How We Succeed

A comment on Dominic Cummings’s site offers an illuminating insight into why this community has successfully executed multiple projects and exceeded expectations:

When I was at business school, we once played a week long strategy game in random teams of 5. The game was played in 10 rounds and teams had to decide on maybe 50-80 parameters for each round, there were 2 rounds per day. All of the other teams made their decisions in the typical Machiavellian manner and as with any MBA cohort this is ruthless stuff to behold. Everyone was using teams decision making as an arena to position for dominance within their small team of 5.

This was fascinating to me. All of the energy in the building was focused on the “self” v’s 4 colleagues rather than my team v’s the other 40 teams.

Now everyone at business school studies dozens of business failures and turn-arounds and various other textbook examples. I was obsessed with studying hyper success, I was alone in this and people thought it was a bit wonky and naive of me. But I didn’t care for all the reasons that organisations failed. It seemed to me that failure was a bottomless pit of various reasons. Whereas the really hyper successful teams would have succeeded not only at the thing they set out to do, but I believe they would have succeeded at anything you asked them to do. People like Gene Kranz of mission control also believed this. Anyway, I brute forced the entire game with various methods which required much spying other teams and reverse engineered much of the game engine in the 3 practice rounds. We won the whole competition easily and by a huge margin… The game could have been rerun many times and I know that we would have always won every time. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t luck.

Interestingly hyper successful teams always seem to dissolve with entropy once their binding objective is completed. <- a discussion for another time

But they all really focused on three things i). objectivity ii). learning iii). executing

The first casualty of Machiavellianism is objectivity, AKA the truth. The truth is not useful to the individual, it is only useful to the team. The individual benefits from asymmetric information, the team benefits from universally symmetrical information.

There are so many mechanisms at play here, so many tools and control surfaces that can be abused by the Machiavellian careerist types that unless you play the game you cannot compete with them. But the result at the macro level is mediocre organisations.

You can build hyper performance teams, there is a blueprint. But you either need an intersubjective fiction (a shared mission) that is so powerful it is effectively a cult/religion, this was the case with Manhattan, Apollo and a few other cases.

Or you need a supremely powerful guardian figure a kind of god in the machine, much like Steve Jobs or more recently Elon Musk who is obsessed with the three pillars i). objectivity ii). learning iii). executing.

Both the Dread Ilk and the Bears are occasionally accused of being cults. But apparently, it is that very cognizance of a shared mission that enables both communities to effectively accomplish various activities. Although the utility of the policy of ruthlessly removing every volunteer who fails to perform even the most simple task for any reason also tends to increase the odds of success, as it weeds out most of the self-serving Machiavellians from the start.