If we wish to accomplish something that would benefit from or require a larger organization or more levels of management and bureaucracy, what should we do in light of the dangers of mazes?

There are no easy answers. Real tradeoffs with real sacrifice are the order of the day. But we can do some things to expand the production possibilities frontier, and choose wisely along that frontier.

As is often the case, this starts with admitting you have a problem. 

Too often, it is assumed that one should scale without worrying about the costs of scaling, or without counting becoming a maze as one of the biggest costs. Not stretching oneself maximally thin, or getting in the way of this process, becomes the sin of not maximizing effectiveness or profits.

That ensures failure and rapid descent into a maze. Start by getting out of this mindset. 

If you are looking to accomplish a big thing that requires lots of organization, management and bureaucracy, here are ways to help contain the damage. 

None of them should come as a surprise by this point. This is more of a synthesis of points already made, and not a place I feel I have special additional insights. So I will keep this short.

 

Solution 1: Do Less Things and Be Smaller

Recognize the threat and its seriousness, and the resulting risks and costs of scaling even if handled wisely. Understand that you almost certainly want to be smaller and do less things due to this concern. This is a real trade-off.

Think of the actions, priorities, skills and members of a group as being increasingly inherently expensive as the group grows – adding new elements has increasing marginal costs. Changing anything, or preventing anything from taking its natural course (including towards being more of a maze) also becomes increasingly expensive. Under such circumstances, the final marginal cost of every action or member is equal to the marginal cost of the final action taken or member added. 

One must think about the future scale and the future costs, solve for the resulting budget constraints and trade-offs, and spend wisely. The same way that one must avoid accumulating technical debt, an organization should worry greatly about complexity and culture long before the bills are presented.

Remember that not doing something does not condemn that thing to never being done.

Encourage others to form distinct groups and organizations to do those other things, or where possible to do those other things on their own. Promise and give rewards and trade relations for those that do so. Parts that can operate on their own should usually do so. If your organization discovers a new product, business or other undertaking that is worth pursuing, but isn’t a cultural or logistical fit for what already exists, or simply doesn’t need to be in the same place to work, strongly consider spinning it off into its own thing.

This solution applies fractally throughout the process. Do only one central, big thing. Do less major things in support of that thing. Do less minor things in support of each of the major things. Do each of those minor things as elegantly and simply as you can. Take every opportunity to simplify, to look for easier ways to do things, and to eliminate unnecessary work. 

Solution 2: Minimize Levels of Hierarchy

Throughout this sequence we have emphasized the high toxicity of each level of hierarchy. If you must scale, attempt to do so with the minimum number of hierarchical levels, keeping as many people within one level of the top or bottom as possible. Fully flat is not a thing, but more flat is better.

Solution 3: Skin in the Game

Scale inherently limits skin in the game, as there is only 100% equity to go around, in all its forms. The thinner that must be spread, the harder it is to provide enough skin in the game. One can still seek to provide good incentives all around to the extent that it is possible. Isolating local outcomes so as to offer localized skin in the game helps. Keeping people responsible for areas over extended periods also helps.

Solution 4: Soul in the Game

No matter how large the organization, if you care deeply about the organization or its mission, preferably the mission, you can still have soul in the game. Mission selection is huge part of this, as some missions lend themselves to soul much more than others, but  if you have a mission you are setting out to do as the starting point, you’re stuck. That means protecting against mission creep that would disrupt people’s soul in the game above and beyond other issues of mission creep. Keep people doing what they are passionate about.

Solution 5: Hire and Fire Carefully

Nothing raises maze levels faster than hiring someone who is maze aligned. One must not only avoid this, but maintain sufficient maze opposition to prevent it from happening in the future. All of this needs to sustain itself, which will be increasingly difficult over time and as you grow. As noted earlier, maze actions need to be firing offenses.

Solution 6: Promote, Reward and Evaluate Carefully

If you can find ways to evaluate people, and choose which ones to promote and reward, in ways that are immune or even resistant to mazes and their politics, this would be a giant leg up. Hiring and firing are key moments, but the promotion can be similarly important. One must resist the temptation to try to implement ‘objective criteria’ and use hard numbers, as this introduces nasty Goodhart problems, and forces the system to choose between ‘people around you can change the numbers so the maze wins out’ and ‘people around you can’t change the numbers and no one cares about the people around them.’ It’s a big problem.

Solution 7: Fight for Culture

This can be seen as a catch-all, but the most important thing of all is to care about organizational culture and fight for it. Where what you are fighting for is not a maze. All of these ‘solutions’ often involve trade-off and sacrifice, and this is no exception. If you do not value the culture enough to fight for it, the culture will die.

Solution 8: Avoid Other Mazes

This will not always be possible, but to the extent it is possible, attempt to sell to, buy from, get funding from, make deals with non-mazes, and avoid mazes. Mazes will reward maze behaviors and push towards you raising maze levels, in ways that they  will make seem natural. Do not put yourself in that position more than necessary.

Solution 9: Start Again

We must periodically start again. Even if everything is done right, within any given organization we are only staving off the inevitable. At a minimum we must periodically clean house, but that seems unlikely to be enough for that long. Actually starting over and building something new every so often, where frequency is highly context-dependent, seems necessary. This goes for corporations, for schools, for governments, and for everything else. 

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I have a few concerns about the suggested solutions:


Solution 1 (be smaller): Being smaller means less maze-nature within your organization, but more interfaces with other organizations (since you're forced to contract out a lot of things). Interfaces with other organizations tend to bring issues of coordinative communication that are similar to, and potentially worse than, the internal mazes they replace.


Solution 2 (minimize levels of hierarchy): I agree, to a limit. That limit is usually about six direct reports per supervisor. Beyond that, people and projects get lost in the shuffle; a single manager can only manage so much and six staff is a fair estimate for competent managers.

Solution 6 (resist "objective criteria"): When serious money and careers are on the line, that's very dangerous. You will make mistakes; objective criteria (however flawed) will allow your boss to "fix the problem" by changing the criteria instead of by firing you. You will upset people with your hiring, promotion, and firing decisions; having an objective basis for your actions is extremely helpful to avoid or minimize lawsuits. Sadly, this is true even if the "objective criteria" are fatally flawed; hardly anyone will have enough information to tell.

Solution 8 (avoid other mazes): All things being equal I'd agree. In practice, the organizations that have huge budgets are usually mazes. As customers, mazes have excellent qualities in terms of budgets (often large) and demands for performance. Mazes demand compliance and reports; other customers demand results.

That limit is usually about six direct reports per supervisor.

I think it’s important to say that if companies aimed for this limit then they would be very different places. In the upper-middle echelons where I work the average is around 3. This introduces an additional 2 layers vs having 6 direct reports.

I also suspect that the 6 limit makes sense for mazes. If you are in a non-maze and working hard on solutions 3-7 then this can be considerably higher. In a previous role I had 8 direct reports and still spent the vast majority of my time on object level work because managing people was easy - people enjoyed work and were committed to it so managing them required less input. I think 12-15 direct reports would have been tricky but achievable.

You will make mistakes; objective criteria (however flawed) will allow your boss to "fix the problem" by changing the criteria instead of by firing you.

I don’t think having subjective criteria makes you more likely to get fired - you just wouldn’t get into the problem in the first place unless you actually were underperforming. This of course assumes trust but in a non-maze this is less of an issue.

You will upset people with your hiring, promotion, and firing decisions; having an objective basis for your actions is extremely helpful to avoid or minimize lawsuits.

I think this is a good point, especially as you get bigger. Maybe there are creative ways to avoid this - the old zappos offer of $2000 to leave after a week comes to mind as a way to choose the right staff without objective criteria.

Six direct reports is the rule of thumb I use but it depends on the job, the manager, and the staff. Use a number that's demanding but realistic for your purpose; it should take good managers but not great managers.

At one level above the actual production staff, having 50+ direct reports is common, and not really a problem.

Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom is all key advice that seemed unintuitive to me when I was getting started doing things in the world, but now all the advice seems imperative to me. I've learned a bunch of this by doing it "the hard way" I guess. I give this post +4.

Broader comment on the Mazes sequence as a whole:

The sequence is an extended meditation on a theme, exploring it from lots of perspective, about how large projects and large coordination efforts end up being eaten by Moloch. The specific perspective reminds me a bit of The Screwtape Letters. In The Screwtape Letters, the two devils are focused on causing people to be immoral. The explicit optimization for vices and personal flaws helps highlight (to me) what it looks like when I'm doing something really stupid or harmful within myself.

Similarly, this sequence explores the perspective of large groups of people who live to game a large company, not to actually achieve the goals of the company. What that culture looks like, what is rewarded, what it feels like to be in it. 

I've executed some of these strategies in my life. I don't think I've ever lived the life of the soulless middle-manager stereotyped by the sequence, but I see elements of it in myself, and I'm grateful to the sequence for helping me identify those cognitive patterns. 

Something the sequence really conveys, is not just that individuals can try to game a company, but that a whole company's culture can change such that gaming-behavior is expected and rewarded. It contains a lot of detail about what that culture looks and feels like.

The sequence (including the essay "Motive Ambiguity") has led me see how in such an environment groups of people can end up optimizing for the opposite of their stated purpose.

The sequence doesn't hold together as a whole to me. I don't get the perfect or superperfect competition idea at the top. Some of the claims seem like a stretch or not really argued for, just completing the pattern when riffing on a theme. But I'm not going to review the weaknesses here, my goal is mostly to advocate for the best parts of it that I'd like to see score more highly in the book.

This post is one of my three picks from the sequence, along with The Road to Mazedom, and Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom. (Also Motive Ambiguity which is not technically part of the sequence.)

(This review is taken from my post Ben Pace's Controversial Picks for the 2020 Review.)

I'm curious which things seemed most surprising or unintuitive to you about this post when you first read it?

I think the ones I had the strongest negative reactions to were "Do Less Things and Be Smaller" and "Start Again". I had a feeling of "I have no idea how to succeed if I have to do these things", and now I'm like "succeeding at anything is generally easier with these things".

While discussing this with a friend, one thing they brought is the McDonalds franchise model. According to Megan McArdle, the point of McDonalds having a franchise model is because of incentives and skin in the game. i.e. if a store manager is also the owner, they are incentivized to do a much better job than if they are a mid-level corporate manager.

Linking this twitter thread for reference later:

https://twitter.com/asymmetricinfo/status/975409051180912640

Was the thought that the incentives related to ownership of the product are a reason for franchising surprising to you? What was your previous idea of why there is franchising?

I don't know that I had much of a model, I think I thought it was mostly to avoid legal rules for being a single organization (i.e. making it harder to unionize and stuff)

This series reminds me a lot of Lou Keep's essay on narcissism & modernity: 1, 2

Like two fingers pointing at the moon.