"The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: 'Systems engineering’ and 'systems management' - ideas from the Apollo programme for a 'systems politics'", Cummings 2017

post by gwern · 2017-02-17T00:59:04.256Z · score: 9 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 18 comments

This is a link post for https://dominiccummings.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/201702-effective-action-2-systems-engineering-to-systems-politics.pdf


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comment by Fluttershy · 2017-02-17T18:19:24.902Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's actually a noteworthy passage on how prediction markets could fail in one of Dominic's other recent blog posts I've been wanting to get a second opinion on for a while:

NB. Something to ponder: a) hedge funds were betting heavily on the basis of private polling [for Brexit] and b) I know at least two ‘quant’ funds had accurate data (they had said throughout the last fortnight their data showed it between 50-50 and 52-48 for Leave and their last polls were just a point off), and therefore c) they, and others in a similar position, had a strong incentive to game betting markets to increase their chances of large gains from inside knowledge. If you know the probability of X happening is much higher than markets are pricing, partly because financial markets are looking at betting markets, then there is a strong incentive to use betting markets to send false signals and give competitors an inaccurate picture. I have no idea if this happened, and nobody even hinted to me that it had, but it is worth asking: given the huge rewards to be made and the relatively trivial amounts of money needed to distort betting markets, why would intelligent well-resourced agents not do this, and therefore how much confidence should we have in betting markets as accurate signals about political events with big effects on financial markets?

comment by Vaniver · 2017-02-18T18:30:58.377Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hanson's answer is that if you know someone is doing this, there's free money to pick up, and so the incentives push against this. (You don't have to specifically know that X is out to spike the market, you just have to look at the market and say "whoa, that price is off, I should trade.") There's still the problem of linking markets of different sizes--if the prediction market is less liquid and much smaller than the stock market, but the stock market is taking signals from the prediction market, then it makes sense to lose a million on the prediction market to gain a billion on the stock market.

(The solution there is to make the prediction market more liquid and bigger, which currently doesn't happen for regulatory reasons.)

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2017-02-17T13:50:28.697Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here is some colourful language for you: Dominic Cummings makes my memetic immune system want to vomit.

Part of it is because he sets off my Malcolm-Gladwell-o-Meter, but mostly it’s because he’s trying so hard to appear more knowledgeable and well-educated than he actually is. He surrounds himself with the trappings of expertise he obviously doesn’t have. Case in point: this “paper” is clearly a blog post which he converted to PDF via MS Word because he thinks that makes it look more credible.

The effect for me is a bit like receiving an email from a Nigerian prince, asking for your help in getting millions of dollars out of the country. My response is approximately the same.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-17T18:04:36.581Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't seem like he's trying to make it not look like a blog post. (If he were, he'd have removed the bits that explicitly say it is one.)

comment by Viliam · 2017-02-20T09:48:22.219Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The pattern-matching part of my brain sees the author as a modern analogy of Chesterton -- a highly intelligent and educated person who decided to put their skills in defense of a political bottom line, by trying to repaint it as hidden rationality. He almost makes you believe that a victory of his political side would mean a victory of rationality, just because he can convincingly connect these two things in his head, and put that on paper. Problem is, his position is absolutely not representative of the political side he defends, and 99% of people on his political side have completely different priorities.

This said, his description of NASA in its best days is really cool. I just don't share his implied belief that Brexit is somehow related to that. My prediction is that 5 or 10 years later, Britain will not be any more NASA-like than it is now. And neither will be USA under Trump, France under Le Pen, Hungary under Orbán, etc. This is all just wishful thinking for contrarians.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-20T13:28:21.224Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And neither will be USA under Trump, France under Le Pen, Hungary under Orbán, etc. This is all just wishful thinking for contrarians.

I can easily imagine that under Trump various prestige projects will be organized this way.

Till now it's just that it's "we will put a wall between the US and Mexico" instead of "we will put a man on the moon". Both cost two digits of billions.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-20T17:14:54.136Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Run some projects the same sort of way as Apollo was run" is not, to my mind, a very worthy goal. What (perhaps) made it valuable to run the Apollo project that way was that the result was to get humans safely to the surface of the moon, developing technology along the way. The process (even if an excellent process) was valuable only for the sake of the actual outcome.

Deploying similar techniques to achieve the building of a big wall between the USA and Mexico is comparably valuable only if having a big wall between the USA and Mexico is as valuable a goal as getting people to the moon and back. Opinions on that could vary, of course.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-21T11:01:12.262Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Run some projects the same sort of way as Apollo was run" is not, to my mind, a very worthy goal.

When talking about policy issues like this it's useful to be able to talk about how to organize projects and not only talk about whether one likes certain goals.

Part of the problem of why the system is the inefficient bureaucracy that it is, is because you have big debates about what should be done but little interest in how to organize projects.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-20T17:16:39.858Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, maybe that's not quite right. If Trump is determined to build a wall between the US and Mexico regardless of cost, and if Apollo-style organization can make it much cheaper, then good for Apollo-style organization. But that doesn't suffice to make "used Apollo-style organization to build a huge wall" a better outcome than just "didn't bother building a huge wall".

comment by Viliam · 2017-02-20T15:02:49.854Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can easily imagine

Kinda my point. I too can "easily imagine" things -- privileging a hypothesis and describing it vividly achieves exactly that.

Before reading this article, was "Trump as a competent NASA director" a hypothesis in your mind? Did this article provide evidence in favor of it? For me, the answers are "No" and "No". But after reading the article, it became much easier to imagine things like that.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-20T15:44:27.456Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Trump as a competent NASA director"

Trump is president of the USA and discussing a world in which Trump would be NASA director is a completely different discussion than the one we are having. Confusing the two seems to be a mistake that's worthy of being mentally recognized as such (eg. when you recognize a mistake you see where your model needs updating).

The question is whether the Trump administration could put someone at the head of NASA who acts this way. I listened quite a lot to Peter Thiel and one of Thiel's statement is that the US government did great when they did the Apollo program but today's way of doing government projects is much worse and the government doesn't get things like the Apollo program done because it's too bureaucratic.

This means that there are concrete steps that could be taking to have NASA structured like it was under Apollo.

This article basically says that there's a specific way of management under which the Apollo project was done and how that differs from the status quo.

I also think that it it's Trumps way of doing things to give power and responsibility to a specific person instead of distributing it widely the way it is distributed in the bureaucratic status quo.

Another of Thiel's examples: Nixon declared war on cancer. Could you imagine Bush, Obama or Clinton declaring war on cancer and setting a goal like this and declaring war on Alzheimers?

I couldn't. On the other hand I could imagine Trump declaring war on Alzheimers. I could imagine him declaring it and putting a team with the kind of structure that the Apollo team had on the task.

Whether that's the best way to go forward is another question. I personally hated the Human Brain project and would have rather preferred the money to be giving out in lot's of small grants doing lots of different things.

comment by Viliam · 2017-02-21T10:07:27.727Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The question is whether the Trump administration could put someone at the head of NASA who acts this way.

Hypothetically speaking, yes it's possible. But what is the probability of "Trump administration will put someone at the head of NASA who will direct it in ways described in the article, and during the following 4 or 8 years will achieve results comparable with the results NASA achieved back then?" More than 10%?

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-21T11:09:00.272Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To me that looks like a quite narrow prediction. Till now I haven't seen anything that suggest that space will be a priority for the Trump administration.

Given that both Bush and Obama had a token commitment of putting a man on Mars I don't see that there's much to gain for choosing this public goal.

I do think there more than 10% chance for a >10 billion science/technology project that organized more like how the Apollo project was organized then how projects are currently organized.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2017-02-17T21:06:36.789Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Extra short tl;dr: manage the feedback loops that report problems with your core causal variables. 'Incentives' describes whether or not these signals are propagating through the organization to reach the key people who can pull the correct levers.

comment by Fluttershy · 2017-02-17T18:13:44.977Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea that there's much to be gained by crafting institutions, organizations, and teams which can train and direct people better seems like it could flower into an EA cause, if someone wanted it to. From reading the first post in the series, I think that that's a core part of what Dominic is getting at:

We could significantly improve the decisions of the most powerful 100 people in the UK or the world for less than a million dollars (~£10^6) and a decade-long project on a scale of just ~£10^7 could have dramatic effects.

comment by Viliam · 2017-02-17T13:21:30.011Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The second half of the article contains the specific details.

The government system [...] is a combination of [...] centralisation of power among ministers, officials, and advisers almost none of whom are +3 standard deviations (~1:1,000) on even one relevant dimension (IQ, willpower/toughness, management ability, metacognition etc) because the selection, education, training, and incentives are screwed [...] extremely powerful bureaucracy (closed to outside people and ideas) defined by dysfunctional management incentivised to spew rules rather than solve problems [...] most major elements of the system including political parties are incentivised to focus on trivia, not solve deep problems; [...] a media programmed largely to spread confusion combined with an intelligentsia that even (especially!) at the highest levels is dominated by a political culture of fairy tales and very little understanding about effective action [...] This is a system failure — the political system possesses few error-correcting features seen in markets and the scientific method so it cannot fix itself.

The good news is that we have discovered a lot about high performance teams (HPTs) stretching back thousands of years of recorded history and literature. The bad news is that our evolved nature makes it very hard to accept and apply these lessons and our political institutions are constructed in such a way as to make it practically impossible (and mostly illegal) for them to reach high performance. Even more difficult: HPTs are inherently dangerous and in many areas we must be wary of giving them centralised power.

When high technology projects passed a threshold of complexity post-1945 amid the extreme pressure of the early Cold War, new management ideas emerged. [...] eading to the successful moon landing in 1969 [...] These ideas were known as ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’.

The ‘scientific management’ revolution was introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th Century. [...] Taylor demonstrated that he could make more steel, faster, and cheaper than anybody else [...] The secret was not a breakthrough technology but a breakthrough management process. He paid extreme attention to the details of each aspect of the manufacturing process and experimented to optimise each part. [...] What had been skilled jobs relying on judgement became less skilled jobs performing simple repetitive tasks. [...] It depended on a rigid hierarchy in which those at the bottom were told not to think but to execute simple tasks in the exact way stipulated. [...] While his approach works for certain sorts of relatively simple operation it cannot be extended to relatively complex operations.

Managers and writers on management such as Drucker had grappled in the 1940s with the issue of how scientists, engineers, and innovation fit with Taylor’s ideas of ‘scientific management’. Their knowledge and skills were beyond almost all normal managers. The insights and innovations they generated could not be routinised as per Taylor’s methods.

A new committee, the ICBM Scientific Advisory Committee, was created and chaired by von Neumann so that eminent scientists could remain involved. [...] Schriever then had to fight to remove endless tiers of the government bureaucracy demanding the right of approval and endless people who could say ‘no’ but not ‘yes’ that immediately stymied progress despite the supposed ‘top priority’. [...] Gardner, skilled in bureaucratic infighting, created a stacked committee that managed to prise almost all the normal bureaucratic hands off the ICBM project [...] Schriever now only needed a single approval of a single document each year. [...] this was a first for the Air Force ‘where the project manager had both technical and budgetary authority’ as previously every project drew funds from several budgets and required separate processes for making decisions. Insiders said later it would have been declared illegal if it had not been a classified project. Almost everybody hated the arrangement.

Armed with his unprecedented authority, Schriever pursued what became known as ‘concurrency’ — pursuing several options in parallel ‘in the interest of compressing time — our most critical commodity’. Groves had done the same on the Manhattan Project. The engineers developed much more rigorous systems for exhaustive testing, component inspection and tracking, and ‘configuration control’. [...] They built new long-distance phone systems including encrypted links and teletype facilities. [...] chedules were standardised across all the different players and coordinated centrally but in such a way that managers could access them and see quickly the status of the project. ‘Black Saturdays’ were monthly days on which the whole project was reviewed and responsibility for all problems assigned to individuals. They were ‘black’ because the purpose was to discuss the bad news. ‘Give me the bad news. I can take it. I will not fire you for giving me the bad news. I will fire you if you don’t give me the bad news’, Schriever said (echoing Warren Buffett: gimme the bad news, the good news can wait). If they hit apparently intractable technical problems, calls would go out to von Neumann’s committee for scientific help.

‘Matrix management’ allowed organisations to manage projects using people spread across different functional departments all reporting to a project manager as well as their department head. ‘Configuration control’ and ‘configuration management’ connected changes to specifications, designs, hardware, and operational and testing procedures within an overall system for scheduling. Engineers were required to give schedule and cost estimates with requests for any technical change, allowing managers to monitor what was happening and who was slipping. All changes had to be notified, approved, and then communicated widely. It allowed the engineers to coordinate subsystems. Before this, said one involved, ‘we didn’t have a record of how we made it successful. So we were having random success, the worst thing that can happen to you because you know you got it right but you can’t repeat it.’ It allowed the accountant and legal experts to see the ties between cost and scheduling documents and contractual documents.

The heart of the idea was the need to ensure that the project was managed with an overall understanding of the whole system so that all the complex parts were properly integrated. Many of the failures came from the failure of integration and problems with technical and schedule compatibility of interfaces. Integrating the system required integrating disparate teams and specialised expertise (scientists, engineers, military officers, managers) and building an organisation-wide orientation so that everybody had an understanding of the whole. All aspects of the organisation therefore had to communicate in much richer, deeper ways [...] so that ‘all of us understand what was going on throughout the program. [...] so many programs fail because everybody doesn't know what it is they are supposed to do

Mueller required the different NASA centre bosses (Florida, Texas etc) to report directly to him. He introduced a ‘matrix management’ system whereby teams in the centres reported both to his HQ and to their centre’s bosses. He then required the different teams, in different NASA centres, to communicate constantly with their functional counterparts at other centres and on other teams. His ‘five box’ structure meant that the five teams at HQ were copied in each centre: program control, systems engineering, testing, reliability, and flight operations. Managers and engineers in each box talked directly to their HQ equivalents outside their centre’s chain of command. One individual was clearly responsible for each key area [...] Daily communications down those five parallel lines is probably the most significant contribution to getting the program done

It is ‘amazing if you can get the CEO to come and see what the total program is and what his group’s problems are, how rapidly those problems get addressed and solved.

comment by Viliam · 2017-02-17T13:21:59.910Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


Configuration management, [...] ‘you define at each stage what you think the design is going to be within your present ability. After you describe it you let everybody know what it is when you change it.’ Contractors could only change things that did not affect anyone else. Only program managers could authorise changes that affected interfaces and other things with effects across the whole system. To those who objected Mueller replied that the first ICBMs built with configuration management were the first delivered within budget and schedule

Mueller pursued concurrent development of some systems. Although this was criticised as wasteful, Mueller always argued that it saved lots of money in the long-term and the real problem is that Congress and politicians do not think long-term. His view was that it would have been cheaper and more productive long-term to use concurrent development more widely than he was able to given his budget constraints. ‘Time is money’, he told people repeatedly: if you save lots of time, you save lots of money.

He also scrapped the conservative and lengthy testing schedule that would test each stage before proceeding to the next. Instead there would be ‘all-up testing’ with all elements active and as close to lunar configuration as possible

The speed and precision of information sharing were rapidly improved. Instead of monthly updates, Mueller wanted daily updates. All data were displayed in a central control room [...] They even spent time building specialised communications systems such as a ‘teleservices network’ to connect the teams and data and provide the ability to hold teleconferencing. Information was updated fast and shared widely [...] He inherited a management council of 14 at the apex of the hierarchy and cut it to 4 (himself and the three centre directors)

Mueller and others had the next stages planned to capitalise on the success of Apollo by building substantial infrastructure in space for science and commerce including: a re-usable space plane to cut the cost per kilogram into orbit dramatically, a system of permanent space stations around the earth and moon serviced by inter-orbital transfer vehicles and lunar landing vehicles ‘like a railroad in space’ (thus also saving huge amounts of money because of not having to escape earth’s gravity each trip), a permanent manned lunar base in the 1970s, a manned trip to Mars in the 1980s [...] These plans would also have involved big investments in computation and software which were a major roadblock for Apollo.

Tragically, after the success in 1969 ambitions were curtailed, funding was slashed [...] NASA slipped back to technical failure, repeated accidents, deaths, and wasteful budgets. It lost institutional memory and the culture that made it a success [...] Part of the reason, according to Mueller himself, is that the successful systems management approach he used for Apollo which came from TRW had to be forced on NASA. It did not grow there organically. [...] After the Challenger disaster, changes such as the ‘faster, better, cheaper’ reforms made many of the problems worse. The lack of integration got so bad that a $125 million Mars probe crashed because two teams did not realise that one of them was using imperial and the other metric units.

One of the strongest complaints from Mueller was the lack of long-term budgeting in Washington which focused on annual budgets and therefore imposed decisions which wasted money in the long-term. [...] Interestingly the scientific community, now so supportive of investment in space, was not in the 1950s and 1960s and they generally opposed many of Mueller’s plans on the foolish assumption that if they stopped money going to space they might get some of it. Scientists have made the same mistake repeatedly in such budget/political battles.

many things regarded by conventional wisdom as very low probability happen when a relatively tiny number of able people decide to change something.

  • Everybody in a large organisation must understand as much about the goals and plans as possible
  • There must be an overall approach in which the most important elements fit together, including in policy, management, and communications. Failures in complex projects, from renovating your house to designing a new welfare system, often occur at interfaces between parts.
  • Extreme transparency and communication, horizontally as well as hierarchically. [...] There is very little that needs to be kept secret in government and different processes can easily be developed for that very small number of things. [...] generally the advantages of communication hugely outweigh the dangers of leaks.
  • There must be a process whereby huge efforts go into the initial design of a complex system then there is a process whereby changes are made in a disciplined way such that a) interdependencies are tested where possible by relevant people before a change is agreed and b) then everybody relevant knows about the change.
  • organisations that have coped well with complexity have built novel control centres to reinforce extreme communication. Spend money and time on new technologies and processes to help spread orientation and learning through the organisation.
  • Long-term budgets save money
  • While overall vision, goals, and strategy usually comes from the top, it is vital that extreme decentralisation dominates operationally so that decisions are fast and unbureaucratic. Information must be shared centrally and horizontally across the organisation — it is not either/or.
  • meetings focused not on ‘reporting progress’ but making clear the problems. Simple as it sounds this is very unusual
  • Spending on redundancy to improve resilience
  • Important knowledge is discovered but then the innovation is standardised and codified so it can be easily learned and used by others
  • Saving time saves money.
  • The ‘matrix management’ system allowed coordination across different departments and different projects.
  • People and ideas were more important than technology.

[As opposed to the standard way government does things, such as...] I doubt a single department has proper orientation across most of the organisation [...] most ministers fail at [...] developing coherent goals — so effective orientation is inherently impossible. [...] keeps information secret that does not need to be secret in order to hide its own internal processes from scrutiny, thus adding to its own management failures and distrust (a vicious circle) [...] it does not put enough effort into the initial design then makes haphazard changes then fails to communicate changes effectively [...] every department lies to the Treasury and provides fake numbers. [...] The Treasury does not have the expertise to evaluate most of what they are looking at. [...] routinely nobody is held responsible for errors and most management works on the basis of ‘give me good news not bad news’. [...] By the time the long-term happens, the responsible people have all moved on to better paid jobs and nobody is accountable. [...] for example, in the Department for Education officials systematically destroyed its own library. [...] The Foreign Office similarly destroyed its own library. [...] its obsession is bullshit process for buck-passing and it fights with all its might against simplification and focus. [...] The system naturally pushes for the longest periods they can get away with to give themselves what they think of as a chance to beat ‘expectations’ but then they often fail on absurdly long timetables [...] it is hopeless at assembling interdisciplinary teams and elevates legal advice over everything [...] IT projects fail repeatedly in the same ways because of failures of management, not ‘lack of investment’, and adding people to flawed projects is not a solution.

Ministers have little grip of departments and little power to change their direction. They can’t hire or fire and they can’t set incentives. They are almost never in a job long enough to acquire much useful knowledge and they almost never have the sort of management skills that provide alternative value to specific knowledge. They have little chance to change anything and officials ensure this little chance becomes almost no chance.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-20T13:15:34.630Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's quite clear that a lot of government run systems are quite inefficient and have huge bureaucracies that don't provide value. On the other hand I'm not sure that we need more Apollo program type government initiatives.

We don't need a lunar base for the sake of having a lunar base. The current projects of better satellite coverage for faster internet all over the planet is a good engineering focus. Longer-term mining asteroids is valuable for making life better on earth.

A lot of the money that's spent for innovation should likely spend in the way the Lean Startup advocates. Build small minimum viable products and see which one's provide promising value.