Letting Go III: Unilateral or GTFO

by johnswentworth1 min read10th Jul 20183 comments


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Context: The first post gave a long list of examples of just-let-go design: a problem-solving approach/aesthetic based on giving up direct control over the system. The second post talked about giving up control as a visible signal of understanding. In this post, we get to main advantage of just-let-go design.

Suppose I’m lying in bed one day thinking about the problem of dishonest car-sellers. How can I get car-sellers to be honest about problems with their car?

I know! We need to pass a law which makes it a criminal act to lie about a car one is selling, so dishonest car-sellers get jail time.

Note the subtle shift from “I” to “we”. Even setting aside the likely ineffectiveness of such a law, passing laws is not within the space of things “I” can do over a weekend. “Laws we should pass” is great for facebook-filler, but not so great for practical ideas which I could personally implement.

What if we come at the problem from a minimum-control angle? We want to prevent car-seller dishonesty, while exerting as little control as possible.

Well, how about we disincentivize the seller from lying? That’s easy, we just need a contract which gives the seller some kind of liability for problems. This isn’t a complete solution yet, the details of that liability and its enforcement matter, but that’s tractable. The next question is implementation: having drafted such a contract, how do I get people to use it?

That’s a much easier problem than passing a law.

Just off the top of my head, I could create a startup called TrustyCar through which people buy and sell cars, and the main selling point is that the seller has some kind of liability for problems. Trustworthy sellers can obtain higher prices for their car by selling through TrustyCar, and buyers can obtain cars which they know are reliable. People have an incentive to start using it; nobody needs to force them. Indeed, I could charge them to use TrustyCar; their incentives still line up even if I collect a small fee.

In short: having found a minimum-control solution, I can implement it unilaterally. Passing laws is a thing “we” do, but brokering car sales is a thing “I” can do.

That’s a natural property of minimum-control solutions to problems, especially in the economic arena. The whole point is that we want a solution which doesn’t require controlling anyone else - therefore we can implement it ourselves. Who “we” is will depend on the context, on who I’m solving the problem for - it could be me personally, a team, a company - but whoever “we” are, we should be able to implement a minimum-control solution unilaterally.

As with the car example, the difference between unilateral and non-unilateral is the difference between things which could plausibly happen if I make an effort, and things which probably won’t happen any time soon. I use this as an heuristic at work: if a project requires buy-in from someone not in the room, then add at least one week to the timeline (and a full month if the missing person has a project queue, as is the case for most software engineers). A project which cannot be executed unilaterally by a small group will not happen soon, if it happens at all. Unilateral or GTFO.

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