Tag Archives: Orgs

An Org Games Example

Years ago I was part of a research project with roughly a dozen people involved, most with Ph.D.s., and most specializing in computer science. A professional software developer was also part of the project, call him Sam. He officially got to own the software that he made for the project, but this wasn’t considered a problem as he just implemented algorithms that others designed.  If he left, we could just get someone else to implement the same algorithms. 

The early version of our system was slow, and there were several obvious ways to make it run faster, such as by caching key results. But Sam insisted that the time wasn’t right for speed ups; our first priority was to get a system with the features we wanted, implemented correctly. 

At the end of a period when the project was less active, I think it was a summer, Sam declared that he’d implemented a whole new algorithm for (his part of) our system, which as a result ran much faster. He hadn’t asked or gotten permission for this move, he just did it. Even though this new algorithm wasn’t fully specified or explained, it was accepted as an improvement. And that even though this meant that the rest of us could no longer help with improving the design of this part of the system. 

So from this point on Sam owned the project, in the sense that we couldn’t do anything with any new grant or client without paying him what he demanded. After all, he owned a key part of the software, and was the only person who understood his algorithm.

Sam never showed that his algorithm improved speed by any more than would the obvious ways already known to speed it up, and he was never asked to show this. He didn’t even show if he had also added those other changes. I’m quite sure that our project manager hadn’t been corrupted or paid off. I think it was more that going along with Sam’s claim seemed like the low conflict, low confrontation approach. The code was running faster; what was the problem?

This seems to me a nice clear example of the sort of organizations games that are often played, and how easily they can distort incentives and cut efficiency Even in a very small group, with very smart people. If these things go this badly in a context like this, think of how badly they must go in larger groups, with less obvious tricks. 

It is actually amazing that we do as well as we do with the organizations we have. We are still in the early stages of learning how to manage large organizations, and we are rich even though we suffer as many problems as we do. Think of how rich we can be when we learn a lot more about how to manage organizations. 

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Why We Fight Over Fiction

We tell stories with language, and so prefer to tell the kind of stories that ordinary language can describe well.

Consider how language can describe a space of physical stuff and how to navigate through that stuff. In a familiar sort of space, a few sparse words can evoke a vivid description, such as of a city street or a meadow. And a few words relating to landmarks in such a space can be effective at telling you how to navigate from one place to another.

But imagine an arbitrary space of partially-opaque swirling strangeness, in a highly curved 11-dimensional space. In principle our most basic and general spatial language could describe this too, and instruct navigation there. But in practice that would require a lot more words, and slow the story to a crawl. So few authors would try, though a filmmaker might try just using visuals.

Or consider stories with non-human minds. In principle those who study minds in the abstract can conceive of a vast space of possible minds, and can use a basic and general language of mental acts to describe how each such mind might make a decision, or send a communication, and what those might be. But in practice such descriptions would be long, boring, and unfamiliar to most readers.

So in practice even authors writing about aliens or AIs stick to describing human-like minds, where their usual language for describing what actors decide and say is fast, fluid, and relatable. Authors even prefer human characters with familiar minds, and so avoid characters who think oddly, such as those with autism.

Just as authors focus on telling stories in familiar spaces with familiar minds, they also focus on telling stories in familiar moral universes. This effect is, if anything, even stronger than the space and mind effects, as moral colors are even more central to our need for stories. Compared to other areas of our lives, we especially want our stories to help us examine and affirm our moral stances.

In a familiar moral universe, there many be competing considerations re what acts are moral, making it sometimes hard to decide if an act is moral. Other considerations may weigh against morality, and reader/viewers may not always sympathize most with the most moral characters, who may not win in the end. Moral characters may have unattractive features (like being ugly). There may even be conflicts between characters who see different familiar moral universes.

These are the familiar sorts of “moral ambiguity” in stories said to have that feature, such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. But you’ll note that these are almost all stories told in familiar moral universes. By which I mean that we are quite familiar with how to morally evaluate the sort of actions that happen there. The set of acts is familiar, as are their consequences, and the moral calculus used to judge them.

But there is another sort of “moral ambiguity” that reader/viewers hate, and so authors studiously avoid. And that is worlds where we find it hard to judge the morality of actions, even when those actions have big consequences for characters. Where our usual quick and dirty moral language doesn’t apply very well. Where even though in principle our most basic and general moral languages might be able to work out rough descriptions and evaluations, in practice that would be tedious and unsatisfying.

And, strikingly, the large complex social structures and organizations that dominate our world are mostly not familiar moral universes to most of us. For example, big firms, agencies, and markets. The worlds of Moral Mazes and of Pfeffer’s Power. (In fiction: Jobs.) Our stories thus tend to avoid such contexts, unless they happen to allow an especially clear moral calculus. Such as a firm polluting to cause cancer, or a boss sexually harassing a subordinate.

As I’ve discussed before, our social world has changed greatly over the last few centuries. Our language has changed fast enough to describe the new physical objects and spaces that have arisen, at least those with which ordinary people must deal, if not the many new strange objects and spaces behind the scenes that enable our new world. But we have not gone remotely as fast at coming to agree on moral stances toward the new choices possible in such social structures.

This is why our stories tend to take place in relatively old fashioned social worlds. Consider the popularity of the Western, or of pop science fiction stories like Star Wars that are essentially Westerns with more gadgets. Stories that take place in modern settings tend to focus on personal, romantic, and family relations, as these remain to us relatively familiar moral universes. Or on artist biopics. Or on big conflicts like war or corrupt police or politicians. For which we have comfortable moral framings.

Stories we write today set in say the 1920s feel to us more comfortable than do stories set in the 2020s, or than stories written in the 1920s and set in that time. That is because stories written today can inherit a century of efforts to work out clearer moral stances on which 1920s actions would be more moral. For example, as to our eyes female suffrage is clearly good, we can see any characters from then who doubted it as clearly evil in the eyes of good characters. As clear as if they tortured kittens. To our eyes, their world has now clearer moral colors, and stories set there work better as stories for us.

This is also why science fiction tends to make most people more wary of anticipated futures. The easiest engaging stories to tell about strange futures are on how acts there that seem to violate the rules in our current moral universe. Like about how nuclear rockets spread radioactivity near their launch site, instead of the solar civilization they enable. Much harder to describe how new worlds will induce new moral universes.

This highlights an important feature of our modern world, and an important process that continues within it. Our social world has changed a lot faster than has our shared moral evaluations of typical actions possible in our new world. And our telling stories, and coming to agree on which stories we embrace, is a big part of creating such a fluid language of shared moral evaluations.

This helps to explain why we invest so much time and energy into fiction, far more than did any of our ancestors. Why story tellers are given high and activist-like status, and why we fight so much to convince others to share our beliefs on which stories are best. Our moral evaluations of the main big actions that influence our world today, and that built our world from past worlds, are still up for grabs. And the more we build such shared evaluations, the more we’ll be able to tell satisfying stories set in the world in which we live, rather than set in the fantasy and historical worlds with which we must now make do.

(This post is an elaboration of this Twitter thread.)

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Why Broken Evals?

This review article published 36 years ago shows that it was well known back then that teacher evaluations by college students are predictably influenced by time of day, class size, course level, course electively, and more. Thus one could get more reliable teacher evaluations by building a statistical model to predict student evaluations using these features plus who taught what, and then using each teacher coefficient as that teacher’s evaluation. Yet colleges almost never do this. Why?

Actually, most orgs also use known-to-be broken worker evaluation systems:

There is a lot of systematic evidence on the connections between job performance and career outcomes. … The data shows that performance doesn’t matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations. That includes the effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects. …

[For example,] supervisors who were actively involved in hiring people whom they favored rated those subordinates more highly on performance appraisals than they did those employees they inherited or the ones they did not initially support. In fact, whether or not the supervisor had been actively engaged in the selection process had an effect on people’s performance evaluations even when objective measures of job performance were statistically controlled. (more)

So why don’t firms correct employee evaluations for this who-hired-you bias? And it isn’t just this one bias; there are lots:

Extensive research on promotions in organizations, with advancement measured either by changes in position, increases in salary, or both, also reveals the modest contribution of job performance in accounting for the variation in what happens to people. In 1980, economists … observed that salaries in companies were more strongly related to age and organizational tenure than they were to job performance. Ensuing research has confirmed and extended their findings, both in the United States and elsewhere. … One meta-analysis of chief executive compensation found that firm size accounted for more than 40 percent of the variation in pay while performance accounted for less than 5 percent. (more)

An obvious explanation here is that coalition politics dominates worker evaluations. Coalitions like being able to ignore job performance to favor their allies and punish their rivals. Winning coalitions tend to be benefiting from the current broken rules. But, you might ask, why don’t people at the top put a stop to this? Doesn’t allowing politics such free reign hurt overall org performance? This story hints at an answer:

A few years ago, Bob, the CEO of a private, venture-backed human capital software company, invited me to serve on the board of directors as the company began a transition to a new product platform and sought to increase its growth rate and profitability. Not long after I joined the board, in the midst of an upgrading in management talent, the CEO hired a new chief financial officer, Chris. Chris was an ambitious, hardworking, articulate individual who had big plans for the company— and himself. Chris asked Bob to make him chief operating officer. Bob agreed. Chris asked to join the board of directors. Bob agreed. I could see what was coming next, so I called Bob and said, “Chris is after your job.” Bob’s reply was that he was only interested in what was best for the company, would not stoop to playing politics, and thought that the board had seen his level of competence and integrity and would do the right thing. You can guess how this story ended— Bob’s gone, Chris is the CEO. What was interesting was the conference call in which the board discussed the moves. Although there was much agreement that Chris’s behavior had been inappropriate and harmful to the company, there was little support for Bob. If he was not going to put up a fight, no one was going to pick up the cudgel on his behalf. (more)

People at the top play coalition politics as hard as anyone. Rules to limit politics at lower levels can hurt lower level allies of top people, and can set expectations that limit politics at higher levels. When mob bosses who are best at violence rise to the top of a competition for boss-hood, why should they and their allies favor non-violent criteria for how to pick bosses?

Some more data: Continue reading "Why Broken Evals?" »

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