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CommonUnderstanding

Peter Kropotkin, geologist and anarchist in Tsarist Russia, wrote:

Having been brought up in a serf-owner's family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with [free] men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills. (from Memoirs of a Revolutionist)

These words still resonate for us today, because they cut to the core issue of complexity management. How can people work together effectively on large multifaceted projects? How can true teamwork develop? --- rather than the mindless "I'll serve my time", the inertial "They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work", or the outright adversarial stance of "labor" vs. "management".

When problems are complex, root answers are simple but not easy. Members of a team need to communicate, empathize, offer ideas, and above all listen. They must build systematic mental models together on many levels, from immediate individual tasks to long-range global goals. They have to know not just what to do but why. Then when something goes astray --- as inevitably happens! --- they can diagnose and fix local problems locally, instead of propagating bad news up the chain of command and awaiting orders from on high.

To unleash creative human energy requires Kropotkin's common understanding --- a shared set of metaphors among the people who are collaborating --- a mutual vision of the group's mission. Visions can't be imposed; they emerge from free action by honest, open individuals. Encouraging (but not ordering!) is the real job of everyone on the project.

And what's the Project that we're all working on? Maybe it's called society ... civilization ... life ....

Friday, October 08, 1999 at 06:27:27 (EDT) = Datetag19991008

TopicSociety - TopicLiterature


(correlates: GovernmentJob, FiveDoorsToDiscovery, HowDoYouDo, ...)