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jeff angus

I think "incompetence" is such a loaded word that it's polarizing. Without disagreeing with Senge's objective, I'd like to suggest a different word for a similar approach; that'd be "naive" in the sense Paul DePodesta, the sort-of-protagonist of "Moneyball", uses it.

Rather than presuming yourself incompetent, that is, likely to make a mistake if you act, you presume yourself ignorant, even of the things you think you know.

More a child than a dolt. We already have plenty of dolts with decisionmaking authority, many of whom know they are dolts but like making policy or decisions anyway or who have come to believe everyone is as big a dolt as they are. I don't think channeling dolts is necessarily an improvement.

Ann Brown

"It Doesn't Matter: The Power of Indifference." ... you may be onto something here too! Senge suggested that we are at our most powerful when we are conciously incompetent and actively learning. We inquire, we are curious and open to experiences. He wanted a company to put "incompetence" as a strategy so they were constantly striving to learn.

What if we amplify the power of indifference with the power of "constructive ignorance"? Maybe the book is "I Don't Know and It Doesn't Matter" - I'll split the royalty cheque with you!

Stephen Downes

Wow, nice false dilemma - decisions are either evidence-based, or they are motivated by self-interest.

My own view is that evidence-based decisions, properly so-called, have a sufficiently poor track record as to not be trusted when the stakes are important.

There are many reasons for this, which I won't go into here. It is sufficient to observe that the practice of evidence-based decision-making is not supported by the evidence.


An interesting observation and one consistent with my experiences. However there is a long body of historical/economic work that explores the mechanisms and is worth absorbing in one's thinking. Starting with Machiavelli's famous dictum that something new is the most difficult because its' allies are only the potential beneficiaries while its' enemies are all those whoe WILL be damaged. In your field "Why Good Execs Fail" found that the biggest cause of organizational failure was blatant and conscious denial of the facts and the search for un-realities to sustain things as they were and are.

The economic mechanisms are analyzed in Mancur Olson's "Power & Prosperity" where he outlines the notion that seekers and holders of power will act to benefit the wider constiuency only up to the point where the trade-offs between their own gains and losses. Hence the gov't system that will most benefit the widest number is that which involves the widest because more have a stake in the positive outcome and will invest in public capital. Our boy Niccolo covered the same ground, earlier and with bitter experiences, in analyzing the benefits of a Republic in his Discourses on Livy.

That all leads to the critical operational question - what organizational governance mechanisms will lead the power-holders to make their best decisions in support of the broader interest ? One can see almost every front-page WSJ article as a case study in execs putting their own narrow interest ahead of the organizations at the expense of long-term commitment by the rest of the stakeholders; thereby sacrificing a major soft asset vital to long-term health.

There is here, I would submit, a major question in institutional engineering to find and structure those sets of incentives and governance mechanisms will better align narrow with broad interests.

jeff angus

I think Lovaglia's Law is particularly true in consumer-purchase decisions, where we have Rigali's Law: The more important the buying decision, the higher the emotional proportion will be of that decision.

So if you're selling a home (a multi-hundred thousand $ purchase financed over a decade+ ) the emotional component of your buyers' decisions will be more extreme than for a car (a ten thousand dollar decision financed over a handful of years) will be more extreme than for a magazine subscription.

Bob Sutton

PS: Michael Lovaglia sent me an email this morning indicating that he is devising a "little emprical test" of his law. That is what I love about academia -- a real scholar wants hard evidence.

Phil Ayres

How about using the same concept as you propose with a slight tweak?

Break down important decisions into smaller components, each with their own decision. Not only will this help you get your head around making these more granular decisions, each individual component decision is (in the greater scheme of things) much less important.

Maybe this takes the pressure off!

Thanks for the great post.


Kayshav Onetree

It may be right. In my case, I have to make an important decision of whether going to UC Berkely this fall or not. Going to Berkeley may be the single most important turn-around event I do in my life. But I tend to use many of the current students and alumni's profiles against the school! How wierd is that, given the school is UC Berkeley.

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