Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom

Previous Post: Create a Full Alternative Stack

If we wish to accomplish something that would benefit from or require a larger organization or more levels of management and bureaucracy, what should we do in light of the dangers of mazes?

There are no easy answers. Real tradeoffs with real sacrifice are the order of the day. But we can do some things to expand the production possibilities frontier, and choose wisely along that frontier.

As is often the case, this starts with admitting you have a problem. 

Too often, it is assumed that one should scale without worrying about the costs of scaling, or without counting becoming a maze as one of the biggest costs. Not stretching oneself maximally thin, or getting in the way of this process, becomes the sin of not maximizing effectiveness or profits.

That ensures failure and rapid descent into a maze. Start by getting out of this mindset. 

If you are looking to accomplish a big thing that requires lots of organization, management and bureaucracy, here are ways to help contain the damage. 

None of them should come as a surprise by this point. This is more of a synthesis of points already made, and not a place I feel I have special additional insights. So I will keep this short.

Solution 1: Do Less Things and Be Smaller

Recognize the threat and its seriousness, and the resulting risks and costs of scaling even if handled wisely. Understand that you almost certainly want to be smaller and do less things due to this concern. This is a real trade-off.

Think of the actions, priorities, skills and members of a group as being increasingly inherently expensive as the group grows – adding new elements has increasing marginal costs. Changing anything, or preventing anything from taking its natural course (including towards being more of a maze) also becomes increasingly expensive. Under such circumstances, the final marginal cost of every action or member is equal to the marginal cost of the final action taken or member added. 

One must think about the future scale and the future costs, solve for the resulting budget constraints and trade-offs, and spend wisely. The same way that one must avoid accumulating technical debt, an organization should worry greatly about complexity and culture long before the bills are presented.

Remember that not doing something does not condemn that thing to never being done.

Encourage others to form distinct groups and organizations to do those other things, or where possible to do those other things on their own. Promise and give rewards and trade relations for those that do so. Parts that can operate on their own should usually do so. If your organization discovers a new product, business or other undertaking that is worth pursuing, but isn’t a cultural or logistical fit for what already exists, or simply doesn’t need to be in the same place to work, strongly consider spinning it off into its own thing.

This solution applies fractally throughout the process. Do only one central, big thing. Do less major things in support of that thing. Do less minor things in support of each of the major things. Do each of those minor things as elegantly and simply as you can. Take every opportunity to simplify, to look for easier ways to do things, and to eliminate unnecessary work. 

Solution 2: Minimize Levels of Hierarchy

Throughout this sequence we have emphasized the high toxicity of each level of hierarchy. If you must scale, attempt to do so with the minimum number of hierarchical levels, keeping as many people within one level of the top or bottom as possible. Fully flat is not a thing, but more flat is better.

Solution 3: Skin in the Game

Scale inherently limits skin in the game, as there is only 100% equity to go around, in all its forms. The thinner that must be spread, the harder it is to provide enough skin in the game. One can still seek to provide good incentives all around to the extent that it is possible. Isolating local outcomes so as to offer localized skin in the game helps. Keeping people responsible for areas over extended periods also helps.

Solution 4: Soul in the Game

No matter how large the organization, if you care deeply about the organization or its mission, preferably the mission, you can still have soul in the game. Mission selection is huge part of this, as some missions lend themselves to soul much more than others, but  if you have a mission you are setting out to do as the starting point, you’re stuck. That means protecting against mission creep that would disrupt people’s soul in the game above and beyond other issues of mission creep. Keep people doing what they are passionate about.

Solution 5: Hire and Fire Carefully

Nothing raises maze levels faster than hiring someone who is maze aligned. One must not only avoid this, but maintain sufficient maze opposition to prevent it from happening in the future. All of this needs to sustain itself, which will be increasingly difficult over time and as you grow. As noted earlier, maze actions need to be firing offenses.

Solution 6: Promote, Reward and Evaluate Carefully

If you can find ways to evaluate people, and choose which ones to promote and reward, in ways that are immune or even resistant to mazes and their politics, this would be a giant leg up. Hiring and firing are key moments, but the promotion can be similarly important. One must resist the temptation to try to implement ‘objective criteria’ and use hard numbers, as this introduces nasty Goodhart problems, and forces the system to choose between ‘people around you can change the numbers so the maze wins out’ and ‘people around you can’t change the numbers and no one cares about the people around them.’ It’s a big problem.

Solution 7: Fight for Culture

This can be seen as a catch-all, but the most important thing of all is to care about organizational culture and fight for it. Where what you are fighting for is not a maze. All of these ‘solutions’ often involve trade-off and sacrifice, and this is no exception. If you do not value the culture enough to fight for it, the culture will die.

Solution 8: Avoid Other Mazes

This will not always be possible, but to the extent it is possible, attempt to sell to, buy from, get funding from, make deals with non-mazes, and avoid mazes. Mazes will reward maze behaviors and push towards you raising maze levels, in ways that they  will make seem natural. Do not put yourself in that position more than necessary.

Solution 9: Start Again

We must periodically start again. Even if everything is done right, within any given organization we are only staving off the inevitable. At a minimum we must periodically clean house, but that seems unlikely to be enough for that long. Actually starting over and building something new every so often, where frequency is highly context-dependent, seems necessary. This goes for corporations, for schools, for governments, and for everything else. 

Final post: Mazes Sequence Roundup: Final Thoughts and Paths Forward

This entry was posted in Immoral Mazes Sequence, Moral Mazes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom

  1. Daniel Speyer says:

    Solution 10: Be Careful About Copying

    It’s generally wise, when solving a common problem, to ask how others have solved it and copy what worked well. But if you are in a field that’s full of mazes, this is an easy way for maze habits to slip in. If you find a good idea from a possible-maze, either scrutinize it for maze-essence or study it to find the principles it’s built on and build your own thing from those principles. Be especially wary of concretized habits (e.g. personnel evaluation software).

    Those of a suspicious mindset may recognize these as the rules for using captured enemy electronics. For much the same reasons.

    • hnau says:

      Agreed. What makes it complicated is that we need to disentangle 2 kinds of evidence from successful large organizations:
      1. Every organization tends to get more mazelike over time at some rate which increases with size. Long-lived large organizations tend to be successful ones (otherwise how did they get that way?) but also tend to be more mazelike, other things being equal.
      2. But other things aren’t equal. The way large organizations survive and succeed over long periods of time (assuming they aren’t rent-seeking / too big to fail) is by adopting effective strategies to combat / limit mazedom.
      In short, successful large organizations are more likely than others to embody *both* maze behaviors *and* effective anti-maze measures.

    • TheZvi says:

      Strongly agreed, may edit this in at some point.

  2. hnau says:

    “Scale inherently limits skin in the game, as there is only 100% equity to go around, in all its forms.”

    I’m not sure this is always true. Imagine a startup with an approximately flat division of responsibilities and stock options (yes, I know, unrealistic, this is just an existence proof). If we model “skin in the game” as “stock-based incentives” then each employee’s skin in the game is proportional to (total company value) * (individual employee’s potential effect on company value growth rate). Since we often observe exponential growth (e.g. stable annual company value growth rate) in this kind of company, I’d expect the second term roughly to scale with (1 / # of employees). In other words, under certain assumptions skin in the game can stay constant as long as the company’s value grows at least as fast as its workforce. This might help explain why even large Silicon Valley companies (e.g. Google, Facebook) have been able to maintain a relatively unmazelike culture.

    • TheZvi says:

      Skin in the game is proportional to (total company value) * (person’s equity in company), and that second one is where the 100% comes from. You then do have to multiply by impact.

      If a company doubles in size and value, then everyone’s share of equity is cut in half, no? Am I missing something basic in the math here?

    • Unirt says:

      Isn’t the harm done by one defecting person to the company (and to one’s own profit, if everyone has stock in it) larger in smaller companies, which is partly why smaller companies have more skin-in-the-game? I mean, if the company only consists of Alice, Bob and me, then I alone can doom the whole project by playing an unproductive signaling game instead of doing real work. But if there are 3000 of us, and I personally start goodhearting, it won’t probably kill the company or reduce profits noticeably, so my incentive to goodheart is much stronger.

    • hnau says:

      OK, let’s make this concrete. In my model, Company A is worth $200 and each of 10 employees owns 10%; Company B is worth $3000 and each of 100 employees owns 1%. Let’s assume that both companies are capable of growing between 0% and 100% over some time period and each employee contributes equally to that growth. Then in Company A skin-in-the-game for each employee is (0.1 * 0.1 * 200) = $2 and in Company B skin-in-the-game for each employee is (0.01 * 0.01 * 3000) = $0.3. And… writing that out helped me see my mistake. I hadn’t realized that even under these generous assumptions the number of employees dilutes skin-in-the-game in a quadratic rather than a linear way. Thanks for setting me straight!

  3. Jasmine says:

    Have you by any chance heard of Joe Edelman and his Human Systems articles? He talks about valuing values instead of goals (among other things) but your series reminded me of his work.

  4. sniffnoy says:

    As noted earlier, maze actions need to be firing offenses.

    I think implementing this — in a way that doesn’t have the opposite effect of what’s intended — may be a hard problem calling for a more detailed solution. The idea is to expel people who are politicking, but if that process is itself vulnerable to politics (which, lacking objective markers, it will be to at least some extent), the process could instead be used by those more skilled at politics to expel the less-skilled. I feel like I’d at least want to see what this looks like concretely before accepting it.

    …admittedly, this may be an overly-general counterargument, like saying “well surely no court could convict a scammer because they’d scam the court, duh!”. But it still worries me.

  5. sniffnoy says:

    On the topic of hierarchy, I have to wonder if one can perhaps do better with some alternative structure, if there alternatives to simply “hierarchical” or “flat”.

    It’s also worth noting that “hierarchy” really has two different meanings in this context, and these are related but not quite the same. One refers to tree structure, whose usefulness for large organizations is apparent; the other refers to a total preorder structure, which I think comes about accidentally, not deliberately, and interferes with the tree structure.

    Well, I’ve written about this sort of thing before, so rather than expand on this here, I’ll just link to some relevant comments of mine over on Otium… (see also, y’know, the posts they’re responding to)

  6. sniffnoy says:

    (Hi I’ve got a comment stuck in moderation, I assume that’s what happened to Jasmine’s comment abvoe as well…)

  7. Pingback: Create a Full Alternative Stack | Don't Worry About the Vase

  8. PDV says:

    Copyeditor’s note:

    > Do only one central, big thing. Do less major things in support of that thing. Do less minor things in support of each of the major things.

    I think this is one of those rare places where you actually do need to use “fewer” rather than “less”.

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