Despite Gilman’s aphorism, people seem much more able to think in terms of things rather than actions, stuff rather than change, objects rather than processes. This may be because, as Mark Bickhard points out, we have a substance metaphysics, but no acceptable process metaphysics. Rao’s slim book (150 pages in total) goes some of the way to providing the latter for our social environment.
Rao starts from the idea of process, of a sequence of events, and goes from there, to bring in the concept of time. His time is not merely an ordering of events, but is a measure of the rate, of the tempo, of those events. Understanding the tempo of the various processes, and how these interact, and interweave, is the basis of his discussion of decision making, from individual cooking to multi-person businesses.
Understanding the dynamics of the decision-making process exposes various phenomena that can be part of the process. Rao identifies fait accompli, brinkmanship, procrastination, second-guessing, passive aggression, time-outs, defaulting, and building mindshare, among others.
We constantly need to make decisions, and those decisions need to be situated in the current context. Context switching includes gaining situational awareness (grokking where things are and what they are doing, now and in the near future) in the new context. Situational awareness crucially includes awareness of the situation’s tempo.
Once you have an awareness of the tempo, you can modulate it to improve your performance, either in competition, or cooperation, with others in the environment.
The situations we encounter are not arbitrary. They may have a greater or lesser degree of legibility to us, and we modulate our environment to control situations and their legibility. Rao explains how we do this. We comprehend the world through mental models, and we organise the world to externalise these models. This organisation, this modulation of our environment helps us improve our efficiency, our ability to perform.
The full process of organisation is a combination of objective and deliberative design and of participatory dance dependent on situational awareness and tempo; how much of each component we use depends on circumstance and preference.
Different styles of decision making follow different patterns; Rao identifies reactive, deliberative, opportunistic, and procedural. For example, a procedural, or bureaucratic, style has the environment organised by another, so that you can follow a codified process without necessarily understanding it, yet still achieve the desired outcome.
Following such an opaque procedure can be very efficient, because you do not need to think so deeply, but if the context deviates from that assumed by the organiser, you cannot then readily modify what you do not understand.
On the other hand, our personal, efficient organisation of our environment has meaning to us. This meaning may be legible to others, or it may not. If we wish to organise in concert with others, we need to be legible to them, but this might impact our own efficiency. Bosses who demand tidy desks are prioritising their own need for legibility, for control, over their staff’s efficient meaningful organisation.
Central planners can have the same desire for control, but this can kill the very thing they are trying to create.
Nouns and verbs tend to focus on single specific things. Rao lifts these concepts into the environment, as fields and flows.
Rao is not concerned with a general model of all physical reality here, but with an approach to situated decision making, of people in social environments.
Unlike the models and processes imposed by central planners and rigid bureaucrats, Rao advocates a balance between the aspects of design and dance.
The metaphor of conductor or choreographer, rather than the extremes of rigid pre-programmed design, or of completely fluid and potentially chaotic dance, is interesting. Denis Nobel uses a similar metaphor to explain biology. It seems to be a metaphor well-suited to a variety of complex systems.
Complex systems comprise a collection of agents interacting in and with a complex environment. For a single agent, its environment comprises not only the organised spaces, but the other agents, too. In Rao’s model, the agents are people making their context-dependent situated decisions.
That is, the same group of people in a different environment, or even in the same physical environment in a different context, will behave differently. This should not be at all surprising, but the environment and context are often neglected in complex systems analysis in order to simplify the problem; just think of in vitro versus in vivo experiments, or many experiments performed in psychology labs.
Rao demonstrates how a consideration of tempo, situation and context, and of patterns of decision making, can illuminate many more patterns than the standard procedural bureaucratic one. Moreover, these other patterns and metaphors have distinctly different flavours, especially when applied to changing an organisation.
This book nicely complements a lot of books trying to apply complexity theory to organisations. Here Rao focuses on complex human systems, involved in descion making, aspects often missing from the more theoretical models of complex systems exploited by the other approaches.
This deserves rereading. Some of the earlier discussions, which can have a slightly hippy-Zen flavour (despite many examples being from military command and control) take on more meaning in light of the later application. Recommended.