The Anger Of The Gods

Before I became Bureaucrates, Goddess of Bureaucracy, I was an alcolyte of Mediocrates, God of Mediocrity. Okay, I was actually a middle school kid studying Greek mythology in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1980s, when the school district went on a tear about Achieving Excellence. Thus was Mediocrates born. His name is pronounced MEE-dee-o-crayts, of course.

Now I see that FedBlog is mocking the cult of Mediocrates. Well, call me cynical, but I think most large organizations – public and private – are better at thwarting the bad than they are at helping the good. To operate successfully in a large organization and even (ugh) Achieve Excellence, you have to recognize that your betters are more interested in preventing embarassment and failure than they are in advancing a great new idea. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, as I tell the unhappy colleagues who use my office as their confessional, but you do need to address their concerns to their satisfaction.

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I agree. I think it is hard for large organizations to be innovative and promoting great ideas. I think the true bureaucrat understands this and has the remarkable ability to understand the system and know when and how to get good ideas through.

While I get FedBlog’s point, anyone who has worked at all in homeland security knows it is a risk-based approach. You can always think of ways to game the system. I remember this in the first couple years after 9/11. People would say – you could go to a mall in Cincinnati, a big high school football game in Texas, public bus, etc – and cause serious damage. Yes, this is true but do you really want to be searched going into a mall in Cincy like you do in Israel. The problem is if we were 100% safe, it would cost a zillion dollars and we all would never leave the house.

Hugh Davidson

This from ‘Here come everybody..’ Clay Shirky

the overall effect of failure is its likelihood times its cost. Most organisations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood. Imagine that you are spearheading an effort for a firm that wants to become more innovative. You are given a list of promising but speculative ideas, and you have to choose some subset of them for investment. You thus have to guess the likelihood of success or failure for each project. The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what will succeed and what will fail. A less obvious but potentially more significant problem is that the possible value of various projects is unconnected to anything their designers say about them. (Remember the Linus specifically stated that his operating system would be a hobby) In these circumstances, you will inevitably green-light failures and pass on potential successes. Worse still, more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea. Given this asymmetry, you will be pushed to make safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the first place.

When a company or indeed any organisation finds a strategy that works, the drive to adopt it and stick with it is strong. Even if there is a better strategy out there, finding it can be prohibitively expensive.
Clay Shirky (pg 246-247)