Talk Notes: Spolsky on Pluralism

August 19, 2020 • #

One of my favorite evening activities is watching talks, interviews, and presentations on YouTube. I often take notes on these for myself, so this is an experiment in brushing up those notes and sharing them publicly.

In this 2016 talk, Joel Spolsky presented this talk called “The History of Management” as an internal training session at StackOverflow. Corporate structure dynamics are fascinating. Groups of people have developed new and more effective ways of cooperating throughout history. We started out organizing ourselves in kinship-based tribal groups with spiritual myth-making to rationalize decisions, and have evolved into the likes of Amazon’s expansive 100,000 person decentralized model or Apple’s global functional org chart.

I like that I this talk Spolsky goes back to the beginnings of group organizing models. He covers this evolution in 6 broad phases:

  • Archaic
  • Magic
  • Impulsive
  • Conformist
  • Achievement
  • Pluralistic

Methods of organization and cooperation are technologies; once we discovered learning through trial and error (particularly through application of scientific methods), we’ve continued adapting and modify them over time.

Most of the substance covers the last 3 stages, each of which you’ll still find in operation today. Here’s the talk, followed by my notes below.

Notes

Just as with technological advancement, governance, and many other things, we’ve moved through each new stage faster than its predecessor. Let’s go through each stage and describe its time period and relevant details about what made it unique.

  • Archaic (100,000 — 50,000 BC)
    • From an age before people could classify things
    • No specialization or division of labor
    • No hierarchy, elders, or chiefs
    • Bands capped out at a few dozen people
  • Magic (15,000 — 0 BC)
    • People had no understanding of death
    • No ability to form abstract concepts
    • Still no specialization
    • Cause and effect was poorly understood — wherever there was any attempt to understand, spirits and magic were attributed as causes
    • Tribes could grow up to several hundred
  • Impulsive (8,000 BC — 1900 AD)
    • Might makes right — power and control is derived from physical strength and dominance
    • The weak have to submit to authority
    • Leaders have a lack of awareness and empathy
      • No value placed on the individual or individualism
    • Black and white worldviews were dominant
    • Rewards and punishments well understood, but violence was commonplace (it was the primary means for asserting and proving your authority)
    • Ego and role differentiation — meant we could differentiate roles and responsibilities, leads to some specialization
    • High levels of instability
    • The chief must:
      • Continually demonstrate power
      • Spread myths about absolute power
      • Surround self with family to insulate from challenges to power and control
      • Buy loyalty
      • Only keep incompetent aids and advisors — if advisors are too capable, they could challenge authority
    • Examples
      • Failed states, places with no rule of law
      • Gangs
      • Mafia
      • TV and movie plotlines

The first three are obsolete — you only really see them appear in movies, fiction, or history books. The final three are still in common existence today.

  • Conformist (4,000 BC — present)
    • Huge advancement over “Impulsive (8,000 BC — 1900 AD)” systems
    • Examples: US Army, MTA, Catholic Church, East India Company
    • Defined by rigid, unchanging bureaucracy
      • Understand time as finite and linear
        • Cause and effect
        • Farming (plant now, eat later)
        • Caloric surplus
        • Surplus energy means we can do “extra stuff” — administrators, craftsmen
    • Understanding other people’s points of view
      • People will seek approval, leaders want approval from followers
      • Adopting group norms and conformism (us vs. them)
      • Fitting in requires self-discipline, can’t be all impulse
    • We develop moral codes assumed to be universal and immutable
      • Do right ⭢ earn rewards; do wrong ⭢ get punished
    • Creates structures — bureaucracies, hierarchies, castes, strict roles, institutions
      • Compared to earlier models, Conformism offers comparative stability and security
      • Arbitrarily scalable, templates can be cloned
        • There is One Right Way
      • End up with a rigid hierarchy of titles, org charts, ranks, uniforms
      • Unfortunately Conformist models lead to exclusion of non-conformists or outsiders, highly stratified (to a fault)
    • Long-term perspective is possible
      • Can build things over centuries
      • Global trading networks
    • But because of the rigidity and fixed nature of the structure, Conformist orgs often fail to adapt to a changing world
    • “Compliance”-focused organizations
      • Thinking is at the top, doing is at the bottom
      • Decisions are “handed down”
      • People “report up”
      • Rulers are assumed to be smart
      • Default assumption is that workers are lazy, and need supervision
    • You don’t have to fight for power or watch your back (it’s all in the system)
    • Mores and norms
      • Us vs. them
      • Loyalty for life
      • Leaving or being fired is terrible
  • Achievement (1945 — present)
    • Examples: Walmart, Coca Cola, Nike, Microsoft, GE, modern multinationals
    • Made possible through science, the scientific method, and imagining other worlds to pursue
    • Fundamental assumption is the world is changeable: we can study it and figure out
    • No absolute right or wrong
      • Pragmatism — decisions made based on right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t
      • “Best practices”
      • Use science, do experiments
      • Innovation
    • It’s possible to imagine alternate worlds
      • Skepticism is valued; we should question our current assumptions
      • We can question authority
    • Led to unprecedented prosperity in last century
      • Massive human liberation
      • But side effects like corporate greed and environmental problems
    • Innovation is a core pursuit
      • Constant improvement
      • Change around us is an opportunity to differentiate ourselves
      • We do projects with objectives, not just carrying out pre-determined processes (uses a goal-oriented approach, often driven by a metric)
    • Accountability is paramount
      • People are brains, not just labor; have to trust employees to deliver
      • Management by objectives becomes central, companies work toward goals (OKRs)
        • Management sets goals, people figure out how
        • Creation of performance reviews, bonuses, rewards to align people with objectives
        • But egos can prevent proper delegation (manager doesn’t really stay hands-off the “how”)
        • Budgets cause sandbagging
        • Hard to manage what you can’t measure (a creeping focus on legibility over impact can result)
          • People find shortcuts and game the system to show progress on those metrics
    • Meritocracy advances from the Conformist model
      • Anyone can become a CEO
      • Symbols of hierarchy are shunned (or at least less important)
    • We still talk of a “corporate ladder” to move up — vestiges of Conformism
      • Still org charts and hierarchies
      • But lots of cross-talk and cross-team projects
      • Communication doesn’t need to go through chain of command, often encouraged to go point-to-point
    • Downsides with “Achievement (1945 * present)”
      • End up pursuing growth for growth’s sake (is there a higher purposes than profits and size?)
      • Create customer needs that aren’t real; even more pervasive when chasing legibility and measurable metrics
      • No meaning to it all
  • Pluralistic (1980 — present)
    • Modern, purpose-driven organizations; built on top of Achievement organizations
    • Examples: StackOverflow, Patagonia, Etsy, Atlassian, most startups
    • Empowerment as a core virtue
      • Decision-making is pushed down to the lowest level it can be done
        • Person with the most information makes the decision
        • Intel in the 1980s under Andy Grove pioneered this approach, at least openly
      • Pluralism prizes autonomy and individual agency
      • This means managers have to give up control
      • Organization becomes closer to a network than a hierarchy
      • Servant leadership; leadership should function as inspiration, support, assistive enablers
        • Listen to, empower, develop, and motivate subordinates
      • 360 feedback valued — feedback loops up, down, and across, a means of error correction within the organization
      • Managers chosen by and from rank and file
      • Requires management training and development, it’s most effective to breed leaders from within
    • Multiple stakeholders now
      • Not just shareholders
      • Employees, community, customers, suppliers, society, environment
        • Values improving conditions within their suppliers
        • Eliminating wasteful packaging
        • Extraordinary working conditions provided for team and selves
    • Pluralism is not anarchy
      • Discarding hierarchy completely doesn’t work for any meaningful amount of time, or with large groups
        • Is there a relationship here with [[Dunbar number]] and how many people can collaborate in a group successfully?
        • Decentralization is a tactic deployed as much as possible to empower those local to a problem or project to identify those issues and formulate solutions
    • New technologies enable pluralistic management styles