my mind, about organizational functioning. There is no point in saying we are going to "solve" the individual and small-team problems first, and then, if there is time left over, move on to the much harder department and company scale problems we face.

First, we'd be missing all the easy cherry-picking solutions at the higher levels.
Second, since everything is connected to everything else, like some huge "mobile" hanging structure, it's actually not possible to "solve" any one level without at least partly solving the level above it. We've found that out in Public Health and Psychology -- there's little point in trying to change one person or one tribe, because, when we walk away, the surrounding systems push back on them and the person or tribe reverts to their old behavior.

The best solution, then, would actually address every level simultaneously, and ask the question of "What would be a win-win-win solution here?"

In Public Health, that would mean asking what would simultaneously address personal, corporate business, city, state, and population level needs, and national identity needs? Instead, too much effort is put into trying to sub-optimize the problem, and solve "environmental health" at the expense of jobs, that then backfires because the unemployed workers then have worse health than before.

Larger is smaller. Bigger is Easier. It is neither ill-advised nor a waste of time nor unimaginably complex to address large issues ahead of small ones. Like water versus molecules, sometimes the larger problems are much easier to solve.

And, like my post on the fragmentation of social groups, if we don't address the larger problem, the gaps and holes that neglect produces manages to defeat, neutralize, and devastate all the work we did "solving" local problems. All our work is wasted if we train people to perfection and no one thinks the problem that arises is theirs to fix.

Similarly, the Toyota Production Model and "lean" thinking can help us greatly in addressing local efficiencies, and even set up some global concepts in terms of "pull" and the impact of stopping a whole line because anyone, at any level, is having a hard time doing their own job because of difficulties someone else exported to them. Those are great concepts.

But those concepts still start at the bottom and work upwards. They leave the separate and mostly independent base uncovered of starting at the top and working downwards, and finally meeting in the middle.

It seems that both ends should be worked on simultaneously, for best results.

Ref: Near field, far field.
MC Escher - Ascending and Descending.

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Review of Beyond Reason - by Fisher and Shapiro

Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and co-authors of the best-selling book Getting to Yes, have come out with a new and important book - Beyond Reason - Using Emotions as you Negotiate.

A review of the book by "Negotiator" magazine is here, which concludes:

This is one of those unusual works that is so carefully constructed and written that you may find yourself praising its common sense and nodding easily in concurrence. It may even seem that you knew it all as you read along. Perhaps, of course, you did. And yet, more likely, you will decide as this reviewer came to do that you have just read a new and valuable contribution to the literature of negotiation. It is a book to reflect upon and that belongs on every negotiator's reference shelf.

The book includes an extensive and well-chosen bibliography, a glossary and a full index which will please both practitioners and scholars.

Highly Recommended.

John Baker, Ph.D.

This book is relevant here, because the authors have enormous experience with what it takes to make successful negotiations, particularly on a global scale. So, let me move on from the review and author's words to my own discussion of how this subject is relevant

And one of the most important realizations is that humans are not machines. We are not little cognitive processors that just happen to be superimposed on top of animal bodies. Humans have a rich depth that is sloppily called "emotional", and too often treated with disdain by Science -- as if it's left over baggage from our grandparents that we wish we didn't have.
Human emotions are a "feature" not a "bug".
It seems that these "emotions" have a lot to do with social relationships, and with the establishing and maintenance of "social capital" and the fabric that underlays the rest of our lives, commerce, etc. The emotions have a lot to do with preventing (or causing) the kind of ripping apart that was described in the prior post.

Like "Religion", "Emotions" are often slammed for their visible downside, while failing to take into account their upside. Remember that the core problem I'm discussing now has to do with a very subtle, relatively distant breakdown in global coherence, but one that turns out to result in a series of "unavoidable" system errors that just keep on happening.

And, as Commerce has been increasingly noticing, if you want a productive labor force, it really helps if they are a happy labor force, and truly enjoy working together. Positive Psychology makes a tremendous impact on the bottom line, not just on "safety" or reliability or error reduction or mission completion. It also turns out to make a tremendous difference in the physiological health and mental health of the workforce. So, it cannot be left out in the hopes of having a "more efficient" company. The maximally efficient sustainable operating point for a group of people includes joyous interactions. Stripping out the emotions and the side conversations makes the output substantially worse in quality and quantity.
People are capable of working together side by side, they can enjoy doing it, and they need to be encouraged continually to do so, or the "silo" effect will dominate.
Very briefly, let's review Fisher and Shapiro's summary of "human needs" of negotiators (who we assume are already well up on Maslow's Hierarchy, breathing, healthy, fed, etc.)

The often overlooked human needs they focus on are these:
  • Express Appreciation
  • Build Affiliation
  • Respect Autonomy
  • Acknowledge Status
  • Choose a Fulfilling Role
They end with an account of using these ideas in the real world, by Jamil Mahuad, the Former President of Ecuador.

I'll end my quotes from the book with one from the very start of the book:
We cannot stop having emotions any more than we can stop having thoughts. The challenge is learning to stimulate helpful emotions in those with whom we negotiate - and in ourselves.
Again, I'll emphasize that the world we live in is multi-level, and the operational laws of levels outside our own are often very hard to see, but are every bit as important as the laws of the level we inhabit and can see so clearly. Just because something is distant from us does not make it "small". Mount Everest and the Sun are distant from us - but they are huge.

Emotional couplings can go dramatically wrong, but they can also go dramatically right. There is, in the words of Professor Kim Cameron - "Positive Deviance." We desperately need the "going right" part, because simple cognitive processes (thinking, symbol string processing) just doesn't have the oomph and motivational power to get actual hard work done in a sustainable way. Dispassionate thoughts can help us analyze situations, but are powerless to generate actual sustainable uphill driving action. For that we need emotional power and passion. Again, these are not "bugs" but "features" of the way humans and our society are designed.

The fact that emotions don't fit neatly into the cold, mechanical, "Scientific" model is an indictment of the limits of the model, not an indictment of emotions. Like Religion, Emotions deal with wavelengths and frequencies that are outside the historical Scientific linear model of "things-that-can-be neatly isolated from context and continue to operate".
Not only can they not be separated from context - they are the very stuff and substance of context.
Note that this is true on two different levels. I came to the topic on the social level, on what makes us tick, on what makes an organization capable of highly accurate, highly productive activity, day after day.

But it's true on a personal physiological level. Our brain, and neurons, are literally swimming and bathed in a different dimensional context of chemicals that form the context for our neural activity and "thinking." This context should not be seen as something that only has two states, namely working (or neutral, not interfering with thought) and broken (interacting with thought.)

Our brain is exquisitely wired for certain kinds of computations, such as "vision". Similarly, our bodies and emotions are exquisitely hard-wired for other kinds of computations involved in keeping our society functioning. Similarly, our own gut has its own neural system and pretty well runs itself, being visible only when something goes wrong - but that doesn't make it any less important to our well-being.

IN the book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman discusses the role of "mirror neurons", and a whole shadow array of processes that take place outside our awareness whenever two people meet or interact. (An TV interview by Nova with Goleman can be viewed here.) Here again we have a whole set of important systems that are almost invisible to our consciousness, except that they aren't invisible and are just critical to successful interactions. I'll quote from the cover of the book:
Our reactions to others and theirs on us have a far-reaching biological impact, sending out cascades of hormones that regulate everything from our hearts to our immune systems, making good relationships act like vitamins- and bad relationships like poisons. We can "catch" other people's emotions the way we catch a cold, and the consequence of isolation or relentless social stress can be life-shortening.
So, again, these are not factors that "interfere with" the management and operation of groups of people. These factors are the empowering forces that need to be orchestrated and "managed" in the best sense of that word. And, as with growing crops or healing bodies -
the natural processes do the hard stuff and the heavy lifting here, and mostly we need to just get obstacles out of the way of those natural processes.
It is like the concept that Alex Baldwin comes up with in the movie Red October, basically, "Hey. We don't need to solve this problem. We just need to realize how Captain Ramius has already solved this problem and go along with that." We don't need to create the concept of massive parallel computational power and add some "plug-in" to humans to make it work, although wireless connectivity and cell phones certainly should help -- we just need to open the floodgates and let it happen.

Actually, there is one step we could take to massively increase that effect, nationally. We could subsidize phone conversations and make them totally free. We could remove the last financial barrier to people talking to other people. Years ago, Japan basically did this, and made the cost of any phone call something like 5 cents. Of all the places where we do not want to slow things down, interpersonal communication is tops. There are billions of other places to make money, but charging people to talk to each other is the most economically damaging one I can think of. This models seriously suggests subsidizing those conversations, and not trying to profit from free Internet conversations.

Or, in our workplace design, we could be sure to include employee lounges with whiteboards, where people can mix and run into each other. One study I heard reported that something like 2/3 of the barrier-cracking solutions to problems arose "spontaneously" when people just happened to come by when others were talking about something. This was way more powerful than formal "project meetings" for solving hard problems. Removing the kitchens and lounges is not a step to improved efficiency or effectiveness, and if it appears to be so, we need to re-validate our metrics.

We have no way to predict which two people need to meet and exchange views to hold together the fabric that I showed in my last post being ripped apart. We know that we will need many such interactions, and that we need to facilitate interactions that cross gaps, cross silos, and cross social classes and not let everyone spend all day just inter-breeding mentally and psychologically. Too much inbreeding causes birth defects and production defects.

It is necessary to "stir the pot" and not let the natural forces that cause separation and clumping to "win" the day. We need to actively celebrate diversity, not "tolerate it" one day a year.
In a complete system, every part resonates to every other part. We are not sure how to "cause" that to occur, but we know a lot about ways to be sure it does not occur. One way to be sure it won't occur is to break the world into segments and not let them talk to each other socially, especially if the segments break along racial, caste, or social-status lines.

Central planning the details of human interactions won't work. Central planning and environment that will nurture human relations is critical.

Maybe, breaking the workspace up into cubicles, and putting one person per cubicle and not letting them see each other or talk to each other is not the best way to accomplish that. The human interactions being squelched are the ones that the company needs to operate. There's even death-spiral possible here, where, the more in trouble the company is, the more "management" prevents people from "wasting time" talking to each other -- which, in turn, reduces morale and efficiency even more, which makes the company more in trouble, etc.

People are an asset, but the most important part of people is not N-people taken as "individuals" but a dynamic emergent "us" that can and will show up if people with a common purpose are allowed to interact and encouraged to support each other and find corporate support for such on-going "social" interactions.

The classic concept of checking your guns and your emotions and, basically, your life at the door because we should be "professional" because this is a "work place" produces not neutrality, but a workplace that is dismally depressing and just sucks the life-force out of the employees who try to work there. Phrases like "I'm going home so I can get some work done" start sounding familiar. What those classical techniques produce, time after time, are "anti-work places" where the work cannot possibly get done and cannot possibly get done well in a sustainable fashion.

The old model, the "Theory X" model of employees, doesn't actually work in practice. We need to be looking at "Theory Y" instead, that seems to fit reality and be much more productive in both human and commercial senses. Ben-Sharar teaches Harvard's most popular course, Positive Psychology, and teaches that this is productive for everything from health care to the Israeli Army. Theory Y actually works and works way better than Theory X. That's the take home message.

We are not machines. That's the better model.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The road to error - illustrated

There are many different kinds of errors that organizational systems of humans can make, but one of the trickiest is directly related to the questions of "integrity", "transparency", and "prejudice." I want to relate these to the classic "swiss cheese" multi-layered defense system that James Reason made famous:

[ source of that slide: ..? ]

Instead of looking at the layers the way he does, let's just use one slice of cheese as a model, and examine what can happen when an organization, initially one person, has a base fully covered but then the organization starts to grow and add people.

The problem is that, as the organization spreads out one conceptual task over more and more people, gaps start to occur in the coverage. They occur particularly in the area where it's a little fuzzy which person or team's job it is to handle that task.

This seems to me to be an intrinsic failure mode for organizations. It turns out, that regardless how good a job anyone in a company can do, if they don't actually do it, their skill level doesn't matter. Furthermore, a very common way for people not to do a job is for them not to realize that it's their job to do. In some organizations this might be accompanied by a twinge of remorse, but then a resigned "It's not my job!" and forgetting about the task.

So, when a task that used to be something one person does get's divided up among many people, there is a risk that none of those people will decide the task is their to do, regardless how well intentioned or skilled they are. This effect can completely neutralize years of effort getting skilled at a task. Things, almost literally, "fall through the cracks."

And the cracks almost always appear, if the task and organization keep growing and growing and adding more and more people to distribute a single conceptual task among. Soon, the organization looks like the following, with entire "silos" of separate groups, and each silo broken into a pecking order of elites, middle class, and bottom rung workers of some kind. Now there are a lot of gaps, but still, the gaps are fairly small.

But, as the organization continues to grow and evolve more specialized skills in each local area, the people in each box start to spend more time talking to each other than they do talking to people outside their own little box. It's more convenient, and the language is more directly relevant. We all speak the same language. It begins to become "us" here in this box, versus "them" out there in other boxes.

Still, the teams may be cooperating, but that won't last. Sooner or later, messages are missed, or silence itself becomes interpreted as a hostile message. Something falls through the cracks, there is a storm of blame and recimination, and a deadly spiral sets in of becoming more and more convinced that all problems are due to the people in other boxes, who are surely idiots or else have evil intent. The boxes draw away from each other, in a mild form of disgust. The "us" becomes fractured into many different kinds of "us".

As the communication between teams becomes more hostile, "management" may decide to simlify the problems by having all communications go through them. The number of connections going into one box is now at most two, one from above, and one going to a box below in the pecking order. This allows the fabric of the cheese to twist around the thin connecting segments, as if around an axle. Within each section of cheese, this is unnoticed, because their world is still fine, locally.

Then, the layer of cheese may start to warp and become a curved surface, not a flat surface. Again, seen from within that section, everything is fine, because the observers in that "flat land" are measuring a curved surface with curved rulers, and it looks just fine. Even simple facts and reasoning from other sections, however, don't seem to make sense anymore, because they don't line up correctly. This is attributed to the other group losing touch with reality.

Finally, the fabric of the organization is so frayed and fragmented that whole pieces fall off, unnoticed from within. Now you can "drive a small truck" through the gaps and holes, but again this is not visible from inside each segment, because it spends zero time pondering the middle territory or white space. That space is "not our job" but is "someone else's job".

This condition of an organization is now somewhat stable. Life goes on, and a number of errors come and go, with everyone attributing the errors to everyone else, and shaking their heads at how those "others" aren't doing their jobs. Other groups are seen as actively hostile enemies, blaming us for things we didn't do. Relations deteriorate. Errors abound.

Now the amazing thing is that this can occur even though each team is doing an almost perfect job of managing what they see as their own turf.

The error occurs in a place we are so unfamiliar with we don't even have a name for it. I call it the M.C. Esher Waterfall Error, after this work of Escher. At first glance and even close inspection, the image seems a little strange, but harmless.

A closer inspection reveals that the water, however, is following an impossible path.

It flows down a waterfall, then flows down a zigzag of channels, and finds itself back at the top of the waterfall, so it falls down the waterfall, ...
etc. forever. It's a perpetual motion machine.

The vertical columns in the middle tier in front have something terribly wrong with them too.

And yet, if you look at any small part of this lithograph, nothing seems wrong.

This is a problem we are simply not used to encountering - the detail level is correct, but the larger global level is clearly absurd and wrong.

We have "emergent error", sort of the opposite of synergy.

The swiss cheese and waterfall pictures are meant to illustrate that organizations break down in a funny way, where all the pieces continue to work, but the overall integrity falls apart, in a very subtle and unnoticed way. In fact, it is generally hard to get anyone to pay attention to the fact that something serious is wrong, because anyone can see, from inside, that everything (that you see from inside) is correct. (We have run into Godel's Theorem as a problem.)

1) Just because everything locally measures as fine does not mean things are fine.
2) Even if everyone can do a perfect job, that won't matter if they don't do it.
3) They won't do it if it's not perceived as "their job".
4) This mode of breakdown is very insidious, but I think it is also very common.

This kind of expansion and condensation and specialization needs to be balanced with a corresponding effort at reintegration, although it may seem a minor and non-urgent task.

Then, something huge comes through the gap, and everyone is astounded that such a thing could happen.

Another post will deal with ways to address it. This post is just to document that there is a type of problem that organizations can suffer, a malady or disorder or disease, that is very difficult to trace locally. It always seems to be coming from "over there", but if you go "over there" you see that it isn't coming from "over there" either. It locks itself down with blame, stereotyping, and sullen bitterness about having to put up with "those idiots" in the other departments who keep messing things up. It is hard to decipher because the simplest messages from other departments don't even make sense and you have to wonder if they've remembered to take their medications lately. The more errors go through the hole, the more people lock into blaming each other, and the more the subsections curl up to avoid touching the other sections and withdraw into their own comfortable world where people talk sense and behave rationally.

No one is doing anything wrong, and everyone is doing something wrong, but the wrongness is subtle. It has something to do with whether everyone is OK with not being clear whose job a task might be, and not being able to find out whose job it is. If people are "responsibility seeking", this may be less likely than if they are "responsibility avoiding" as an ethic. If people feel an error is "not my problem" or "someone else's problem" this can worsen.

If the world is divided into "us" and "them", there is always a middle ground that is very confusing and not clearly us and not clearly them. Errors flow to that ground, like pressurized gas trying to escape. If there are cracks between teams, errors seem eerily capable of finding them. The errors are remarkably resilient to efforts to track them down and fix them, and seem to keep happening, as if those idiots over there have no learning curve at all.

But, it is a very dangerous wrongness, if this problem occurs on a global scale, and teams don't just get annoyed at each other and fight figurative wars, but actually start dropping explosive devices on each other in order to stop the continual assault they feel they are under.

It may also be that the efforts to reduce animosity by controlling all communications between hostile teams by routing them through management is well intended, but is based on a model of communication that is single-channel, explicit, context-independent, and rooted deeply in processing linear strings of symbols - where one mistake can throw off everything. The communication that takes place before the body is fractured and fragmented howerver is more like image-processing: it is multi-channel, implicit, context dependent, and not based on symbol processing, so it is robust and fairly immune to point-noise. In fact, generally, changing a single pixel in an image has zero effect on the contained communication.

It may be that what is needed is a lot more socializing, and sloppy, many-to-many uncontrolled interactions, as a kind of glue to keep the pieces from falling apart. As Daniel Goleman notes in his book Social Intelligence, humans have a great many different ways to synchronize and synch up and coordinate with each other, most of which are non-verbal, very fast, and intrinsically sloppy and prone to pointwise error. Those errors are made up by having massive parallel communications, not by reducing communications to a single channel that is very tightly regulated. There is not enough bandwidth in a single channel to synchronize two disparate groups at all points. The groups can "twist" and "rotate" around that channel, and move out of synch. Best efforts mysteriously fail.

Human Error - Models and Management, James Reason. BMJ 2000;320:768-770 ( 18 March )

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Unity in diversity - the universal problem

If we're going to have a useful discussion on solving our most important common problems, we need to understand the concept of "unity in diversity" at more than a basic level.

I want to stress two features of this design problem of "unity in diversity" as I'm using that term:

  • The design problem is very wide-spread. There are instances everywhere in space, time, and scale.
  • The processes and principles behind this are not just a little similar, or even very similar - they are identical.
First - the problem is very wide spread, across space, time, and scale.

  • Our bodies have muscle tissue, nerve tissue, bone, blood, etc. - each with different jobs to do.
  • Companies may have marketing, engineering, and manufacturing departments, each with different orientations and vocabularies.
  • Families may have very young, young, middle-age, older, and very old members, each with very different interests and needs and vocabularies.
  • A university may have different departments - such as "engineering" and "literature" and "athletics", with very different orientations, priorities, needs, and vocabularies.
  • A hospital may have departments, specialties, and sub-specialties - such as medicine versus surgery, emergency medicine, emergency pediatric medicine, emergency pediatric respiratory medicine, etc. -- each with different interests, needs, orientations, and vocabularies.
  • Our cells, internally, are not uniform but have specialized subsections for energy production, protein production, effectively library services (DNA), etc. These are all specialized with different structures, orientations, and functions.
  • Our planet is not uniform but is divided, somewhat contentiously and fluidly, into "nations" which don't line up exactly with "cultures" or "continents." These may very specifically speak different languages and have different values, needs, and aspirations.
  • There are often "classes" of society with differnt values, needs, and use of language, even if it appears at first glance to be "the same language."
  • There is, literally, "no end to this." If we look upwards and outwards, it seems that the visible universe is divided into solar-systems surrounding stars, and the stars are clumped in to galaxies, and the galaxies are clumped into clusers.
  • If we look at the internet and the world of weblogs and interest groups (the "blogosphere") researchers have found that it too has differentiated and clumped into subgroups that mostly talk within themselves, not across groups. (See Lada Adamic's work.)
  • If we look at a high-school cafeteria, sometimes the breakup into groups, cliques, etc. is obvious.
  • If we look at our cities, there are "neighborhoods" with local flavors that may be very different from each other.
  • Our very concepts of life and knowledge have somewhat dynamic boundaries put into them breaking one world into different "fields of knowledge" with specialized vocabularies and interests and persistent identities.

This tendency to break apart a homogeneous population and turn it into specialized sub-groups is everywhere. This is a very basic physical process that always tends to happen.

If you don't believe me, ask any Dean, Director, parent, school-principal, general manager, mayor, governor, president or king. As soon as you get a large group of people together they tend to break apart into "warring factions." over the smallest things. And these people will also confirm that this problem is not just wide-spread and one that absorbs a lot of their time and attention, but is one that has a dramatic, often fatal impact on the survival of the collective enterprise - from productivity to creativity to agility. Everything gets wrecked by this breaking up into silos. So, yes, there is a lot of interest in ways to counteract that tendency, and in design patterns that are "reusable" and can be plugged into your own problem situation.

What's not yet shared, however, is the realization that these problems don't just span space, but they span scale and time. These are all, mathematically, the same problem - and it is the central problem everyone on earth has a vested interest in getting solved right now, if just to "fix" their own little corner that has gone wrong and spends more time fighting itself than it does getting useful chores done.
Without destroying the benefits of specialization, and without homogenizing everyone into "the Borg", how do we overlay something else additional on top of those specialties so that they all also have a common identity, a shared component, and can, when we need to, act as one? That's the engineering design question. What works? What has ever worked?

Second, the processes and principles behind this are not just a little similar, or even very similar - they are identical.

The good news, then, is that anything we can learn about this process in one "field", say sociology, is immediately helpful in understanding another "field", such as "developmental biology", if (and only if) we can distinguish the universal aspects from the accidental local implementation details.

The physical laws and principles behind this tendency to break up into self-sustaining clusters come to us from "control system engineering", not physics or chemistry.

There are only a few stable and simple ways to make a self-sustaining control loop, with certain parts we will always find. More on this tomorrow. We know this can work because we're sitting here reading this, and our bodies are made of trillions of cells that are differentiated and yet integrated. There is a solution to this design problem. We need to understand it better.

If every level and instance of this problem has its own low-resolution sense and view and picture of this problem, limited by the very small size of their receiver, mathematically, we can still assemble all of those low-resolution pictures and process them using "image processing" techniques to come up with a single, high-resolution image of the design issue. That's where I'm going with this, phrased as an "image processing" problem. There are very powerful muscles to do that, if we can rotate this problem around and get it over to those muscles.

Looking ahead , in the next few days I'll bring this back to the question of "immune systems" and the defenders of the faith, or at least, defenders of certain specialized substructures that life has rearranged itself into. There are some fascinating problems caused by the difference in scale between "members" and "the whole."

For example, in our own bodies, to function, we want our cells to be specialized into very specific functions and grouped into tissues and organs, and we want blood cells to be good blood cells, not sloppy blood cells. There are standards! Deviations must be rooted out!

But we also don't want "bone" cells to attack "blood cells" as if they were foreign invaders and enemies.
Now, this is a challenging problem, because we love our cells but, like loved birds like parakeets, they are still, well, to put it crudely, bird brains. PhD's have trouble understanding differences between cells - how are single-celled cells supposed to make a better job of it? (And, the astounding reality is that they do!)

Something really, really important is going on here. Somehow, a collection of dim-witted cells (relatively speaking) has managed, between them, to be collectively bright. This may be something some of us could use. How do they do that! Can we use the same principle to become collectively bright?
It's as if they don't have a brain cell between them. Actually, that's because they don't. They're too small to have "a brain". So, huh. How do we craft a design so that low-IQ cells, making only local observations, will correctly tell "good guys" from "bad guys" quickly and reliably - when the concept "good" and "bad" are actually not even meaningful at that level, but are concepts from a higher level of existence, at the organism level?

This kind of cross-level exchange of wisdom, and the relationship between the police of the immune system and the "immune system as a whole" is where we need to go to understand how things work, and therefore, how it can break, and therefore, if we have a broken one, how to fix it.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembering our soldiers

Countries still send their youth to fight and die, or come home injured and changed, for causes too often "long ago forgotten."

In the US, memory seems to be very short, and even the returning soldiers from last year are themselves forgotten in corners of Walter Reed, or in our homeless shelters or in cardboard boxes on the streets.

While violence and war seem to be the last resort of those incapable of any higher form of civilization, those who go are often motivated by their understanding of what will protect and serve the rest of us, and deserve our respect. That applies as well to "enemy" soldiers and injured civilians as to our own.

This is one of the most obvious "multi-level" activities of mankind, where "the Nation" is off fighting one kind of war on one level, and armies are fighting a different war on a different level, and individuals and small teams are fighting a third kind of war on a different level.

And, the "causes" of war, or intervention points to stop wars and achieve "just and enduring peace" are similarly clouded by all the factors this weblog discusses, from feedback processes to distant causality and the aggregate impact of many "small things" that we don't realize add up to a dominant force.

I'm reading a book titled "Social Injustice and Public Health", (Oxford, 2006) by Barry Levy and Victor Sidel, which is the textbook for a course I'm taking later this summer. The editors, Levy and Sidel, previously edited two other books "War and Public Health" and "Terrorism and Public Health." Their main thesis is that social injustice underlies these problems -- war, terrorism, and public health -- and that those visible downstream outcomes cannot be resolved until the underlying problem of social justice is solved.

This is similar to the central thesis of the book Peace - More than an End to War, published by the Baha'i Publishing Trust in 1986. Quoting from the forward of that book,

The Baha'i approach to the achievement of peace calls for fundamental changes in all aspects of behavior - individual, interpersonal, corporate, and international - based upon the belief that human beings have an innate capacity for harmony and cooperation,which, unfortunately, has been suppressed by religious fanaticism and the spread of divisive ideologies.

The Baha'i teachings prescribe education for world citizenship, the fostering of effective communication, and the eradication of prejudice. The advocate social reconstruction and administration based on the principle of the oneness of mankind. Each of these behavioral changes supports the others...
While there are many misguided and less noble motivations for warfare, one of the most consistent one, on all sides of any such conflict, is the belief that sacrifice and even death are worth it in the struggle to make a world safe for our children to grow up free of terror, discrimination, disease, and oppression. I suspect no nation has ever gone to war without believing that they are champions of this effort and that they are fighting some version of evil personified. Dehumanization and demonization of "the enemy" is always rampant.

Yet, 50 years later, these people like us that we had perceived as demons are often our friends and allies, and now we've shifted to perceiving other groups as demons.

Surely, our linear minds think, there is someone out there to blame for what is going wrong, and it surely couldn't be ourselves.

One of the most important lessons of "systems thinking" is explained well using a class role-playing simulation of a massive instability in the production and distribution of the alcoholic beverage beer, in MIT Professor Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline. Orders fluctuate wildly until companies start failing, but there is, it turns out, no one to blame. The system is to blame. The overall structure of the interactions is to blame, and, literally, every person in the system is behaving rationally and sensibly and no one intends the whole thing to go so wrong.

I can't think of anything more important for people who want to "stop war" or "end violence" to understand than that lesson. Often, no one is to blame, and everyone is to blame, for sustaining a structure that results, inevitably, inexorably, in us demonizing each other, and killing each other, instead of watching our children play soccer together.

The problem is that warfare has always been an inefficient and ineffective method of accomplishing the goal that everyone on all sides wants, ultimately, of a peaceful world with stable, thriving communities, economic prosperity, physical health, and an opportunity to move closer to nature and our particular view of God without being demonized ourselves for doing so.

We all want what our bodies and spirits are designed for and optimized for - social connectivity to each other. We want to belong, and to belong to something larger, and belong to something larger that has noble purpose and that may demand something of us but that sustains our best self in return. When that connectivity breaks down, as all the social epidemiology literature shows, when we become fragmented and disconnected, it is inevitably followed with depression, deteriorating personal physical health on many fronts, sometimes violence, and often death. We were never designed to try to face life alone, and it doesn't work well. Even the cells in our bodies, if removed from our bodies, commit suicide ("apoptosis"), apparently seeing no reason to go on.

This seems to be a deep, profound, and multi-level need, the need to belong, to reassemble all the loose parts and form a fabric, a community, a society, a culture.

One problem is that on different scales, individuals, groups, cultures, and sometimes entire nations and peoples are perceived as "not us" by other people, and efforts are made to marginalize, detach, suppress, or kill them outright - singly, in groups, or in massive genocidal wars. Needless to say, the attitude becomes mutual and self-reinforcing.

From the model I've been painting in the weblog, we may be able to view this in the framework of "regulatory feedback control systems" trying to do what they always do - namely, figure out where their own parts are, reassemble the parts, figure out what parts don't belong, get rid of those parts, and re-stabilize the whole thing in some kind of sustainable shape -- homeostasis in the case of humans, allostasis in the case of other beings or other levels of life, "system stability" in terms of large, complex computing systems and ecologies.

Now, that process is unstoppable and comes with the territory. You can't have Life without that process on every level, from sub-cellular components such as mitochondria to nations. There is nothing wrong with that design. It's a great design. It got us from a sea of hydrogen to the complex muli-leveled beings we are and the world we've built around ourselves and the natural world we've inherited, even if we seem bent on destroying as rapidly as possible.

What is killing us, and resulting in pain and violence at all levels, is not that process, but disorders of that process.

It is quite like our relationship with microscopic organisms known as bacteria. There are millions or billions of different kinds of bacteria, and for the vast majority of them we get along fine. In fact, there are some we literally could not live without, populating our intestines. Even some of the "diseases" that "we" get turn our to be the unintended side-effect of the bacteria themselves getting a disease from the much smaller viruses. We are not, or should not be, at war with bacteria. Coexistence dominates, and there are only a few places where it breaks down, and even those are malfunctions on the pathogen's end. It makes no sense for a pathogen to kill its host, and then have to go find another.

It is, on that scale, a poor business model.

Similarly, the cells of our bodies are not our enemies as humans. Occasionally, one goes crazy and starts ignoring the larger body and grows itself unboundedly, and we call that "cancer", but for the most part the health of our cells and the health of our bodies are fully compatible and, in fact, more than compatible, they are mutually supportive. It's the ultimate win-win solution.

It is, in my mind, a very similar process that we're fighting on a whole different scale with our economies and religions and armies.

Religions have disorders at the entire entity level because they can't resolve clearly what part of themselves is "them" and what part is "other", and we end up with "autoimmune disorders" where one part of the religious body turns on another part of the religious body and tries to destroy it. Sects develop and intersect warfare results. The body religious rips itself apart, to no one's benefit.

Immune systems are great, except when they go wrong. But it is not the concept of an immune system that should be discarded - it is the disorder of the immune system that needs to be repaired. You cannot make a living, sustainable anything without an immune system.

So, our attention then is turned, inevitably, onto how our social immune system makes the subtle but absolutely critical distinction between "me" and "not me", or "us" and "not us". Which thing out there should be preserve and healed, and which thing out there should be attacked and destroyed? This turns out to be a very hard question.

But, it turns out to be a very hard multi-level question, a scale-invariant question, a problem that is instanced on every single level of every living thing that ever was or will be.

In that is our hope, because, even though no one level tells us enough to "find the answer", the fact that all levels have this problem means we can pool data, trade notes, combine our insights from every level into a single master picture and then, I believe, we will be able to simply look at see what to do. It should be obvious, once we get the right viewpoint. It should be unambiguous, because it should be beautiful, simple, elegant, and have "white space" all around it. We should "resonate" with it, because it will be the answer our own body, our own psyche, our own family, our own community needs as well.

So, if we just accept the working hypothesis that "life" exists at every level, and then extend everything we know across levels, it should turn out we already know the answer. The "life sciences" should inform the "social sciences", and vice versa, because we all face the problem of supporting a multi-level mutually compatible immune system and the associated "identity" that the immune system is pledged to defend, at the price of death if necessary.

The expression of this identity at the social and national level can be perceived as "prejudice", when it attempts to divide one part of the human body from another and turns one part of our Body on another in the form of warfare or discrimination or suppression or exploitation.

Put most simply, that can't be good. It is an auto-immune disorder. It turns us on ourselves.

If our health is actually dependent on the health of the people around us and our connectivity to that, which it is, then it seems to follow that we want more of that, not less of it.

As Fisher and Shapiro note in their book Getting to Yes, after analyzing how to stop the Soviet Union and the USA from annihilating each other in a global thermonuclear war, there is a level upstream from the details of "position" where we can look at "interests" and realize that both sides, regardless how much they may hate each other at this moment, actually are made up of humans and actually have common interests - and if we can meet those human interests in some new way, the old "positions" that led to conflict can be released without struggle. The intractable simply dissolves.

This is the sort of thing that Kim Cameron experienced at the Rocky Flats nuclear waste-dump in the work I described yesterday - Making the Impossible Possible. It can work. It has worked. It does work. It will work.

We have a much larger problem than resolving the "Mideast crisis" facing us. The development of nuclear power is widely advertised as "the threat", but it is nothing compared to the threat of biological weapons, which almost any country can already develop. Unlike nukes, that at least mostly stay where they're used, aside from toxic plumes of fallout that will kill everything for the next 50,000 years -- the biological weapons can literally take on a "mind of their own" and decide that they will turn around and destroy their creators, then go on to destroy the rest of human life on the planet. That is not cool.

And, no missile defense shield or "Star Wars" project can stop such an onslaught, once it begins.
Such a thing can be launched, stupidly, by almost any two countries that decide the only way one of them can exist is to destroy the other.
The largest threat to the Homeland Security of the USA, in that light, has nothing to do with nukes or an "axis of evil", but has everything to do with any two countries or cultures or sects of a religion that get it into their heads that they should attack each other with bioweapons, which then spiral out of control around the globe.
There is only one defense for that threat to our lives and our children's lives and the entire future of the human race - and that is to tackle the disease and disorder of our collective immune system that keeps causing "some of us" to abruptly perceive "others of us" as mortal enemies that must be attacked to keep the whole body healthy and operational and to restore "homeostasis" on a larger scale.

As I say, I think we know a lot about regulatory control feedback systems, and we have an unimaginably huge computing capacity on the planet that is mostly used for video games and unused 2/3 of every day while we work or sleep. We have a global communications system with wearable camera-phones and wireless internet. Never before in history has any civilization had such powerful tools to use to tackle any social threat.

The threat is that our collective immune system, on a planetary scale, has not yet been stabilized and keeps mis-identifying parts of our own Body as "enemies" who must die.

It's an issue of who "we" are, at the core, and finding common ground with every other human on the planet -- which shouldn't be too hard in the space age, because we're all standing on the same little ball floating in a very hostile very large space out there.

Through the matter of how our individual and population healths are intertwined on a physiological and psychological and spiritual level, there is no "them" that is not, ultimately,
also "us." "Love thy neighbor as thyself" is redundant, because our neighbor turns out to be another side of ourself.

I recall the day our infant daughter Kelly saw something interesting waving in front of her face and reached out and bit down on it, as infants tend to do. The something was her own large toe.
It took about 2 seconds for this realization to work its way through the system and the shock and horror and pain to "click" and get her to stop biting her own self. Once the issue was "realized" there wasn't a problem in getting her to "disengage."

On a planetary scale we are not just "one people" but also one "meta-organism" with a life on its own level that is higher than our own, and that we share. We have a society and civilization and we have values and "epigenetic" information that was hard won that we want to pass on to our children's children.

It's time to tackle the job of healing that meta-organism's immune system, which will be reflected in the removal of "prejudice" of all types and the partitioning of the world into little subsections that think each other is some kind of enemy agent.

It's not that we shouldn't be fighting a war against bad things and evil, but that the bad thing we need to fight has to be "prejudice" and narrow-minded, short-sighted, selfishness that threatens to kill us all downstream of its own bloody in-fighting.

I think the framework I've laid out, mostly built on Baha'i and Public Health's best teachings, may be a way to approach that problem with new eyes, new tools, and new hope.

If so, maybe all the wars everyone has fought will be finally "worth it" and we can stop the rest of the wars forever, and actually heal this disorder instead of just living with it and dying from it.

Some people have found it strange that I spend a lot of time on a "public health" weblog talking about military leadership and US Army Doctrine. I don't see these as incompatible, and I want to address that question. The US Army Leadership Field Manual (FM22-100) seems to me a marvelous work, even if it now superseded by FM6-22. The description of the doctrine is of a fighting force with tremendous focus on integrity, character, humility, strength, and being a learning organization that learns from every mistake and is agile and not hung up on outdated concepts or models of the battlefield, but can quickly process new information and develop a new model of what's going on. What is not to like there? If there are problems they are from failure to live up to that standard, not from the standard.

Here's a few excerpts from that manual:

1-3: Leadership starts at the top, with the character of the leader, with your character. In order to lead others you have to make sure your own house is in order.

1-7: The example you set is just as important as the words you speak.

1-8: Purpose ... does not mean that as a leader you must explain every decision to the satisfaction of your subordinates. It does mean that you must earn their trust: they must know from experience that you care about them and would not ask them to do something - particularly something dangerous - unless there was a good reason...

1-10: Trust is a basic bond of leadership, and it must be developed over time.

1-15: People who are trained this way will accomplish the mission, even when no one is watching.

1-23: you demonstrate your character through your behavior.

1-56: Effective leaders strive to create an environment of trust and understanding that encourages their subordinates to seize the initiative and act.

1-74: The ultimate end of war, at least as America fights it, is to restore peace.

4-9: Be aware of barriers to listening. Don't form your response while the other person is still talking.

4-20: Critical Reasoning ... means looking at a problem from several points of view instead of just being satisfied with the first answer that comes to mind.

4-24: Ethical leaders do the right things for the right reasons all the time, even when no one is watching.

Such a group is not "the enemy." These aren't the words of people with an objective of hatred and destruction. These aren't the techniques of evil.

The people aren't the problem. The army is not the problem. Individual decisions are not the problem. The problem traces back, up stream, to our collective human immune system. Like Peter Senge's example, even when everyone does the right thing with the right intentions, this sucker breaks down. OK, fine, we've identified the issue, and some tools.

We owe it to everyone who fought to get us this far, preserving the values they understood our future depends on, to complete the job, repair the planet, and restore a vital peace that finally works correctly and doesn't keep veering the car off the road into the trees.

And we owe it to our veterans not to leave them homeless and abandoned. The weapons may have changed, but in a larger sense, we still need to "complete the mission" and protect our future. It's not "their war" and it's already "over here."

It is immoral and twisted to send our children to fight and die to protect some set of values that we are all not involved in protecting through our own daily lives. If these values are not a big deal, then bring the army home. If they are a big deal, why aren't the rest of us working on all the other fronts possible to resolve the conflict and all future conflicts?

"Memorial Day" 2007

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

There is a way out of this mess

Executive summary - there is a way out of this mess we've gotten ourselves into. It involves using renewable spiritual power instead of oil or technlogy to power our commerce. There is substantial hard-nosed evidence that this works, economically. It should be investigated further, cause, frankly, we're dying out here.

Reflecting on "lean" process, yesterday I focused on some aspects of "pull" and how envisioning a future that benefited and inspired other people, or pulling on brotherly love in the immediate present, could lift the spirits and support whatever other secular task was being done at the time -- including producing goods and services that generated profit for a corporation or nation.

I want to extend those ideas into the question of global social and economic development, and see what in there could possibly offer relief to the economic burdens so many people are now suffering, even in rich countries such as the USA.

Along those lines, I am very explicitly stating a normative belief that corporate leaders should be looking into ways in which intangible "spiritual" changes in their workplace could substantially improve their "bottom line" financially. This is consistent with McGreggor's "Theory Y" and the idea that human beings actually like to use their muscles, both physical and mental, to accomplish useful and helpful work and do not need to be whipped or terrorized into doing so if they can simply be given the means to see how their work benefits others that they care about.

This post is a continuation of the general theme I've been following, which is my understanding of a model that is consistent with science, business, and the Baha'i approach to globalization, development, peace, unity, and "spiritual solutions to economic problems."

I also found a nice thread this morning that's relevant,

Perspective: Spirituality in Development

[Editor's note: The following is adapted from a paper, entitled "Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development," presented by the Bahá'í Faith at the World Faiths and Development Dialogue on 18-19 February 1998 in London.

Development, in the Bahá'í view, is an organic process in which "the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material." Meaningful development requires balancing the seemingly antithetical processes of individual progress and social advancement, of globalization and decentralization, and of promoting universal standards and fostering cultural diversity. In our increasingly interdependent world, development efforts must be animated by universal values and guided by a vision of world community.

Local and national communities that prosper in such a future will do so because they acknowledge the spiritual dimension of human nature and make the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual development of the individual a central priority.

The secret, of course, is that the "gasoline" in this engine is not in the "seeing the end customer" type of "pull", but is in the profound power buried in that misused word "care." This fact seems to me self-evident with a little reflection -- it won't have any motivational power to "see" how a task will help someone else unless you care about helping that someone else. If you are indifferent to their fate, then it makes no difference to you whether you're helping or hurting them.

But, wait -- isn't this simply "exploiting" the worker's vulnerable primitive spiritual beliefs in order to make a buck? Even if it works, which it seems to, is this activity morally acceptable?

I don't believe that God or spiritual principles only exist in the twilight or dark. I think they are perfectly capable of standing on their own in the bright sunlight - and, in fact, that may be one of their signature characteristics. They can withstand scrutiny. Like the power of gravity, they work whether you believe in them or not, and whether you realize what is going on or not. These are not phantoms that vanish when the tribe's belief in them weakens.

The laws of physics and chemistry are fine with your "exploiting" them to build a gasoline powered engine and using it to power your truck. There is some human pleasure, in fact, in doing that engineering task extremely efficiently, with as little noise and waste as possible. A powered up jet turbine engine is a wonder to behold.

Similarly, I believe that the laws of spiritual development are fine with your "exploiting" them to build a powerful and profitable corporation. Just don't be stupid about it.

The key here is that, as I've pointed out numerous times in discussing feedback loops, the whole nature of causality becomes a sort of resonance state, either/or relationships become "and" relationships, and before/after relationships become phase-locked dance relationships. As Peter Senge points out in "The Fifth Discipline", it is as correct to say that the water level in the glass controls the hand on the faucet, as to say that the hand on the faucet controls the water level in the glass. In reality, the mind and vision of the person you left out of that picture entirely is what is controlling both simultaneously and equivalently.

So, while it is true that the corporation can be a turbine engine, "exploiting" spiritual power and turning it into hard cash, it is simultaneously true that optimizing this process will reshape the nature of the corporation at the same time in a way pleasing to God. It's not clear, in other words, who is being exploited and reshaped by the constant structure in place that makes this all possible. More correctly, it is clear who is being reshaped, and it is BOTH the workers and the corporation, and, indirectly, management, and indirectly again, the whole culture that builds in reliance on these spiritually-fueled corporations. God is totally neutral about the fact that the process generates cash and employment -- those are human-level variables.

The fact that a permanent developmental piece is thereby generated that takes on a life of its own in converting social needs into socially-useful solutions is fine with God and is in a very real way a multi-level process of building the material body of God on earth.

Of course, to work well, the process can't be totally hijacked in a stupid and selfish fashion by "management", killing the goose to get one golden egg. Not only do profits have to be shared with workers, but control of the production process, and ultimately, control of the goals of the corporation need to be shared with the workers, who are the experts in this new vision. Again, this is not an either/or conflict, because the constant goal of both the workers and management is to do a great job of finding social needs and meeting them efficiently and effectively, and in so doing generate sustaining cash flow to workers, management, owners, and a whole raft of neighbors who also benefit.

The more the owners can push, nudge, and help the Chief Executive Officers of the owned companies to do a good job and finding and meeting social needs efficiently, the more financial rewards they will reap so they can continue to do this. Again, if they are stupid and kill the goose to get one quarter's golden egg, this won't work. Again, it turns out that a good understanding of the principles here means that BOTH owners and management have ultimately the same goal, as do the workers - which is to make this process sustainable and effective for the long run, which is consistent with society's goals and values.

At every level, the thing that can cause this to be noisy and inefficient is an attempt to break up the development of stable, sustainable, long-term growth in order to maximize some local month's or quarter's cash flow. That is simply harmful to everyone's long-term interests, regardless how attractive it looks locally.

And, unlike the world's supplies of oil or nuclear power, tapping into the grid of spiritual power and converting it to developmental progress and cash flow is not only non-polluting, it's the opposite - it's health and benefit generating -- or it can be, if not applied stupidly and short-sightedly. As the investor John Templeton has sought to demonstrate, development of wealth and prosperity is not something that has to be inconsistent with spiritual development and family values. What is immoral and inefficient and ultimately self-destructive is the failure to understand the process fully, resulting in stupid short-sighted efforts to push the engine over the red-line, or attempts to hijack the process so that management or owners get all the profits and workers get none, or so that the corporation gets all the benefits and the customers get screwed. That kind of stupidity will self-destruct rapidly.

There can be, and is, a multi-level, win-win-win solution here, once you allow for the compounding effects of feedback loops, keep a very broad horizon, and think in terms of the multi-level "holons" that Ken Wilber is fond of - that is, entire hierarchies of live that span multiple levels of scale. But, also, the process won't work if participants insist on trying to rip off customers, or eat the seed corn and remove strength from the system. A properly tuned system will be agile and will grow at whatever rate conditions allow and it's stupid to try to drive it faster than that because of some concept that only, say, a 37% return on investment per quarter is "acceptable."

The only people who are desperate for cash in the short run are those who have done a bad job of managing what they have and are now trying to cover that up with theft of God's resources somewhere else, "robbing Peter to pay Paul." Very large scale investors realize quickly that they will happily settle for any non-zero rate of return in real wealth if it can be made self-running and sustainable. And, once they realize that and stop over-driving the engine, in fact they get their original goal because the whole system can now stabilize and stop burning up all the energy fighting with itself, with two different pistons firing at the same time in conflicting directions trying to rip apart the camshaft or engine block.

There is, in short, a "spiritual" solution to our economic problems, and by "our" I mean the full multi-level hierarchy of "us" from individuals to corporations to nations. It's a "win-win-win" solution, and the rich can stay rich and get richer while so does everyone else -- provided we attend to spiritual principles through-out at all levels.

It's also a non-zero sum game, a tap root into an infinite supply of spiritual energy of caring for each other's welfare, which goes up when the population goes up. If we could all realize the principle involved, and stop trying to out small sections of the engine for personal short-term gain, we would have so much output that everyone would have way more than they do now in the long-term.

One thing would be lost, and that is something we need to let go of - the intentional, conscious effort of some people to be better than, richer than their neighbors. We have to let go of the totally destructive mentality that "It is not enough that I win, everyone else must lose!" We have to let go of a proportional disparity of wealth as a goal of the system. It's a stupid goal, and left over from the days of massive unidirectional exploitation, where there was a sense that if the "peasants" ever got strong, they'd revolt and kill the elite. The flames are fanned by those who believe that marketing the idea of "being better than everyone else" will cause more products to be bought, and ultimately more prosperity and wealth to occur.

Our planet is finite, however, and we're getting near the limit. There is no way 6 billion people can burn resources at the same rate the citizens of the USA do without killing the planet, literally. The solution is not to stop everyone else from getting rich - it is to redefine "rich" so that it doesn't involve insane striving to get "better than" each other.

The economic power of honest compassion and caring is much stronger as a business model than the false solution of trying to run the world on greed and competition. Nothing in God's plan or the world is in the way of everyone being healthy and wealthy and safe from terrorist attacks, except our own stupid efforts to sub-optimize the engine we have here at our disposal.

I wish someone at the Santa Fe Institute, or some other think tank, could simulate this process and demonstrate convincingly, in secular terms that our national and international financial leaders could understand, that it could, in fact, work that way.

If every person on the planet had food, clothing, shelter, health care, and honest compassion from their neighbors, I think the wind would go right out of the sails of violent extremism. It's like looking at the tremendous drop in interpersonal violence as you drive the mile and cross the river from Detroit to Windsor, almost certainly due to the fact that Canada has a social safety net and the US does not.

Somehow, we are trying to power the USA workforce with terror, fear of death, fear of loss, fear that their "enemies" might get "stronger than them", fear of being unemployed -- on the implicit myth that nothing else is strong enough to get people motivated to power the wheels of commerce and wealth. That's a stupid, misguided, out-dated concept. 50 years of studies with "Theory Y", well documented by the USA's Ross School of Management, show consistently that caring, compassion, and sharing are, in fact, the basis for a much more powerful engine of profit, agility, sustainability, creativity, innovation, stability, etc.

Some very solid case-studies are available on the links from "Positive Deviance - Kim Cameron"
and the book "Making the Impossible Possible" is a must see. (The video of the book is here, if you have a high-speed link. (Nov 6, 2006) It's an hour but just spell-binding if you've ever tried to get a hostile, reluctant department to do an impossible task.
If you are experiencing difficulty viewing the video, please turn off your pop-up blocker and verify that you are using version 9 or greater of Windows Media Player.
) Many other videos on "Positive Organizational Scholarship" are there. Professor Cameron designed an approach for dealing with the cleanup of the nuclear waste mess at Rocky Flats, Colorado around what I'm terming "spiritual" principles. An effort viewed as "impossible", hopelessly locked into a management /labor dispute, estimated to take 70 years and cost $100 billion, was accomplished in 2 years using such principles.

The reason we have such social conflict and rising unemployment is that we're trying to make a defunct, broken model work when there is a better one available. It doesn't involve people giving up any of their wealth to get there, only their myths.

And, it is not some idealistic dreamer's fantasy that this can work , but well-documented studies by a well-respected School of Management. At this point, the problem seems to be one of inertia and persuading the older generation to let go of "solutions" that turn out not to scale up to global size, regardless how well they worked from 1900 to 1950.

This post "Virtue Drives the Bottom Line" has links to the serious management literature.

There's a lingering fear that this will lead to communism, or socialism, or some other ism that will force the wealthy to become poor, and lead to the workforce becoming lazy and stopping productive labor, and cause corporations to stop seeking efficient distribution of resources to meet social needs. I don't think that's the case, but some rigorous economic modeling of the ideas would really help make the case.

Repeating the summary - there is a way out of this mess we've gotten ourselves into. It involves using renewable spiritual power instead of oil to power our commerce. There is substantial hard-nosed evidence that this works, economically. It should be investigated further, cause, frankly, we're dying out here.

(Team crossing stream photo credit: Ollieda )

Photo credit: Amish barn raising by heyburn3.

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