How Doomed are Large Organizations?

post by Zvi · 2020-01-21T12:20:00.524Z · score: 71 (20 votes) · LW · GW · 42 comments

Contents

  Are these dynamics the inevitable result of large organizations? 
  How can we forestall these dynamics within an organization?
  The Goodhart Trap 
  To what extent should we avoid creating large organizations? 
  Has this dynamic ever been different in the past in other places and times?
None
42 comments

We now take the model from the previous post, and ask the questions over the next several posts. This first answer post asks these questions:

  1. Are these dynamics the inevitable results of large organizations?
  2. How can we forestall these dynamics within an organization?
  3. To what extent should we avoid creating large organizations?
  4. Has this dynamic ever been different in the past in other times and places?

These are the best answers I was able to come up with. Some of this is reiteration of previous observations and prescriptions. Some of it is new.

There are some bold claims in these answer posts, which I lack the space and time to defend in detail or provide citations for properly, with which I am confident many readers will disagree. I am fine with that. I do not intend to defend them further unless I see an opportunity in doing so.

I would love to be missing much better strategies for making organizations less doomed – if you have ideas please please please share them in the comments and/or elsewhere.

Are these dynamics the inevitable result of large organizations? 

These dynamics are the default result of large organizations. There is continuous pressure over time pushing towards such outcomes.

The larger the organization, the longer it exists, and the more such outcomes have already happened, both there and elsewhere, the greater the pressure towards such outcomes. 

Once such dynamics take hold, reversing them within an organization is extremely difficult.

Non-locally within a civilization, one can allow new organizations to periodically take the place of old ones to reset the damage.

Locally within a sufficiently large organization and over a sufficiently long time horizon, this makes these dynamics inevitable. The speed at which this occurs still varies greatly, and depends on choices made.

How can we forestall these dynamics within an organization?

These dynamics can be forestalled somewhat through a strong organizational culture that devotes substantial head space and resources to keeping the wrong people and behaviors out. This requires a leader who believes in this and in making it a top priority. Usually this person is a founder. Losing the founder is often the trigger for a rapid ramp up in maze level.

Keeping maze levels in check means continuously sacrificing substantial head space, resources, ability to scale and short-term effectiveness to this cause. This holds both for the organization overall and the leader personally. 

Head space is sacrificed three ways: You have less people, you devote some of those people to the maze-fighting process, and the process takes up space in everyone’s head.

Central to this is to ruthlessly enforce an organizational culture with zero tolerance for maze behaviors.

Doing anything with an intent to deceive, or an intent to game your metrics at the expense of object level results, needs to be an automatic “you’re fired.”

Some amount of politics is a human universal, but it needs to be strongly discouraged. Similarly, some amount of putting in extra effort at crucial times is necessary, but strong patterns of guarding people’s non-work lives from work, both in terms of time and other influences, are also strongly necessary.

Workers and managers need to have as much effective skin in the game as you can muster.

One must hire carefully, with a keen eye to the motivations and instincts of applicants, and a long period of teaching them the new cultural norms. This means at least growing slowly, so new people can be properly incorporated.

You also want a relatively flat hierarchy, to the extent possible.

There will always be bosses when crunch time comes. Someone is always in charge. Don’t let anyone tell you different. But the less this is felt in ordinary interactions, and thus the more technically direct reports each boss can have and still be effective, and thus the less levels of hierarchy you need for a given number of people, the better off you’ll be. 

You can run things in these ways. I have seen it. It helps. A lot.

Another approach is to lower the outside maze level. Doing so by changing society at large is exceedingly hard. Doing so by associating with outside organizations with lower maze levels, and going into industries and problems with lower maze levels, seems more realistic. If you want to ‘disrupt’ an area that is suffering from maze dysfunction, it makes sense to bypass the existing systems entirely. Thus, move fast, break things.

One can think of all these tactics as taking the questions one uses to identify or predict a maze, and trying to engineer the answers you want. That is a fine intuitive place to start.

However, if Goodhart’s Law alarm bells did not go off in your head when you read that last paragraph, you do not appreciate how dangerous Goodhart Traps are.

The Goodhart Trap 

The fatal flaw is that no matter what you target when distributing rewards and punishments and cultural approval, it has to be something. If you spell it out, and a sufficiently large organization has little choice but to spell it out, you inevitably replace one type of Goodharting with another. One type of deception becomes another.

One universal is that in order to maintain a unique culture, you must filter for those that happily embrace that culture. That means you are now testing everyone constantly, no matter how explicit you avoid making this, on whether they happily embrace the company and its culture. People therefore pretend to embrace the culture and pretend to be constantly happy. Even if they do embrace the culture and are happy, they still additionally will put on a show of doing so.

If you punish deception you get people pretending not to deceive. If you punish pretending, you get people who pretend to not be the type of people who would pretend. People Goodhart on not appearing to Goodhart.

Which is a much more interesting level to play on, and usually far less destructive. If you do a good enough job picking your Goodhart targets, this beats the alternatives by a lot.

Still, you eventually end up in a version of the same place. Deception is deception. Pretending is pretending. Fraud is fraud. The soul still dies. Simulacrum levels still slowly rise. 

Either you strongly enforce a culture, and slowly get that result, or you don’t. If you don’t and are big enough, you quickly get a maze. If you do and/or are smaller, depending on your skill level and dedication to the task, you slowly get a maze.

Hiring well is better than enforcing or training later, since once people are in they can then be themselves. Also because enforcement of culture is, as pointed out above, toxic even if you mean to enforce a non-toxic ideal. But relying on employee selection puts a huge premium on not making hiring mistakes. Even one bad hire in the wrong place can be fatal. Especially if they then are in a position to bring others with them. You need to defend your hiring process especially strongly from these same corruptions.

My guess is that once an organization grows beyond about Dunbar’s number, defending your culture becomes a losing battle even under the best of circumstances. Enforcing the culture will fail outright in the medium term, unless the culture outside the organization is supporting you. 

If you are too big, every known strategy is only a holding action. There is no permanent solution.

To what extent should we avoid creating large organizations? 

Quite a lot. These effects are a really big deal. Organizations get less effective, more toxic and corrupt as places to work and interact with, and add more toxicity and corruption to society. 

Every level of hierarchy enhances this effect. The first five, dramatically so. Think hard before being or having a boss. Think harder before letting someone’s boss report to a boss. Think even harder than that before adding a fourth or fifth level of hierarchy. 

That does not mean such things can be fully avoided. The advantages of large organizations with many degrees of hierarchy are also a really big deal. We cannot avoid them entirely. 

We must treat creating additional managerial levels as having very high costs. This is not an action to be taken lightly. Wherever possible, create distinct organizations and allow them to interact. Even better, allow people to interact as individuals. 

This adds friction and transaction costs. It makes many forms of coordination harder. Sometimes it simply cannot be done if you want to do the thing you’d like to do. 

This is increasingly the case, largely as a result of enemy action. Some of this is technology and our problems being legitimately more complex. Most of it is regulatory frameworks and maze-supporting social norms that require massive costs, including massive fixed costs, be paid as part of doing anything at all. This is a key way mazes expropriate resources and reward other mazes while punishing non-mazes.

I often observe people who are stuck working in mazes who would much prefer to be self-employed or to exit their current job or location, but who are unable to do so because the legal deck is increasingly stacked against that.

Even if the work itself is permitted, health insurance issues alone force many into working for the man. 

When one has a successful small organization, the natural instinct is to scale it up and become a larger organization.

Resist this urge whenever possible. There is nothing wrong with being good at what you do at the scale you are good at doing it. Set an example others can emulate. Let others do other things, be other places. Any profits from that enterprise can be returned to investors and/or paid to employees, and used to live life or create or invest in other projects, or to help others.

One need not point to explicit quantified dangers to do this. Arguments that one cannot legitimately choose to  ‘leave money on the table’ or otherwise not maximize, are maximalist arguments for some utility function that does not properly capture human value and is subject to Goodhart’s Law [LW · GW], and against the legitimacy of slack

The fear that if you don’t grow, you’ll get ‘beaten’ by those that do, as in Raymond’s kingdoms? Overblown. Also asking the wrong question. So what if someone else is bigger or more superficially successful? So what if you do not build a giant thing that lasts? Everything ends. That is not, by default, what matters. A larger company is often not better than several smaller companies. A larger club is often not better than several smaller clubs. A larger state is often not better or longer lasting than several smaller ones. Have something good and positive, for as long as it is viable and makes sense, rather than transforming into something likely to be bad. 

People like to build empires. Those with power usually want more power. That does not make more power a good idea. It is only a good idea where it is instrumentally useful.   

In some places, competition really is winner-take-all and/or regulations and conditions too heavily favor the large over the small. One must grow to survive. Once again, we should be suspicious that this dynamic has been engineered rather than being inherent in the underlying problem space. 

Especially in those cases, this leads back to the question of how we can grow larger and keep these dynamics in check. 

Has this dynamic ever been different in the past in other places and times?

These dynamics seem to me to be getting increasingly worse, which implies they have been better in the past.

Recent developments indicate an increasing simulacrum level, an increasing reluctance to allow older institutions to be replaced by newer ones, and an increasing reliance on cronyism and corruption that props up failure, allowing mazes to survive past when they are no longer able to fulfill their original functions.

Those in the political and academic systems, on all sides, increasingly openly advocate against the very concept of objective truth, or that people should tell it, or are blameworthy for not doing so. Our president’s supporters admit and admire that he is a corrupt liar, claiming that his honesty about his corruption and lying, and his admiration for others who are corrupt, who lie and who bully, is refreshing, because they are distinct from the corrupt, the liars and the bullies who are more locally relevant to their lives. Discourse is increasingly fraught and difficult. When someone wants to engage in discourse, I frequently now observe them spending much of their time pointing out how difficult it is to engage in discourse (and I am not claiming myself as an exception here), as opposed to what such people used to do instead, which was engage in discourse.

We are increasingly paralyzed and unable to do things across a wide variety of potential human activities. 

Expropriation by existing mazes and systems eats increasing shares of everything, especially in education, health care and housing.

I don’t have time for a full takedown here, but: Claims to the contrary, such as those recently made by Alex Tabbrok in Why Are The Prices So Damn High?, are statistical artifacts that defy the evidence of one’s eyes. They are the product of Moloch’s Army. When I have insurance and am asked with no warning to pay $850 for literally five minutes of a doctor’s time, after being kept waiting for an hour (and everyone I ask about this says just refuse to pay it)? When sending my child to a kindergarten costs the majority of a skilled educator’s salary? When you look at rents?

Don’t tell me the problem is labor costs due to increasing demand for real services.

Just. Don’t.

Some technological innovations remain permitted for now, and many of the organizations exploiting this are relatively new and reliant on object-level work, and thus less maze-like for now, but this is sufficiently narrow that we call the result “the tech industry.” We see rapid progress in the few places where innovation and actual work is permitted to those without mazes and connections, and where there is sufficient motivation for work, either intrinsic or monetary. 

The tech industry also exhibits some very maze-like behaviors of its own, but it takes a different form. I am unlikely to be the best person to tackle those details, as others have better direct experience, and I will not attempt to tackle them here and now.

We see very little everywhere else. Increasingly we live in an amalgamated giant maze, and the maze is paralyzing us and taking away our ability to think or talk while robbing us blind. Mazes are increasingly in direct position to censor, deplatform or punish us, even if we do not work for them.

The idea of positive-sum, object-level interactions being someone’s primary source of income is increasingly seen as illegitimate, and risky and irresponsible, in contrast to working for a maze. People instinctively think there’s something shady or rebellious about that entire enterprise of having an actual enterprise. A proper person seeks rent, plays the game starting in childhood, sends the right signals and finds ways to game the system. They increase their appeal to mazes by making themselves as dependent on them and their income and legitimacy streams, and as vulnerable to their blackmail, as possible. 

The best way to see that positive-sum games are a thing is to notice that the sum changes. If everything is zero-sum, the sum would always be zero.

The best way to see that these dynamics used to be much less severe, at least in many times and places, is that those times and places looked and felt different, and got us here without collapsing. Moral Mazes was written before I was born, but the spread of these dynamics is clear as day within my lifetime, and yours as well.

Did some times and places, including our recent past, have it less bad than us in these ways? I see this as almost certainly true, but I am uncertain of the magnitude of this effect due to not having good enough models of the past.

Did some times and places have it worse than we do now? Very possible. But they’re not around anymore. Which is how it works.

The next section will ask why it was different in the past, what the causes are in general, and whether we can duplicate past conditions in good ways.

 

 

 

42 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by shminux · 2020-01-22T05:54:03.861Z · score: 23 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Examples! Which large stable organizations have managed to resist this trend and how? Motorola? IBM? Toyota? Without examples it's just unconvincing words.

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2020-01-22T20:39:30.127Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know if maze-nature can be resisted, but the same factors that bring maze-nature also allow economies of scale and desirable types of complexity. All of the armies in WWII had considerable maze-nature, but that doesn't mean that fielding a smaller army would have worked better. Bigger armies usually win, despite the added levels of (mis)management. And the processes that turn natural materials into an iPhone are necessarily going to take millions of people, because phones are incredibly complex. Sometimes maze-nature may be an acceptable cost to pay, at least for a while.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-23T22:13:15.829Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's like the power of an organization is a square root or perhaps only a logarithm of how many people work for it. It is horrible to see the diminishing returns, but larger still means stronger.

Maybe this is the actual reason why centralized economy sucks. Not because of mere lack of information (as Hayek assumed), because in theory the government could employ thousands of local information collectors, and process the collected data on computers. But it's the maze-nature that prevents it from doing this in a sane way. The distributed economy wins, despite all its inefficiencies (everyone reinventing the copyrighted wheels, burning money in zero-sum games, etc.), because the total size of all mazes is smaller.

But in long term, the successful mazes try to convert the entire country into one large maze, by increasing regulation, raising fixed costs of doing stuff, and doing other things that change the playground so that the total power matters more than the power per individual.

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-24T00:56:52.151Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

beware the unstated alternative: is there reason to believe that un-coordinated individuals grow in power linearly (or any faster/slower than corporate/government aggregations)?

If this power calculation holds, then things suck because there are more people, not because of how they're organized. I'd call that conclusion fairly repugnant.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-26T16:06:48.310Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depends on situation. Sometimes people can do things independently on each other. Sometimes people do things together because it is more efficient that way. And sometimes people do things together because there is an artificial obstacle that prevents them from making things individually. (In other words, mazes are trying to change the world in a way that makes mazes mandatory.)

As a made-up example, imagine that there are three cities, and there is a shop in each city, each shop having a different owner. (It is assumed that most people buy in their local shop.) Maybe the situation is such that it would be more profitable if there is only one shop chain operating in all three cities. But maybe there is a shop chain successfully lobbying to make it illegal to own individual shops. Or not literally illegal, but perhaps they propose a law that imposes a huge fixed cost on each shop or shop chain, so the owner of one shop would have to pay this tax per shop, while the owner of a chain only has to pay it once per entire chain. Such law could make the shop chains more profitable than uncoordinated shops, even in situations where without that law they might be less profitable.

So, we have two levels of the game here: What is more profitable assuming no artificial obstacles. And what is more profitable when players are allowed to lobby for creating artificial obstacles for competitors using a different strategy. (That is, suppose that the state is not corrupt so much that it would not make a law that makes life specificially easy for corporation A and difficult for an equivalent corporation B, but it can be convinced to make a law that makes life easier for certain types of corporations and more difficult for other types. So the corporation A cannot use the law as a weapon against an equivalent corporation B, but e.g. large companies could use the law as a weapon against small companies. Creating a large fixed cost for everyone is a typical example.)

To answer your question, maybe sometimes things suck because there are more people, but sometimes things only suck because mazes have the power to change the law to make things suck.

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-26T17:13:40.448Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
maybe sometimes things suck because there are more people, but sometimes things only suck because mazes have the power to change the law to make things suck.

We're in complete agreement. I'm looking for the model that tells me how to know which (or what proportion) of these is true for actual mazes today.

comment by moridinamael · 2020-01-22T19:07:49.137Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love to see an answer to or discussion of this question. The premise of the OP that large companies would be better off if split into much much smaller companies is a shocking and bold claim. If conglomeration and growth of large firms were a purely Molochian and net-negative proposition, then the world would look different than it does.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-01-21T20:02:32.339Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked this post as well. Some questions (which I don't necessarily expect you to have the answers to):

  1. The Chinese government is a huge organization, but seems to have improved in effectiveness in recent years [LW · GW]. How did that happen?
  2. A lot of "company politics" apparently consist of "social justice activism" these days. Does SJ (as currently practiced in a lot of places) count as maze behavior? I wonder if the overall increase in mazes has something to do with (in either direction) the rise of SJ.
comment by Zvi · 2020-01-22T21:28:03.406Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1. I don't know enough details about China to offer a complete answer. I could speculate that China's government is relatively new, and has reinvented itself more recently than that in dramatic ways. Also that it is still taking part in catch-up growth, which looks more dramatic than it is and also causes direct disruptions of existing systems as things power up, which should help with all this. Also, that link (directly at least) seems to be mostly saying China is accomplishing things rather than the Chinese Government, a key distinction. China tore down the things stifling growth (e.g. the whole being Communist thing) to a large extent and the maze-style things that will next get in the way likely have not finished coming in to replace them.

There's also the possibility that China's growth is masking growing problems - if your maze level is ruining things at 2%/year (made up number) but you are growing at 8% a year otherwise, you still grow at 6%, or something.

Another "nice" thing for China is that the Chinese Communist Party seems to be maintaining power by providing real physical life improvements, naked-eye-visible rising living standards and economic growth. If that stopped, they would (or so a model I have low confidence in says) lose the Mandate of Heaven and be in a lot of trouble, potentially collapsing. As opposed to trying to win elections, that provides a strong incentive to care about the physical end-level results, especially if party officials at the top are going to be around for a long time and want to keep power. Could be lessons there of course.

I also have a very poor handle on what's actually happening in China and how they are really doing. I've heard that there's a ton of waste and lots and lots of regional debt serving as a time bomb. I've also seen claims they're kicking ass. Hard to know and I don't claim to know.

2. I do not think "social justice activism" is that large a share of corporate politics, especially in competitions between managers, it's more that there is a ton more SJ activity than anti-SJ activity and we notice such activity a lot more. Or to put it another way, woke ads and campaigns far exceed anti-SJ ads and campaigns but are still newsworthy, and if SJ activism were really that big a deal, they wouldn't be. That is entirely compatible with SJ-signaling becoming part of the winning-coalition-signaling set in some major corporations. The biggest difference is that it might extend down to the object-level workers and attack them, whereas most other such things get shrugged off, and again that it gets noticed a lot. As to why SJ over non-SJ, it seems SJ side is much better at applying leverage and helping move product, and is generally winning the mindshare fights especially in places like tech, so it gets the nod.

That much seems safe enough to say, but I don't want to press my luck by continuing to talk about such matters on the internet...

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-22T04:17:29.114Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

#2 could be a "baptists and bootleggers" effect: ideological activists (the "baptists") want to change Society; mazey organizations (the "bootleggers") can offer the activists "shallow" concessions that (you can tell if you scrutinize closely enough, but almost no one does) don't actually end up changing Society much, but do shut out less-mazey competitors who can't afford to make the concessions.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-22T20:55:47.512Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose that increase in mazes means that if there is external pressure that appears politically fashionable, more people in the positions of relative power are motivated to (appear to) move in the direction of the pressure, whatever it is, because they don't really care either way. This is how companies become woke, ecological, etc. (At least in appearance, because they will of course Goodhart the shit out of it.)

A different question is, why pressure in the direction of e.g. social justice is stronger than pressure in direction of e.g. Christianity. More activists? Better coordination? Strategic capture of important resources, such as media? Or maybe it is something completely different, e.g. social justice warriors pay less attention when their goals are Goodharted? (Firing one employee that said something politically incorrect is much cheaper than e.g. closing the shops on Sunday.) Before you say "left vs right", consider that e.g. veganism is coded left-wing, but we don't hear about companies turning vegan under external pressure. Or perhaps it's all just a huge Keynesian beauty contest, where any thing, once successful, becomes fixed, and the social justice warriors just had lucky timing. I don't know.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-22T21:01:39.958Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before you say "left vs right", consider that e.g. veganism is coded left-wing, but we don't hear about companies turning vegan under external pressure

I think this is definitely a thing that happens, and actually is one of the primary strategies of animal activists these days. (Granted, the current stage of that strategy is more like "going cage free" or "meatless mondays").

comment by crl826 · 2020-01-22T22:15:53.396Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Along with WeWork, the Golden Globes (Oscars? One of the Hollywood awards shows...) had only vegetarian options for the meal.

comment by Zvi · 2020-01-22T21:11:03.962Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think an example was WeWork, and Adam Newman was attempting to also pressure others to do so.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-22T21:25:32.069Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose that increase in mazes means that if there is external pressure that appears politically fashionable, more people in the positions of relative power are motivated to (appear to) move in the direction of the pressure, whatever it is, because they don't really care either way. This is how companies become woke, ecological, etc. (At least in appearance, because they will of course Goodhart the shit out of it.)

This sounds like the right mechanism to me.

A different question is, why pressure in the direction of e.g. social justice is stronger than pressure in direction of e.g. Christianity.

I do think "why do some things become politically fashionable?" is an important question. I think the answer to that is basically a whole other subfield just as complicated as the "how do mazes form?" question. But in answer to:

More activists? Better coordination? Strategic capture of important resources, such as media? Or maybe it is something completely different, e.g. social justice warriors pay less attention when their goals are Goodharted?

I think the answer is just "all of them" and "it depends."

comment by Yosarian T (yosarian-t) · 2020-06-25T17:11:44.529Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This essay and sequence has really helped me put into words why I love the current school I teach at, even though it objectivly should be a mess in a lot of ways. (Students with a low socioeconomic status, high violence rate in the neighborhood, underfunded, physical school building that is literally falling apart, etc). Nonetheless it has a much better culture than most other schools I've taught at, in ways that both students and teachers are aware of, and it's a lot more effective at actually teaching students than even much more well-off schools.

-The principal and school culture strongly selects for people who don't have the kind of political behavior.

-Instead, this school heavily selects for hiring quirky people with unusual styles who have "soul in the game" (IE: who actually care about what they're doing and about their students and have a deep belief that it's important, people who would continue to teach even if there was no pressure to do so and if it was easier to not teach).

-Unusual or unique classroom management and teaching styles are strongly encouraged, so long as they appear to be successful. People who are both personally and professionally non-conformist in appearance, lifestyle, and dress are rewarded for it.

-While this isn't immune to Goodhart's Law (nothing is), this type of behaviors seems unusually hard and expensive to fake compared to actually being a quirky individual with their own philosophy of teaching and soul in the game, and tends to be mostly incompatible with most maze-like behavior.

-The school principal and administration fairly regularly makes a show of defying the irrational maze-behavior of higher levels of the school district bureaucracy in order to do what's right for the students, to such a degree that much of the staff is worried he's going to get himself fired and even tries to encourage him to play the game a little more so he doesn't. Nonetheless that attitude really sets the tone for the school.

comment by Donald Hobson (donald-hobson) · 2020-01-23T00:56:54.694Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To stop goodhart don't measure. When someone walks in the door of the hiring department, spin a spinner. That determines what job a person has, no promotions, no firings. (If someone is too bad, they will get sent to jail anyway)

Part of the problem is that everyone in these companies is a smarmy sharp suited liberal arts degree types. Hire a broader range of humanity. When you have everyone from Tibetan monks to an ex drug dealer, to an eco warrier, to the sort of person that builds their own compiler in their free time, you should be good. If anyone knocks on the CEO's door at 3am on christmas, wearing only a swimsuit and diving gear, and trying to explain why they are a good hire through the medium of interpretative dance, hire them on the spot.

You won't get a maze. Whether or not a madhouse is an improvement, I don't know?

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-21T23:27:00.242Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Recent developments indicate an increasing simulacrum level

I noticed wanting this to be a link, and the I noticed, "I think someone just really needs to write an updated Simulacrum post that's a lot more clear."

comment by Zvi · 2020-01-22T00:06:53.863Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strongly agree. Tried to write one a while ago. It did not go well, hope to try again later.

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-21T22:02:34.856Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm. The focus on organization size, nor on "keeping the wrong people" out (keeping the wrong behaviors out, I can get behind) isn't working for me. I think the relevant failure dimensions are about NOT having object-level objectives, and the resulting belief (and truth) that personal success is through the appearance of success to your supervisors.

My main advice for avoiding it is: do something real! Whether that's entertaining people for hours by shipping your game, reducing shipping costs by calculating better warehouse locations, picking a better investment by using more/faster data, manufacturing mosquito nets that use less material or are slightly more durable, or anything else, it has to be in some way measured by outside forces.

Market discipline is incredibly powerful, and very hard to fool for very long. You probably _DO_ need to be aware of politics in any organization with more than 3 people, and more aware in larger ones. But as long as you're making object-level contributions, and those around you are primarily talking about that rather than the politics, you're in an OK place.

Edit: after further reflection and discussion (thanks, y'all!) I retract the second part of that sentence. I forgot the standard adage "the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent". Market discipline _is_ incredibly powerful, but it can be extremely slow. It's quite possible that it's too slow to break down or prevent such mazes.

I still advise doing something real - even if it doesn't remove the maze around you, it can be a profitable and rewarding path to being a successful loser (in the sense that you're playing a different game than most maze-dwellers).

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2020-01-21T23:37:25.848Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A high maze level makes a fixation on object-level results impractical. Middle management has three defining characteristics:

  • It's remote from object-level interactions. It rarely deals with individual customers or particular bits of inventory. Its knowledge of the business process is largely abstract, and its concrete knowledge is often outdated (because it was accumulated before promotion). Object level outcomes (e.g. sales or new products) are not easily attributable to specific middle managers.
  • It is responsible to upper management, who is even more out of touch on the object level but demands "results" in the form of plausible data that can be spun to the markets as good results. Upper management also demands obedience to its narratives; when upper management tells the market your firm is going big into Fad X, then middle management needs to be seen to support Fad X. (Note 1)
  • Its staff have object-level information. They often have strong incentives to distort management's perspective of this information. When accurate information is available, it's often contrary to middle management's narrative. E.g. "Fad X? Yeah, we tried that twelve years ago. We could never monetize it."

If your organization gets big enough to need many layers of management (note 2), these effects will show up.

Note 1- A friend of mine at an Army lab told me that he was once asked by higher management how they would use nanotechnology in infrared sensors. My friend responded that, since infrared photons have micron-sized wavelengths, it didn't make sense to use nanotechnology. My friend was ordered to use nanotechnology anyway, and one of his experiments was eventually published (billed as an effort to use nanotechnology for this purpose). The experiment had actually been regarded as a failure because it had grown useless nanostructures instead of doing what it was supposed to do.

Note 2- It varies with activity, but generally a good manager can handle about six staff each. Since each six managers need an upper-level manager, you can use the base-6 logarithm of your worker count for a lower bound of the number of levels you need in your hierarchy. Note that this includes all workers in your process, even the work you contract out (contracting generally adds at least one level in practice).

comment by jmh · 2020-01-22T14:09:19.254Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few areas of research that have not been apparent to me in this sequences are the economic theory around joint production settings, the whole Industrial Organization Principle-Agent literature, I suspect there is something to find in Behavioral Economics. My sense is that the maze problems here is at the intersection of those three literature/research areas.

The other aspect that I have been wondering about is the fact that people do form social relationships by nature and the fact we find people spending more time in "work" settings rather than outside "work" does not immediately lead me to conclude that is pure moral maze results as seems argued here. Has anyone actually ran the claims from the book through a check of fallacies like mood affiliation or, what might be called, preference projection?

I've grown a little skeptical of the extent/size of this problem. Reaching conclusions about the extent of the problem seems a bit premature. If so, solutions might also be impacted. I don't think the problem and it's causes have actually been sufficiently defined. However, I'm not at all ready to either add to that effort or even adequately critique so simply offer some literature where perhaps additional insights might be gained.

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2020-01-22T20:54:34.086Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think mazes are related to the sorts of extreme principal-agent problems that are common in real life but AFAIK understudied by economics. Suppose I [1] invest my retirement savings with a financial company [2] who invests it with an American business [3] that contracts its manufacturing to a Chinese company [4] and sells to American retailers [5] who sell to American consumers [6]. That's six numbered agents, most of which are complex entities with their own internal principal-agent problems. There are countless interactions of that level of complexity in the real economy.

comment by jmh · 2020-01-23T00:06:23.461Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, you cannot just run this through the standard IO P-A analysis and expect much. That why I suggested the intersection of the three literature areas would be the more interesting place -- however I suspect there is not a lot of work there (as yet)

But I didn't really see much in this sequence that really seem to engage any in an obvious way -- or missed it.

I think your sequences of P-A relationships will likely show that the collection has more error than any one of the individual stages but I don't think that is what the problem the moral maze here is getting at. In the scenario you offer where is the force driving people to sacrifice all other values away in their life at the corporate alter of career advancement? I think the levels have to be internal to the organization -- though that might be an interesting extension (thought probably ends up something of a rehash of Marx)

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-21T22:29:15.042Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have a suggestion for keeping the wrong behaviors out, without keeping the wrong people out? (In general I agree with 'give people feedback', but 'deception' is one of the specific cases where I'm much less optimistic about that. They were willing to deceive in the first place, how do you trust that they didn't just get better at deceiving rather than reform?)

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-21T23:26:07.822Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I reject essentialism and I'm very aware of attribution bias, both of which make it hard for me to accept that in most cases the wrong people are to blame, rather than bad culture and bad interactions (which you are part of, if you're there).

Roughly to the same extent that you have power to keep people out, you can ALSO influence behaviors of people you let in. Show them the better way. Share your soul in the game. Validate their soul in the game. Keep the conversations about impact and good (positive-sum aspects of the organization) rather than about relative position and authority (zero-sum).

Of course, some people start out closer than others to your preferred behaviors, and you really should _also_ keep the most-distant-from-desired out. I don't actually mean to say that everyone is fungible or equally valued to your purposes.

comment by crl826 · 2020-01-22T00:11:16.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Market discipline is incredibly powerful, and very hard to fool for very long."

If this is true, why do the mazes exist at all? Why doesn't the market shed mazes (or the companies that don't shed mazes)?

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-22T21:25:32.503Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is the central puzzle on the topic: where is the money coming from to pay the rats who are in (and creating) the mazes? Why wouldn't customers prefer a more efficient provider?

My current speculation is that there's a ton of slack on the scale were talking about. Mazes aren't actually less efficient than non-mazes, they just spend the slack on unpleasant things rather than pleasant. To the extent this is true, my advice will actually reduce overall slack - the winners still will have to work harder and longer than they like. But they'll enjoy it (both the work, and the remaining slack) more. So, less overall non-work energy, but better able to use it for non-work purposes.

Moloch still wins eventually, as eventually you have to compete with other hard-working non-maze-waste orgs. But that can take a long time, and the ramp is far more pleasant.

comment by crl826 · 2020-01-23T00:14:02.022Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Why wouldn't customers prefer a more efficient provider?"

What choice do they have? If mazes are inevitable, there is no non-maze provider.

I should state that I have loved this series and it matches my experiences and observations so I'm inclined to believe it. With that said....

" Moloch still wins eventually, as eventually you have to compete with other hard-working non-maze-waste orgs. But that can take a long time, and the ramp is far more pleasant. "

As best as i can tell your solution is "Don't do non-maze things". That there is some kind of 'good Moloch' that is possible. (Do you have any examples of that happening?)

Zvi has laid out his case for why this isn't realistic. You may disagree, and I would love to hear where you think he has gone wrong. But it seems like you are dismissing his points and saying that you can willpower(?) your way out of this.

I truly mean this all in good faith and would love to figure a way out if for financial reasons alone ( I agree with your point that if someone could escape this, it seems like it would be very profitable. I just don't see any solutions)

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-23T00:54:32.490Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a new assertion - mazes only occur in monopolies? And I guess the answer for why people would participate in the maze is that they only happen in labor monopsony conditions? It's possible, in which case the solution is simpler (to state; not always to do): break up the monopoly. I don't think that's what Zvi and others are claiming, though (except maybe in the finance industry, which may be an effective monopoly on employment: there are no options which aren't mazes), and it doesn't match my experiences or second-hand stories of acquaintances close enough that I've gotten details. Even in cases where it _is_ currently a monopoly, you have to answer WHY there are no competing options to do it better and more pleasantly at the same time. (note: if pressed, I will admit that this paragraph was written mostly for me to introduce the phrase "cultural monopsony").

Oh, wait - you said "if mazes are inevitable". They're not universal today. I don't know about eventual inevitability, but there are large organizations that are not entirely maze-like, at least not to the degree described in this series. I have indirect experience (not myself, but relatively close friends and/or relatives) with GM, IBM, and the US Navy, and none are all that bad for middle managers - there's politics, but there's also actual production and rewarding work impact.

I don't think I'd claim that "good Moloch" exists or is possible. I make the much weaker claim that Moloch hasn't actually optimized very far, so you CAN beat 'em and don't have to join 'em. For some time, at least - perhaps decades or generations. I really have no prediction about the long-term beyond "today isn't a stable equilibrium", but I don't see anything that overall beats competition as a motive for optimizing on legible dimensions over illegible ones, in a finite universe with infinite potential desires.

comment by bendini · 2020-01-22T00:43:03.338Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fortunately or unfortunately, this problem seems much worse in America compared to other western countries. Unfortunately, because most of the audience lives and works there. Fortunately, because it means large organisations aren't destined to become hellholes. By no means are they absent, but when I researched this they seemed far less intense.

Have you looked into the workings of large organisations outside of the US or Canada?

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-22T00:47:20.419Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you looked into the workings of large organisations outside of North America?

Do you actually mean "North America" or "United States in particular"?

comment by bendini · 2020-01-22T05:38:47.058Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was meant to include Canada (because I suspect it still applies to them and I was unsure if they were included in Moral Mazes) but not Mexico or any countries south of Mexico which are technically in North America. This was not clear in retrospect and I have edited my comment in light of that.

comment by Pattern · 2020-01-21T19:40:28.529Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really like this post.


TL:DR;

[1] You can run things in these ways. I have seen it. It helps. A lot.
[2] We must treat creating additional managerial levels as having very high costs. This is not an action to be taken lightly. Wherever possible, create distinct organizations and allow them to interact. Even better, allow people to interact as individuals. 

Expanding on what these are like might be useful (as that isn't the default*), and it might help people if they know what that looks like/have an example to work from. (This is intended as an indication of interest, not criticism.)


Long:

I do not intend to defend them further unless I see an opportunity in doing so.

opportunity = benefit?

Doing anything with an intent to deceive, or an intent to game your metrics at the expense of object level results, needs to be an automatic “you’re fired.”

How can object level results be used as metrics, instead of proxies? (And how can 'metrics being gamed' be measured, particularly automatically?)

If you want to ‘disrupt’ an area that is suffering from maze dysfunction, it makes sense to bypass the existing systems entirely. Thus, move fast, break things.

Interesting point.

The tech industry also exhibits some very maze-like behaviors of its own, but it takes a different form. I am unlikely to be the best person to tackle those details, as others have better direct experience, and I will not attempt to tackle them here and now.

Other mazes.

The next section will ask why it was different in the past, what the causes are in general, and whether we can duplicate past conditions in good ways.

I look forward to the next post!


*per this quote:

These dynamics are the default result of large organizations. There is continuous pressure over time pushing towards such outcomes.
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-22T17:34:35.731Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
How can object level results be used as metrics, instead of proxies? (And how can 'metrics being gamed' be measured, particularly automatically?)

The chapter called "The Goodhard Trap" seems to be about this being principly impossible. Anything you use to measure is by it's nature a proxy and subject to Goodharting. The map is not the territory.


comment by Pattern · 2020-01-23T02:57:46.436Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thought Experiments:

  • A plane is produced. The plane is flown without incident and no one dies. (This does not make the news.)
  • A toxic pesticide is produced, and used widely. Consequently, every living thing on the surface of the Earth dies.

These seem like object level results, and do seem measurable. So it seems that things can be measured.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-23T13:09:21.076Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The map is not the territory. In the process of measurement the deaths due to a pesticide you need a complex model about causality. That model means you have an abstraction.

If you get your drug unblinded by giving it strong side effects it will perform better against placebo. It's a way to Goodhart the gold standard in our way to establish the causality of whether a drug helps a patient.

Any model of the causality of deaths due to your pesticide will be subject to Goodharting.

comment by Pattern · 2020-01-23T20:00:56.598Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Any model of the causality of deaths due to your pesticide will be subject to Goodharting.

Why? Doesn't goodharting require optimization?

Suppose a) the world was nuked, and b) everyone died. Would you call A the cause of B?

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-24T12:14:05.461Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You do it to the extend that you have a causal model in your head that links the two. If you take the issue of toxic pesticides, new pesticides got used and a lot of our bees died. Whether or not there's a correlation is subject to public debate. That's how real-world examples look like.

comment by Pattern · 2020-01-24T15:09:27.776Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose a) the world was nuked, and b) everyone died. Would you call A the cause of B?

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-24T16:13:07.032Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Editing posts afterwards to remove statements is not a great way to have rational debate.

comment by Pattern · 2020-01-24T22:13:45.561Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It wasn't removed, it was moved.

In the process of measurement the deaths due to a pesticide you need a complex model about causality.

Suppose we jettisoned causality. What exactly do you think can, and cannot, be measured?