Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Fighting City Hall III – A Badly Posed Problem

Two Guys in the woods. In a tent. Big bear comes up, he's gonna eat 'em. One guy reaches in his pack, starts putting on his running shoes. The other guy: "you idiot, you can't run faster than a bear..." Guy says 'I don't have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you..."



You know why that's particularly funny...? (PAUSE) The man would not be in the woods with his running shoes. (PAUSE) He wouldn't take them in the woods. So the joke indicates hostility on the part of the man who brought the shoes. (PAUSE) It indicates, in effect, that he brought the other man into the woods to kill him.
--David Mamet, The Edge (January, 1996), p. 6

Competition or cooperation, which is it going to be? Like most false dilemma, badly posed problems, the first question is, what the hell does that mean?

A cheetah chasing a gazelle is competition; the two animals are competing for the gazelle’s life. Two men in a post-apocalyptic knife fight for a can of baked bean, that’s also competition.

But two guys on a tennis court are cooperating. One may win the game, but there’s no game at all unless they both agree on it first. Then there’s that thing about there being rules.

Is warfare competition or cooperation? Armies fight, but the individuals in the armies are cooperating with their fellow soldiers, and with the orders they are given. At least they are if they want to have a chance at remaining alive. The choices aren’t quite as stark in the corporate world; corporations aren’t allowed to court martial employees or put them in the stockade or to death (though some would if they could, I’ll bet). Nevertheless, what is meant by “market competition” generally boils down to competition among organizations, and putting up barriers to impeding organizations, interfering with the very act of their organizing (e.g. unions, regulatory bodies, other corporations), is a big part of how the grand game is played.

Tonya Harding was, after all, just being competitive.

Okay then, if I’m so smart, how would I describe the choices that individuals make in dealing with each other and with organizations? Let me suggest another alliterative list: Custom, Command, or Collaboration.

Truth to tell, most of our day-to-day behavior is motivated by Custom, or its baby brother, Habit. It’s midnight, not another car in sight, yet we still stop for the red light. Well, it’s the law, isn’t it? It’s also the law to drive less than 50 on that stretch of Route 4 I drive every morning, the one where everyone drives 70. What’s the difference? Custom, habit, call it what you will. In some places, people don’t lock their doors at night; there’s not enough habitual theft in the area for it to matter, apparently. In some other places, with no greater incidence of crime, the doors get locked. That’s just the way things are done around here. Some other places, you see bars on the windows, and for good reason, because the teenagers in the area have developed the custom of thievery.

In some parts of the world, it’s a full-fledged Tradition, and not one limited to teenagers.

That last neighborhood probably gets more police attention than the other two, incidentally. It’s not a matter of the law itself; it’s whether people are accustomed to obeying it. It’s also a matter of how the police are accustomed to enforcing it.

”If you keep calling them the PO-lice, they ain’t never gonna come!” – from the Flip Wilson Show

Command, in fact, doesn’t work very well without custom, but, truth to tell, pure command doesn’t work very well at all. I once worked briefly with a scientist who tended to treat everyone he worked with as “just another pair of hands,” as one of the programmers put it to me. The scientist in question was undeniably smart, though I personally thought he had some peculiar blind spots; he seemed to have almost no physical intuition, for example, so he had to work through the math to come to even minor, obvious conclusions, or so it seemed to me. Worse, his disregard for those working with him led to some occasionally serious oversights, oversights that could have been caught by subordinates if they’d been given any responsibility or trust.

That’s a minor example, of course. If those under your command really want to bring you down, all they have to do is withhold their own judgment and do exactly what you tell them to do, no more no less. The organization might just as well have fragged the commander. The “tight ship” is more collaboration than command-and-control.

The fact is that collaboration is the also fun part, the activity that truly nourishes. Look at any group of musicians and watch just how much fun they are having, no matter what else they are trying to project. Even the lone performer out on the stage is in collaboration with the audience, and the difference between a good collaboration and a bad one can be pretty obvious. Every writer is a lone performer out on the stage, incidentally, trying hard to collaborate with the audience. When we collaborate with other writers, that just means that part of the audience is a lot closer.

Even mutual hostility is collaboration. The comedian brags about “killing,” and is terrified of “dying.” But it’s really about being in the groove. Any team sport gives that same reward, and it takes two to Tango. Or to Tangle.


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