Friday, November 25, 2011


A meritocracy sounds like a great idea. After all, it supposedly lets the best people rise to the top, the ones that have the most merit. Unfortunately, it seems to rarely work that way.

Merit ideally comes from what people have actually done, their contributions in a specific area. But the visibility of merit comes from self-promotion. That is, if you do a lot of work, but nobody notices, then it is unlikely to be recognized.

As such, to get a lot of merit one has to make sure their peers are aware of their contributions. This naturally favors extroverted people, those that like interacting with others. Introverts on the other hand, are more likely to keep their heads down and just quietly contribute in the background.

In time, the personality bias would work itself out. That is, the strength of the contributions would over shadow the self-promotion. Well, except that there are many ways to ‘game the system’. The most obvious and most common is for extroverts to take credit for introvert’s merit. Since the introverts are quiet, and shy away from conflict, this is easily accomplished. Thus you get a lot of things like ‘visionaries’ that aren’t, since that is a very easy way for someone to steal credit from the people else.

Since the scorecard is really based on self-promotion, another way to game the system is to minimize the contributions, while maximizing the promotions. That is, you do something small, trivial and hastily, then just spin it into something big. We also see this all of the time. A deep investigation into many people with significant merit reveals that their claims are wildly disproportionate to what they actually did, and how successful it really was.

Of course, general human decency is believed to be why people don’t routinely game the system. However, if you look again at the personality types, not only are they extroverts but they are also staggeringly over-confident. And it’s this over-confidence that allows them to maximize their self-promotion and claim credit, even when it is detrimental to those around them. They simply justify it to themselves as deserved, so it is no longer such a bad act.

You’d think that underlying metrics can counter-balance this, but few meritocracies are actually based on real facts, and even then without concrete proof, real facts can be fabricated or spun. Thus it comes right back to self-promotion.

So it would seem that meritocracies are not generally based on contributions, but rather on the claims of contributions, and that it makes more sense if you want to get to the top to spend one’s effort on making claims, rather than the actual contributions. In time, more and more people figure this out, so that any meritocracy will eventually degenerate.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Complexity is an odd beast. As it grows it encompasses more and more stuff, eating it up like a ravenous dinosaur. And it’s all these little tidbits -- things that vary -- that combine to become the real underlying problem. If you don’t understand these ‘variables’ then you can’t truly tame the complexity; bend it towards your goals.

But our species has always had a problem in dealing with too many things at once. We can take only a few select issues into account; we can’t fathom the whole picture. We do not see the beast for what it has become and as such we simply focus on a leg, or a tail, or some other part in seclusion from the whole. We narrow down our vision, while convincing ourselves that we can see the whole thing. But we can’t.

When you seek to change a complex multi-variable system -- particularly one that is massive, ugly and hugely chaotic -- simply fiddling with a small piece of it will always generate unpredictable results. That’s OK if you’re expecting it, but only if you are expecting it. If however, you’re convinced that you ‘get it’ when clearly you can’t, then that delusion blinds you to the results. And that blindness most often makes the problems worse, not better. There are -- not surprisingly -- many more ways to make bad changes in this world then there are good ways. So a change without understanding is likely a change for the worse. If it isn’t obviously bad right away, then it might just be more fuel for the complexity beast to devour. To grow and get worse.

For some rather short-sighted reason, we’ve become collectively convinced that action, any action, is better than the status quo. But action without thought, without a real understanding of the the complexities involves, is action that is most likely to feed the problem, not solve it. But now we have a great many “leaders” bent on acting. And as a consequence we have a rapidly growing beast to deal with. One that gets worse every year. One that gets larger every year. One that includes more and more variables every year. And one that nobody really understands anymore, or can manage.

So it is not action that we need. It is not change that we need. It is simply a way to get the beast back under control and to simplify our circumstances back to a point where we can act again. Where we can make changes that aren’t stupid, careless and risky.

We need to stop taking wild guesses, stop narrowing our gaze and start accepting that we’re in a mess. A huge mess. A mess that nobody knows how to fix, that no one wants to fix, and that is going to be painful to fix.

A mad rush forward of ideas and action is a mad rush over the cliff. It’s what we’ve been doing so far, and I honestly suspect it’s what we’ll be doing right up until the moment we are in flight. Our species after all is a wee bit smarter than some of the others, but collectively were not very bright.