Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Fifteen

Previously: Part Zero ... Part Fourteen

After being derailed last time by a quotation, I'll take up the question of constructive deconstruction: how can the corrosive truth-destroying effect of Cynical "debasing the coin of the realm" lead to improvements within a system? Note that a system (loosely defined: society, a company, a government) is the required  'realm' in which to have a 'coin.' My modern interpretation is official or conventional signalling within a group. Waving hello and smiling are social coins of the realm. Within organizations, a common type of signal is a measure of goal attainment, like quarterly sales numbers. It's this latter, more formal type of signal, that is our focus today.

A formalization of organizational decision-making might look like this (from a slide at my AIR Forum talk):

Along the top, we observe what’s going on in the world and encode it from reality-stuff into language. That’s the R → L arrow. This creates a description like “year over year, enrollment is up 5%,” which captures something we care about via a huge reduction in data. R → L is data compression with intent.

As we get smarter, we build up models of how the world behaves, and we reason inside our language domain about what future observations might look like with or without our intervention. We learn how to recruit students better under certain conditions. When we lay plans and then act on them, it is a translation from language back into the stuff of reality—we DO something. By acting, we contribute to the causes that influence the world. We don’t directly control the unfolding of time (red arrow), and all pertinent influences on enrollment are taken into account by the magical computer we call reality. Maybe our plans come to fruition, maybe not.

Underlying this diagram are the motivations for taking actions. Our intelligence, whether as an individuals or as an organization, is at the service of what we want. It's an interesting question as to whether one can even define motivation without a modicum of intelligence--just enough to transform the observable universe (including internal states) into degrees of satisfaction with the world. As animals, we depend on nerve signals to know when we are hungry or in pain. These are purely informational in form, since the signals can be interrupted. That is, there is no metaphysical "hunger" that is a fundamental property of the universe--it's simply an informational state that we observe and encode in a particular way. In a sense, it's arbitrary.

For organizations, analogs to hunger include many varieties of signals that are presumed to affect the health of the system. Financial and operational figures, for example. These are often bureaucratized, resulting in "best salesman of the quarter" awards and so forth. An essential part of the bureaucracy is the GOAL, which is an agreed-upon level of motivation achievement, measured by well-defined signals. An example from higher education is "Our goal for first year student enrollment is an increase of 6% over three years."

A new paper from the Harvard Business School "Goals gone wild," by Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman, provocatively challenges the notion that formal goals are always good for an organization. This itself is a cynical act (challenging established research by writing about it), but the paper itself is a great source of examples of how Cynical employees can react to a goal bureaucracy in two ways:

  • Publicly or privately subverting goals through actions that lead to real improvements in the organization, or 
  • Privately debasing the motivational signals that define goals for personal gain.
The first case is desirable when the goals of an organization, when taken too seriously, are harmful to it. Too much emphasis on short-term gains at the expense of long-term gains is an example. This positive reaction to bad goals is not the topic of the paper, but proceeds from our discussion here. The second case is ubiquitous and unremarkable: any form of cheating-like behavior that inflates one's nominal rank, reaping goals-rewards while not really helping the organization (or actually harming it).

Earlier, I referenced a AAC&U survey of employers that claimed they wanted more "critical thinkers." Employees who find clever ways to inflate their numbers is probably not what they have in mind. Before the Internet came around, I used to read a lot of programming magazines, including C Journal and Dr. Dobbs. One of those had a (possibly apocryphal) story about a team manager that decided to set high bug-fixing goals for the programmers. The more bugs they found and fixed, the higher they were ranked. Of course, being programmers, they were perfectly placed to create bugs too, and the new goals created an incentive for them to do just that: create a mistake, "find" it, fix it, get credit, repeat. This is an example of organizational "wire heading." 

From the Harvard paper's executive summary, we can see problems that an ethical Cynic can fix;
The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
Armed with the liberal-artsy knowledge of signals and their interception, use, and abuse, AND prepared with an ethical foundation that despises cheating, an employee has some immunity to the maladies described above. Of course, this depends on his or her position within the organization, but generally, Cynical sophistication allows the employee to see goals as what they really are--conventions that poorly approximate reality. This is the "big-picture" perspective CEO-types are always going on about. Moreover, an ethical Cynic who is in a position of power is less likely to misuse formal goal-setting as a naive management tool. 

The paper itself is engagingly written, and is worth reading in its entirety. With the introduction above, I think you'll see the potential positive (and negative) applications of Cynical acts. Informally, the advice is "don't take these signals and goals too seriously," which is a point the original Cynics repeatedly and dramatically made. More formally, we can think of a narrow focus on a small set of goals as a reduction in computational complexity, in which our intelligent decision making has to make do with a drastic simplification of the world. Sometimes that doesn't work very well, and the Cynics are the ones throwing the plucked chickens to prove it.

Next: Part Sixteen

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