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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The "Managerial Assumption"

I have noticed for a long time, in many contexts, a blind and frequently incorrect faith that better efforts will lead to better outcomes. I refer to this as the "Managerial Assumption". There are of course a great many managerial assumptions in the world, but this is the one that justifies managerial activities to begin with.

That this assumption is not always true is apparent in a number of contexts:
  • Micromanaging people rarely achieves better results, and usually achieves worse results, than a more mature approach or even than leaving said people to their own devices.
  • The now essentially settled argument between datagram routing and circuit switching; the idea that having intelligence throughout the network making each little piece of the communication path "better" would of course lead to better results. Consequently IP was initially ignored, and then later opposed by telcos who were entrenched in their circuit-switching "control [manage] everything" mentality. Needless to say, the recent stampede of telcos towards IP suggests that they've at least noticed a problem with the "better efforts lead to better outcomes" mentality.
  • Continued Australian Government ownership of Telstra in which it is assumed both that more control will lead to better outcomes (than, say, a market-driven approach) and of course the more preposterous idea that government ownership gives "control" of Telstra in any real sense.
  • "Wars" on drugs, terrorism, poverty, etc., in which it is assumed that the problem can be made to go away through better control.
Interestingly, the first time that I understood this idea was not in a managerial context at all, but in Star Wars; Leia (to Governor Tarkin, just before the destruction of Alderaan): "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." The idea that exerting more control could, in and of itself, cause one to have less control made quite an impression on me at the time.

In a sense, this is a specialisation of the "if a little is good then more is better" fallacy, but it strikes me as worthy of seperate consideration because many extremely weighty decisions turn on this assumption. An example popped up this morning in Fred Wilson's quoting of comments on one of his own postings:
Thinking there is a 'final solution' to complex problems that have been part of humanity since the dawn of time is what creates these catastrophes in the first place.
Well, yes (the rest of the quote is worth reading too).