Mètis — “practical intelligence, using conjectural and oblique knowledge, which anticipates, modifies and influences the fate of events in adversity and ambiguity” according to Baumbard — has reminded me of something that I read some time back. This led me to see some connections between knowledge management, Elliott Jaques’s Requisite Organization and wisdom. (And thanks to jmmj for conversation on this and some of the ideas.)
Cass Sunstein wrote a review in The New Republic (“More Is Less“, 218:20) about James C. Scott’s fascinating book on why social engineering fails, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St). Sunstein starts off by pointing out how even educated people are terrible at figuring out how to solve pressing social problems without creating long-term disasters, through the research of Dietrich Dörner.
A German psychologist named Dietrich Dörner has done some fascinating experiments designed to see whether people can engage in successful social engineering. The experiments are run by a computer. Participants are asked to solve problems faced by the inhabitants of some region of the world: poverty, poor medical care, inadequate fertilization of crops, sick cattle, insufficient water, excessive hunting and fishing. Through the magic of the computer, many policy initiatives are available (improved care of cattle, childhood immunization, drilling more wells), and participants can choose among them. Once initiatives are chosen, the computer projects, over short periods of time and then over decades, what is likely to happen in the region.
In these experiments, success is entirely possible. Some initiatives will actually make for effective and enduring improvements. But most of the participants—even the most educated and the most professional ones—produce calamities. They do so because they do not see the complex, system-wide effects of particular interventions. Thus they may recognize the importance of increasing the number of cattle, but once they do that, they create a serious risk of overgrazing, and they fail to anticipate that problem. They may understand the value of drilling more wells to provide water, but they do not foresee the energy effects and the environmental effects of the drilling, which endanger the food supply. It is the rare participant who can see a number of steps down the road, who can understand the multiple effects of one- shot interventions into the system.
The rest of the article reviews the points made by Scott in his book. Scott says that these issues are the same in real life: governments and other organizations attempt to create long range plans that will transform the world, only to find that they have simply driven it into the ground.
Examples abound. Tsarist Russia attempted to induce industrialization through a central policy of decentralization. In the Western world, industry grew up around cities or places with resource that induced people to permanently move there. Brasilia was built on the simplified principles of Le Corbusier, the evil man who whose ideas also brought us Chicago Public Housing. Both were failures because they tried to regiment human life without understanding it.
And this is Scott’s main point. Most people will be unsuccessful in putting a revolutionary policy into place. They will put in something that will destroy the existing wisdom, replacing it with something that won’t last, only to result in a decapitated society. Think Russia right now after 75 years of Leninism. “Kill all your leaders!” is never a successful program.
This brings us back to Elliott Jaques’s point about Time Span of Discretion (TSD) and mental capability. Very few people would have the mental complexity to put forth a Big Idea that transforms a culture. Daniel H. Burnham seems to have had it, as did Montgomery Ward, to cite two great Chicago examples. George Washington had it — the dullard that everyone talks about never existed. He may have bored his country guests with his talk of land grabs, but you were more likely to pass out from Washington’s long explanations about innovative crop management practices.
You just have to have a Big Mind (high mental capability as defined by Jaques, which means long TSD). And you are born in a particular track.
- Baumbard, Philippe (1994). “Oblique Knowledge: The Clandestine Work of Organizations“. Cahier de recherche DMSP, n° 228, Université de Paris-Dauphine.
- Sunstein, Cass (1998) “More Is Less“, The New Republic, 218:20.
- Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St). Yale University Press, 1998.
- Jaques, E. (1996). Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century : Amended. Arlington, VA: Cason Hall.
- Dörner, Dietrich (1996). The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations. Perseus Books Group.
Image Credit: Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian. All rights reserved.