Institutional mediocrity

Here are a couple quotes I’ve run across lately. Both say that attempts to filter out the low end of human thought inevitably filter out some of the high end too.

First, from Doug Gwyn:

Unix was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things.

Second, from Dave Gray:

The more idiot-proof the system, the more you will constrain behavior, forcing people to act like idiots, even when it’s against their better judgment. Even when people know there’s a better way to do something, they will often be constrained by policies and procedures that were designed to reduce variety in the system. If your system needs to solve problems that you can’t anticipate, then you have a problem, because automated systems and idiots can’t solve problems.

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6 thoughts on “Institutional mediocrity

  1. Gary Klein talks about something similar in one of his books on decision making, “Sources of Power”:

    “…the typical method for handling error is to erect defenses that make the errors less and less likely: add warnings, safeguards, automatic shut-offs, and all kinds of other defenses. These do reduce the number of errors, but at a cost, and errors will continue to be made, and accidents will continue to happen. In a massively defended system, if an accident sneaks through all the defenses, the operators will find it far more difficult to diagnose and correct it. That is because they must deal with all of the defenses, along with the accident itself.”

    “Since defenses in depth do not seem to work, Rasmussen suggests a different approach: instead of erecting defenses, accept malfunctions and errors, and make their existence more visible. We can try to design better human-system interfaces that let the system operators quickly notice that something is going wrong and form diagnoses and reactions. Instead of trusting the systems (and, by extension, the cleverness of the design engineers) we can trust the competence of the operators and make sure they have the tools to maintain situation awareness throughout the incident.”

  2. I’ve often heard the same sort of thing in education, where administrators try to adopt “teacher-proof” curricula, which have the effect of slightly improving the work of the worst teachers at the expense of destroying the excellence of the good teachers.

  3. Joshua: My 8th grade English teacher was one of those great teachers you refer to, hampered by rules meant to make bad teachers a little less bad.

    She was told to dumb-down her curriculum, but she wouldn’t. She’d find ways to sneak interesting material into the class, often subtly. Sometimes she would be more overt and say “I’m not supposed to teach you this, but …” which of course grabbed my complete attention.

  4. @ed: Good point. You always need to consider the purpose of an institution when deciding whether a rule is harmful.

    In your example, the purpose of the Army is to army; that is, to use its toolkit to implement policy decided by the political leaders. This ultimately constrains the creativity of everyone from the general sitting in the Joint Chiefs meetings on down the ranks. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the topmost brass has a wonderful idea about Syria, say: If the politicians won’t tell them to implement it, the best they can do with the idea is write it up in their Not My Fault memoirs a few years after they retire. This goes for everyone on down the line to PFC Jones who knows better than his immediate superior how to clean the mess hall. Cleaning mess halls is only important to the extent it furthers the mission, so doing it 5% better is not actually an improvement if it denigrates the command structure.

  5. The thing about mediocrity is that all too often it’s an improvement over status quo.

    But if that’s all you achieve, you’ve left some big business opportunities open for potential competitors.

    Anyways, personally, I tend to prefer food prepared by cooks who are also competent enough to use sharp knives. But that does not mean that I’m prepared to say that everyone shares my tastes in food.

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