Complexity, reducibility, integrity and bullshit: the general untheory

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Some readers may recall an earlier post which I christened an ‘untheory’ of innovation. It argued that there’s not much use in ‘theories’ of innovation if they’re taken as recipe books for senior managers to ‘drive down’ innovation through organisations. Why? Because if innovation is to thrive, endless decisions must be made to facilitate any number of different innovations and it can’t be known in advance who should be co-ordinating those decisions. An innovation might involve some slight or pronounced change in accounts, marketing, technical specifications, supplier relations, training, industrial relations and on and on. For these decisions to be made well – or as I like to say ‘on the merits‘ – all sorts of pathologies must be overcome:

There are hierarchies, there’s groupthink, there’s second guessing hierarchies, there’s trying to keep people happy and consensus at any cost, there’s ‘not invented here’, there’s ‘not in my backyard’ there’s excessive risk-aversion (though it’s usually aversion to a certain kind of risk, which is the product of another pathology – process hugging) and other manifestations of status quo bias, there’s adulation of those with high status either within a hierarchy or the wealthy and powerful over the less so and on and on.

That’s why I’ve argued that one of the most useful things one might do as far as ‘teaching’ management or innovation is concerned, is to coach managers not with the usual flattering stories of how far sighted heroic managers were, but rather with unflattering stories which highlight the foibles of our understanding – and offer means of overcoming them. What I’m arguing for is a recognition of the irreducibility of the on the ground experience – its lack of susceptibility to systematic, theoretical insight and its management corollary – policies adopted and driven from the top.

There are any number of areas in which we wave away the possibility of such irreducibility and instead embrace an empty and deluded kind of managerialism in which those at the top are forever attending strategy sessions, restructuring, reengineering and all the rest of it. Progress is not made (and as an aside, cannot easily be measured or ranked) because a lot of the progress that is necessary is sui generis and made at the coalface – or at least must involve the giving the coalface and autonomy to solve its problems and push for improvements.

Some other areas where this jumps out at me are: Continue reading

Shock! Good government improves wellbeing

Actually the magnitude of the effect is a bit of an eye-opener.

Empirical Linkages between Good Government and National Well-being
by John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang, Shawn Grover, Shun Wang

Abstract:

This paper first reviews existing studies of the links between good
governance and subjective well-being. It then brings together the
largest available sets of national-level measures of the quality of
governance to assess the extent to which they contribute to
explaining the levels and changes in life evaluations in 157
countries over the years 2005-2012, using data from the Gallup World
Poll.

The results show not just that people are more satisfied with their
lives in countries with better governance quality, but also that
actual changes in governance quality since 2005 have led to large
changes in the quality of life. For example, the ten-most-improved
countries, in terms of delivery quality changes between 2005 and
2012, when compared to the ten countries with most worsened delivery
quality, are estimated to have thereby increased average life
evaluations by as much as would be produced by a 40% increase in per
capita incomes.

The results also confirm earlier findings that the delivery quality
of government services generally dominates democratic quality in
supporting better lives. The situation changes as development
proceeds, with democratic quality having a positive influence among
countries that have already achieved higher quality of service
delivery.

The middleware of democracy. Or from knowledge to wisdom: or at least knowledge 2.0

StyrelseSimon Heffer’s High Minds presents us with a portrait of the mid-Victorians in which they consciously set about building the world which became ours. A liberal democratic world.

To do so they recognised the need for all sorts of public goods. Those of education and health surely enough, an honest public service chosen on merit too (an idea they nicked from the Chinese who’d been at it for a millenium or so) and also civic virtue. It’s a stirring and a sobering story reflecting an age which I think had a more balanced understanding of the necessary ecology of public and private goods each reinforcing each other in building the Good Life.

Today for all manner of reasons – intellectual, sociological and economic - our contemporary vision is profoundly skewed toward private good and private endeavour as the paradigmatic category. That’s why I regard it as a happy hunting ground for low hanging policy fruit – a panoply of ways to drive productivity and economic growth that don’t even cost any serious government money.

But as Heffer makes clear, this Victorian quest was not just economic. It was a political project. As he argued in an interview with Geraldine Doogue – which I quote from memory because I can’t find on the ABC website – they knew that democracy was coming, so they needed to get The People a decent education before they used their vote to wreck the place. Continue reading

Paul Krugman the academic, Martin Wolf the economic journalist: Bottom line – read Wolf’s great new book

MartinWolf2011ByDaphneBorowski.pngPaul KrugmanI’m a big, though not uncritical admirer of Paul Krugman – of his straightforwardness and his aggression in what is almost always a worthy cause. And yet, reading Martin Wolf’s magnificent book rather inauspiciously titled The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned-and Have Still to Learn-from the Financial Crisis, I’m struck by how modest Krugman’s achievement is.

Before his decisive turn with the coming of George Bush’s presidency and what Krugman saw as the rampant dishonesty of the campaigning and discourse of the right, Krugman styled himself as an aggressive defender of centrism, puncturing the fallacies of the heroes of the right and left. As he put it, he liked to catch them with their hands in the intellectual cookie jar and expose them in his pieces. Thus in his attacks on the ‘policy entrepreneurs’ of the Clinton era and before, like Lester Thurow and Robert Reich, he’d frequently ‘catch’ each of them not paying sufficient respect to the subtleties of comparative advantage and allegedly committing themselves to various other alleged intellectual fallacies.

While I was quite sympathetic to the points he was making on policy – these guys were often somewhere between little and a lot too slick in the way they presented their stuff - I didn’t really think that Krugman had demonstrated that they had in fact committed themselves to those fallacies. If you tried to read them ‘with’ the grain as it were, to get what they were trying to say – knowing also that they’re trying to communicate with people who are not steeped in economics – it wasn’t clear they were mistaken logically whether or not you ultimately agreed with them.

By contrast on the right we had all sorts of hijinks – massive tax cuts that paid for themselves, full Ricardian equivalence, modelling the Great Depression as a spontaneous holiday and various other grand themes thrown together with the flimsiest of evidence. In any event since Krugman has self-identified as a fighting Liberal, he’s been fantastically good at skewering his opponents – almost always when they need skewering, and at the same time he’s kept producing interesting academic(ish) papers. And in economics where models should be used to test, train and illustrate economic intuition and shouldn’t take over the show, academic(ish) papers are usually better than academic papers. Yet there’s been something missing. Continue reading

Managers wresting control from owners: it’s nothing new …

Contractual Freedom and the Evolution of Corporate Control in Britain, 1862 to 1929
by Timothy W. Guinnane, Ron Harris, Naomi R. Lamoreaux – #20481 (DAE)

Abstract:British general incorporation law granted companies an extraordinary degree of contractual freedom to craft their own governance rules. In this paper we study the uses to which this flexibility was put by examining the articles of association written by three samples of companies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We find that incorporators consistently wrote rules that shifted power from shareholders to directors, that the extent of this shift became greater over time, and that Parliament made little effort to restrain it. Although large firms were less likely to enact the most extreme provisions, such as entrenching specific directors for life, they too wrote articles that gave managers essentially unchecked power. These findings have implications for the literature on corporate control, for the “law-and-finance” argument that the common law was more conducive to financial development than the code-based systems of civil law countries, and for the debate on entrepreneurial failure in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit. Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the latest thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. the word Nietzsche is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking. The lack of irony and self-insight with which people imagine they are on a search for truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

All that was implicit was made explicit

Wendy Bacon Wendy_Bacon
Talk about clamping down on Pub Servants’ social media reminds me of how as journos we used to interview them before access to info stopped
10/04/2014 10:09 am

This tweet reminds me of something I’ve pondered for some time. The modern craze for making the implicit explicit. Its everywhere. Firms and other organisations didn’t have mission statements for most of time, and then began acquiring them starting around the 1980s(?).

Were firms hopelessly adrift before then? We introduced Freedom of Information legislation (about a decade behind the US) in the Fraser years. Has freedom of information improved. Well it’s hard to say – one’s formal rights to information have improved vastly – we had barely any before legislation like the Fraser Government’s legislation and its more recent replacement. And yet journos could ring up public servants and find out what was happening. There would have been strong (implicit) codes of conduct. Public servants wouldn’t be ‘outed’. They would likely have expressed personal views without having to explicitly go ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record as they talked.

Yet we are in a world where government is endlessly performed. And in this world the performer finds the velvet glove of formal transparency requirements the perfect accoutrement to the iron fist inside – the instinct for concealment. Today in most organisations any contact with the media will go through communications people who are trained not to answer questions. And who can blame the organisations? For on the other end of the phone acknowledge little common interest with those they interview beyond the commonplace narcissism which they may share with, or project onto their interviewee. The journalist on the other end is after something to entertain – a ‘story’ – not an explanation of what’s happening.  As Malcolm Turnbull puts it engagingly, they’re the hounds, he’s the fox, their job is to find and kill him and his job is to stay alive.

But the thing I always think of when I think of our mania for making things explicit is disability.  There are any number of ‘rights’ we’ve given the disabled. And we’ve done great things compared to what went before. We’ve made buildings, car parks, all manner of things more accessible to the disabled. We’ve passed laws to prevent discrimination against the disabled. But before all that, in a old world where there was no transparency,  the press engaged in a conspiracy of concealment – but one that was on behalf of the common good, of good government. Remarkably – it’s so far from our current circumstances I must say I can barely imagine it – in a world recognisably modern, in a world full of gutter journalism and dirty political tricks, no-one let on that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a paraplegic. Continue reading

Operation 2770: TACSI’s Family by Family expands to Mt Druitt

Family by Family about which Troppodillians have heard before is spreading its wings. We’ve started in Mt Druitt where we’ve scoped the program which means investigating how it should be changed to optimise it to the local community. Here’s the Scoping Report which I think makes interesting reading.

Anyway we launched the scoping report with the Minister who’d commissioned us to establish the program – Pru Goward. And here’s my speech at the function. One thing that got my attention was the fact that, according to the scoping report, quite a few people from the area have tattooed their postcode – 2770 – to themselves. And the supporters of Greater Western Sydney take signs of their postcodes to fixtures against Sydney Football Club – which is now more explicitly the team from the leafy suburbs.  I’m thinking that that pride about their postcode has the same kind of glorious defiance in it that Nicky Winmar showed one day at Victoria Park, when he pulled up his jumper and pointed to the colour his own skin to insist that it wasn’t his problem – it was the Collingwood outer’s problem.

Here also is the audio of a recent interview on this by Alex Sloan.

Notes for a Speech by Nicholas Gruen, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation at the launch of the Family by Family Scoping Report for Mt Druitt, 12th March, 2014

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Welcome to our modest function at Postcode 2770

Still, I’m reliably informed that from little things big things grow.

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

This example is not from NSW, but it’s not such an extreme example for those who know the system. And this is after what must be a decade, perhaps two of talking about “citizen centric services”!

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Family by Family is different.

Continue reading

What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?

Enjoy.