In the Catalan autobiography of James I Llibre dels Fets, King James often describes the advice given to him by different nobles and princes of the Church (read bishops). Oftentimes they disagree; sometimes he turns out right, and sometimes they turn out the wiser counsellors. Scholars often regard this frequent decision-making dialogue as evidence that James wanted not only to give an account of the great accomplishments of his life, but also provide insight for future kings and ministers of Aragon-Catalonia. There is much to say about the nature of this advice, the strategic and tactical reasoning, the difficulty of passing down rational statesmanship, and interrogation into just how “rational” this statesmanship actually was.
I am not going to focus on those issues. Instead, I want to bring to light a common knowledge dynamic I noticed in this book that resonated in my daily life.
My day job requires a lot of meetings. Oftentimes in these meetings my colleagues and I will hit on an agreed course of action, but then instead of saying, “We are agreed. Let’s go!” We will continue talking ourselves into the decision. Once a decision has been reached, each person inexplicably waxes poetic about their own reason for why they believe this is a good or right decision. This happens quite frequently, I do not think anyone recognizes it as weird. To be clear, this is not part of some in-house “Guideline For Decision-Making”; it is a spontaneous event of human interaction.
Up until this week, I thought this exercise was either an attempt to cover up uncertainty or a waste of time. But perhaps there is some utility here. Is this practice a way creating more agreeance? Congratulating ourselves on being in charge? What’s the deal? Is it a way of rebuilding bonds that may have been strained over the course of discussion? Or is it just a ‘Midwestern USA' thing?
James I helped me see the light. Before the invasion of the island of Mallorca, the Corts and councils convened to decide whether to invade. Into the mouths of a noble merchant, a general, a landed aristocrat, and a bishop additional words of approval came after they had already decided to launch this campaign. Since the campaign had already been approved in prior discussion by leading parties, why do they need more words of approval again after the decision has been made?
I think the answer is that although these speeches might be boring to read or a seeming waste of a Wednesday afternoon at work, they also provide an additional fact for everyone present. We know that everyone approves the course of action. Now in addition, we also know why everyone approves the course of action, what their slant, and what their motivations. From these, we can adjust our beliefs about to what extent and under what circumstances the other actors will support the course of action – how far are the others willing to go to support this? This additional knowledge should facilitate future coalitions, strategy, and decision-making. The more we understand each other’s motivations, the more we can communicate effectively, find shared goals, and create a dynamic organization, one which can conquer western Mediterranean islands.
Next time, you are impatient hearing the reasons for a course of action you already agree with, it’s not the course of action which you can learn about, but common knowledge about the motivations and interests of other actors. Common knowledge about intentions within the coalition is the first step to sustained conquests... err success.