Masking Design Competence

Most real organizations have many design problems. This is most explicit in engineering type organizations, but such issues are nearly as common in all organizations. Any organization must make many choices regarding the design and marketing of their product or service, in how it will be financed, sourced, produced, tested, stored, transferred, priced, evaluated, etc.

For most such design problems, most organizations have some standard ideal design criteria. The organization is supposed to search in the space of possible designs for ones expected to do well according to the ideal criteria. And then adopt those better designs. In profit-oriented firms, many key criteria are closely aligned with firm profit.

According to the usual ideal norm in organizations, everything should be arranged to promote good designs according to the ideals. For example, the people who most influence a design choice should be those with the most relevant info and the strongest incentives to get it right. People should be hired and promoted according to their ability to help make good design choices. Designs should be changed when circumstances suggest that the ideal design has changed. And so on.

Real organizations also have complex Machiavellian politics. Coalitions form that promote their members at the expense of rivals. Members are chosen for their loyalty and ability to help the coalition. Coalitions sometimes reform, dropping some factions and adding others. Members must show loyalty to their coalitions by visibly promoting design choices that benefit their coalition, even when that comes at the expense of the organization’s ideal design criteria.

This conflict between design choices that meet ideals and those that help coalitions drives may of the illusions and hypocrisies in organizations. For example, people are often placed in positions of power for reasons other than their superior design competence, such as their info and abilities regarding key decisions. This creates a demand to give those people the illusion of design competence.

For example:

When I started at Lockheed Research in 1985, my mentor was a veteran who explained his secret for getting funding from the other Lockheed divisions:

Find an idea for a project we could do for them, but don’t tell them the idea. Instead break the idea into a few key parts, describe the parts to them, and let them put the parts together into the total idea. They will be much more willing to fund a project that is their idea.

A related strategy is to design a solution but then weaken it to a space of nearby solutions. Tell your manager “I think something in this space should work but I can’t figure out what” and let him reinvent your particular solution point. He then owns the design more, and can claim more credit for design competence.

As another example, as I’ve mentioned before people often pretend to ask people for advice as if they wanted info, but in fact they are seeking allies. In general, boards of advisors are rarely actually asked for their advice; they are mainly chosen to add prestige to an organization.

Meetings in organizations often take the appearance of searching for design proposals and evaluating proposals presented. But in fact proposals have usually been selected beforehand, and the meeting is to create an appearance of support form them, and for the story presented about who deserves credit. If a problem is presented for which a solution isn’t offered, that is probably because they don’t don’t see a solution with which they’d want to be associated, and would rather someone else take on that failure area.

Powerful people can also create the appearance of more design competence than they actually have by pushing vague design philosophies that others can then claim to adhere to without actually greatly constraining their choices. Also, powerful people can claim that complex organizational considerations require them to keep the reasons for their design choices secret. Others can then just assume they must have great design competence regarding such considerations.

It helps to have a culture of assuming that the people with the best credentials in terms of education and prior organization and positional prestige have the most design competence. Since these people happen to the those that are most useful for coalitions to put into positions of power, the conflict between power and apparent design competitions is reduced.

Can readers think of more examples? If so, I’ll add good ones to this post.

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  • sflicht

    * Good design can be intellectual property in and of itself, so there might be reasons to restrict knowledge of what constitutes good design.

    * Telling employees what you think constitutes good design might discourage them from coming up with better designs.

    * There might be diversification benefits (think in ecological terms) to having a variety of designs.

  • Robert Koslover

    Hmm. I’m not completely disagreeing with you here, but I do think this is one of your more cynical posts. In particular, I’d sure like to believe that my company is not experiencing the kind of destructive politics you described.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      How informative is what you’d like to believe about what is true?

  • http://www.twitter.com/amelapay Pamela J. Hobart

    Performance reviews seem mostly to be about re-establishing hierarchy, not helping talent to rise to the top, which is threatening to supervisors as per the Peter principle.

    Perhaps worse still, the direction of information in a performance review may in reality mostly be employee –> supervisor instead of supervisor –> employee. That way the supervisor knows how to more effectively take credit for the work internally, and at the same time gets to display and enhance dominance.

  • Pingback: What Holds This Company Back? | EightAteEight

  • Cole

    You lump in a bunch of a very different design decisions in such a way that its hard to be wrong. What problems or decisions does a company face that are outside of what you call ‘design decisions’? Personally I would at least differentiate between what I would call design decisions and internal resource allocation decisions.

    For what I would call design decisions I only see this dynamic play across one level of the hierarchy at a time. A low level employee may have design disagreements with their boss, but rarely or never with their bosses boss. The problem sets just change too drastically as you move up the hierarchy. We also just don’t care about each others problem sets, so it would be hard to communicate on an agreed set of design decisions to present a united front.

    Coalition forming seems to be based around what design decisions you or your group are in charge of, so its really just coalition forming around resource allocation decisions. Developers generally won’t form coalitions against each other, but they will all form a coalition to represent their interests to the company at large.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      As I’ve defined them, resource allocation decisions are design decisions.

  • Highgamma

    Is there a good management text that expounds on these ideas?

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    It seems kinda weird to focus on the mismatch between design competency and other attributes (like power, etc..). To a first approximation we can probably assume that almost everyone in almost all organizations are primarily concerned with advancing themselves and only distantly with the overall organization objectives (maybe not consciously)

    Wouldn’t it be more useful to think about this in terms of why there are other goods than design competency to be traded, e.g., why it would even be desirable to join coalitions or to trade favors. Isn’t the fact that credit is gameable the heart of the phenomena that is going on hear.

    The reason that people form coalitions to fight over resources can presumably be traced to the fact that people on “successful” projects get an unduly large amount of credit…enough to make up for extra resource consumption. This is also why favor trading presumably happens since you are better off if your department succeeds once and fails dramatically once than if it comes close to success twice.

    Only the issue of pitching things so someone else thinks it’s their idea seems to be a genuine issue of psychological bias rather than poor assignment of credit. Even there one has to consider the extra credit handed out to the person who came up with the idea.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    It’s common for a boss who relies on a particular underling’s design ideas to describe that underling as being accomplished at articulating ideas

  • Riothamus

    So problems of product or service design are the consequences of organizational design. I would therefore be interested in the following:

    What organizational design minimizes the factors that detract from good product or service design?

    Can these traits be developed within an existing organization, and if so how?

    I infer this is a much more significant challenge: though most organizations have ideal design criteria for products and services they produce, I have not heard of any that have ideal design criteria for the organization itself. At least, none that are not automatically assumed to be met.