How Hierarchical Decisions Kill Initiative

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Here’s a small situational analysis that came up in a game, but so reminded me of what is wrong with our businesses.

Assume you’re in a roleplay game. Assume you have an armada of spaceships. That armada flies in groups. One squad of destroyers, one squad of big tanky battleships, one squad of support ships. They fly missions. You join a couple of these missions in different squads and observe that there is one important ingredient missing: teamwork. During those missions, each of the pilots is usually concerned with showing off to the comrades that he or she is the better pilot. The joint mission becomes an adversary struggle over individual coolness. The missions work, somehow, people congratulate themselves for how well-done they were. What nobody knows, however, is how well they could have been done with teamwork, and what progress could be made. However, these squads are set up as groups. Why should four or five elite destroyer pilots, each with immense firepower, think of assisting one of the colleagues on their individual quest for damage per second, the ultimate measure that kills any teamwork.

But there is hope. To get out of the situation, and armed with the knowledge of how teamwork is much more rewarding than flying in groups, you come up with a proposition. Why not build a team: pair two big tanky ships that focus on survivability rather than on damage per second, two destroyers that put everything into damage per second, and some intermediate support to help keep the others alive. Then fly joint missions, each in their own role, as a team. Apart from achieving much better results with that setup, the approach promises twice the fun. On top, people may experiment with different roles without having to permanently switch squads, what they’re doing right now.

However, there is one problem: Because players actually do switch squads, the four squads that have been established are chronically understaffed. It’s just that on a weekly or bi-weekly basis people change their ships to advance with their characters and likes, thus it is difficult to get five of the same types together regularly. If somebody is responsible for establishing those squadrons from a position of authority (i.e., hierarchy), they may not like the new proposition. It just seems counter-intuitive to establish a fifth squad when the four that are already there are chronically understaffed. In psychology, this type of thinking is also called outcome bias. Just because squads are understaffed, one may think that establishing squads may be a bad idea, independent from the real reasons that those squads are understaffed. They may not even have been analysed yet. The underpinning reasons why something works or doesn’t work are neglected when one is falling for outcome bias. Decisions are merely made on the observation of prior outcomes, even if they were luck, bad luck, or their fate has been sealed by the way prior attempts had been set up. An authoritarian leader may therefore decide, that “as long as the four current squads are understaffed, we cannot set up a new squad”, effectively killing the initiative (and along with it the motivation to make further propositions in the future). Outcome bias may happen although there were other people that found that idea interesting. Their affirmations can easily be dismissed as temporary enthusiasm because of novelty, not “real” interest. Traditional organisations in this situation usually call for a series of plans and business cases. These planse are not so much called for the plans themselves, but to see whether the interest is genuine (i.e. how many useless things people will endure and produce before they are finally “rewarded” with the permission to attempt what they wanted to do for the business in the first place).

Let me rephrase this into a couple of alternatives:

“As long as the uninteresting squads are understaffed, we cannot setup an interesting one”, or “as long as the non-working squads are understaffed, we cannot attempt to setup working ones”, or “as long as the failed attempts did not work, we cannot carry on with attempts that may work”.

Sound familiar?

Of course, there is no guarantee that the new attempt will actually work. But, based on experience, one may definitely say that the old ones didn’t. So why not get rid of the old ones, and try new ones? Then, after some time, if you run out of ideas and attempts, and still none works, give up the idea altogether, but not before?



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