If you’re reading this blog, you likely know the narrative we apply to capital investments. Projects coming from the top down tend to be orderly but dumb while projects coming from the bottom up tend to be chaotic but smart. We all prefer smart to dumb, but we Americans have a really strong preference – and have established systems that enable bureaucrats and elected officials to ensure – that we get orderly over chaotic, even when it means accepting dumb as a result.There may be more at work in the emergence of dumb than the role of government.
I’ve also pointed out that it is really difficult for local governments – even those desperate for innovation – to embrace a chaotic but smart approach because we – American society – have little tolerance for the chaos and failure of experimentation. We accept a beta version of the next iTunes with all of its flaws to be worked out, but the government had better deliver flawlessly on its promises (and with the money they already have).Perhaps, although it's more likely that "compromise" and "nuance" have something to do with the failure. The consensus comes after endless peacocking and straining at gnats in meetings, and a process in which word-smithing and tweaking of designs ensures that everybody holding a stake gets some of the garlic cloves. And it's all with the best of intentions, anticipating all possible contingencies (just like defining a catch in football?) and discovering that no such anticipation survives encounters with messy reality.
Enter the megaproject; the least-dumb idea that consensus provides.
We look back at those events as failures of systems – we didn’t build the dike high enough, strong enough and thick enough – as opposed to failures of imagination; we didn’t consider that we could be wrong so we felt confident building in areas historically devastated by flood and hurricane.There's enough of this hubris in the private sector, by the way, to keep Scott Adams in new Dilbert material. There are market tests that demolish the orderly-but-dumb eventually. Public sector budget constraints might be softer, but they're real all the same.
This failure to be honest with ourselves – to believe there is order when there is actually just suppressed chaos – allows others to be dishonest with us. Our preference for the order of the megaproject creates opportunities for politicians, bureaucrats, corporations and labor unions to create a nice glide path for these projects to follow.