23.11.13

THE FATAL CONCEIT.

Clay Shirky reflects at length on the implementation failures of the Obamacare websites.
Talking to the people who understood the technology became demeaning, something to be avoided. Information was to move from management to workers, not vice-versa (a pattern that later came to other kinds of media businesses as well.) By the time the web came around and understanding the technology mattered again, many media executives hadn’t just lost the habit of talking with their own technically adept employees, they’d actively suppressed it.
Most of the rest is elaboration.  If Scientific Management or Management by Objectives or the Cult of the MBA enabled Wise Experts to make companies more profitable, no matter what went on in the drafting room or on the shop floor, conglomerates would have become more conglomerate-like, instead of identifying and hiving off businesses that were outside their core offering, a phenomenon that contributes substantially to the volume of merger activity.  And Obamacare would be a moot point, because Soviet Communism would have come to dominate the earth.  (Chess players against golfers?  No contest.)  But to be able to think the consequences through, you have to be able to analyse all the variations, including the transpositions and the zwischenzuge.  Way too complicated for a four-bullet slide.
The preferred method for implementing large technology projects in Washington is to write the plans up front, break them into increasingly detailed specifications, then build what the specifications call for. It’s often called the waterfall method, because on a timeline the project cascades from planning, at the top left of the chart, down to implementation, on the bottom right.

Like all organizational models, waterfall is mainly a theory of collaboration. By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work. Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.

This is a perfect fit for a culture that communicates in the deontic language of legislation. It is also a dreadful way to make new technology. If there is no room for learning by doing, early mistakes will resist correction. If the people with real technical knowledge can’t deliver bad news up the chain, potential failures get embedded rather than uprooted as the work goes on.
Grandmaster Kotov, early in his development as a chess-player, wrote (scroll to page 18) in his notebook, "I had worked out the following variations out at random, and was duly punished by my opponent."  On the chess-board, the mistakes are there, waiting to be made.  In politics, it might be easier to mau-mau your critics and hope for the best.
An effective test is an exercise in humility; it’s only useful in a culture where desirability is not confused with likelihood. For a test to change things, everyone has to understand that their opinion, and their boss’s opinion, matters less than what actually works and what doesn’t.
We'll not see that until politicians of all stripes truly prefer competence to ideology, and reporters consider the reason for politicians "flip-flopping" on the issues.

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