The art of control

Courtesy of Lego

Last week was a real bear. We are building our 2023 budget at work and since I view all of life through the lends of production it was exasperating to be a part of. Rather than an elegant process that is informed by high-level strategy, adjusted via feedback loops, and best supports those with skin in the game it is a series of briefs, narratives, and numbers that oversimplify the unknown. Maybe it’s because I was simultaneously reading Antifragile, but by Wednesday I had enough and expressed my frustration in front of about 25 coworkers. Since then I’ve been mulling over three spectrums in an attempt to either accept reality or identify a better way:

  1. Autonomy versus control
  2. Centralized versus decentralized
  3. Local versus global optimization

Immanuel Kant defines autonomy as the capacity to make decisions for yourself, providing power over the events of your day. Control can be thought of as setting standards, measuring performance towards them, and correcting any variances. My favorite quote regarding control that I found comes from Stafford Beer (which is a great name): “Management is the profession of control.” It is clear to anyone who has had a boss that the desire of the individual and desire of the organization create a friction. Bureaucracies over-centralize and miss opportunities that are obvious to employees. However, my big picture may be my boss’ small. Tim Keller teaches that through this dynamic employees end up fearing overproduction as management fears underproduction. My micro-managerial tendencies led me to pre-crastinate and remain constantly in motion to the detriment of personal reflection and many relationships.

So how the bleep does all this tie together? You must constantly evaluate and adjust your level of control as the situation dictates:

  1. As with most things in life, the ends of a spectrum are to be avoided. Pure autonomy leads to self-centeredness, individually and organizationally. Pure control leads to suffering of the worker and the business. You as a leader must follow an integrated set of values to balance the two and objectively judge your actions. Christianity teaches that their principles are right the balance for this life, but the decision is a personal one. What values guide your life and do they align with how you work?
  2. Nassim Taleb’s description of evolution as a long, successful process of trial-and-error really resonated with me. The power lies in the feedback received by being wrong: death. Feedback is slow to be received at a headquarters and is also likely watered down. To some extent that is good as you don’t want to react to every bit of information received, but how do you suss out the signal from the noise? Front line workers have skin the game whereas those in a headquarters do not. The Air Force found long ago that the central control of limited resources coupled with decentralized (read not micro-managed) execution by those with skin in the game naturally finds the right balance of making the best with what you have.
  3. Pick your head up every once in a while. Today is very important, but many of the poor decisions we make as a species are due to not focusing on the correct timeline. My Toyota Sequoia that gets 15 miles to the gallon is locally optimal to getting my family, our stuff, and our camper to the woods. However, it may not be the best for long-term global climate change. Theory of Constraints teaches to subordinate and synchronize systems to its constraint, which can sometime leave machines with excess capacity idle. Be sure you are viewing the entire system in which you operate and not just your immediate surroundings.

“Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities of our own nature and those of the world.”

Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for The World

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