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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Constraints, Collaboration, Control, Conflicts, and Commitments

If there is any theme which cuts across multiple disciplines and endeavors it is the theme of teamwork and the role of teams in the 21st century. Since Adam Smith made the observations that specialization of labor roles could increase productivity of pin makers, there has been a relentless movement towards specialization of tasks and remarkably expanded productivity to address human needs and wants. The upside to this cataclysmic change (and it has been cataclysmic) has been a staggering change in our physical world resulting in changes in day to day life that are basically inconceivable to those of us living presently. The downside is each of us in individually more dependent upon others for items essential to our day to day lives.

There is a theme which recurs at multiple points in time during this ongoing transition towards an increasingly complex world. As we become more dependent upon others to provide what is essential , we become more concerned about how we can control their activities. While history shows us that robust complex interdepedencies in human systems developed without intentional design, our fears of system failure drive us to push us to move toward command and control approaches despite their consistent failures. Like Lenin who believed that the "complex" world of the early 20th century required the state to seize the "Commanding Heights" of the economy because the complexities and coordination required something more than markets could offer, our fears of a world where we cannot visualize how things work compel us to try to construct one from the top down.

There is only one problem with this... it does not work.

Two things have happened since. First, the command and control economies of the early and mid 20th century have all failed to improve the lots of their citizens. Second, the world has become even more complex. Granted, market based economies have suffered their setbacks as well but numbers of people lifted from abject poverty in the past 50 years still dwarfs the numbers suffering temporary setbacks in the past year. There is still great temptation to believe that market failures serve as a justification to try yet again to control what cannot be controlled.

Command and control economies are the road to a predictable world of poverty, stagnation, and loss of freedom. These certainties should be viewed as vastly less desirable than the volatile world of market economics.

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