On 24 July 1996 I responded to a friend (TA) who posted an enthusiastic and futuristic speech ("The Birth of the Chaordic Century", by Dee Hock) re the need for violent large-scale organizational change. I disagreed:

  • small quibble — I remain skeptical of nanotechnology as a deus ex machina solution to the world's problems. It seems likely to me that the parts of nanotech which might be really useful will turn out to be equivalent to software engineering — designing & debugging hugely complex large-scale (!) systems — and that may be exceedingly tough to do, for fundamental (mathematical) reasons. See for example Fred Brooks's writings (e.g., "No Silver Bullets") on the difficulties of doing such tasks. I wonder why more business-world and philosopher-types don't write about complexity management and its challenges? There are fascinating, and I think relevant, results in computational theory ... suggesting to me the negative conclusion that provably hard problems exist and may not be solvable, ever. (But perhaps writing about what can't be done won't get one on the best-seller list?!)
  • more significant — It's really difficult to quantify and evaluate risk for complex systems. For some things (like bridges, houses, etc.) we have a lot of good theoretical models and engineering experience, and so we don't get surprised very often. But for other more-complicated systems (such as power grids, financial transaction networks, moderately big software applications) "bugs" surface almost constantly. Nobody sensible would want to bet a life on the continuous smooth functioning of them. We learn how to limit damage (e.g., run off batteries during an outage, diversify investments, back up files frequently) and provide fallbacks, safety nets, etc. I am not yet convinced that our social sysems will continue forever to increase in complexity. Some elements may, yes, but others are likely to branch off in directions that appear low-tech but will provide insurance against the breakdown of the big efficient 99.99...% reliable machinery (at least for thoughtful folks who don't want to put all their huevos in one basket!). Bottom line: I wouldn't count on big governments going away any time soon. But there may well be invisible, flexible mechanisms functioning behind the scenes, mechanisms of which governments will scarcely be aware.

My note five years ago concluded with some gentle ^z notions for how a healthy outfit might start moving into a productive future:

  • pursue diversity — a "mixed strategy" (in Game Theory parlance) ... combining short- & long-term projects ... promoting both specialist/in-depth and generalist/broad-based expertise ... serving many different types of customers ... and preparing people to shift to new posts quickly when needed — rather than identifying one or a few narrow top-priority areas and focusing everybody on them
  • evolve the organization (but at a faster pace than historically we've done) ... to adapt to the changing (technical, social, political, ...) environment & meet new challenges — rather than hazarding everything an abrupt "revolution" or "Great Leap Forward"
  • promote robustness, with conscious attention to risk management in many dimensions — rather than gambling that the unanticipated one-point failure won't happen at a critical moment (oops! ... the computer went down, and now we can't make a phone call, run the air conditioning, open the door, pay the bills, ...)
  • practice optimism about our future ... esp. given the people we've got and the thoughtful discussions going on now! — rather than drifting into rending-of-garments and negative self-criticism

(slightly edited from the original; see ^zhurnal 15 April 2000)

Thursday, April 19, 2001 at 20:28:48 (EDT) = 2001-04-19


(correlates: Financial Planning, FocusAndFanout, OneDeep, ...)