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On control: Another very provisional post

Do you remember LIFE magazine as it was in the 1960s? Amazing photojournalism. I was fourteen when it closed, and since it was one of my favourite reads and I was one of those fourteen-year-olds, I asked my father why.

And he said “It grew too big and too successful“. Now that’s an extreme summary of the answer he gave me, and I have learnt much about it later, but his words stayed with me. And continue to.

[An aside. Sometime in the late 1960s, LIFE published a photograph of an orphan, possibly from Central or Eastern Europe, probably about six or seven years old, sitting on the steps in front of the entrance to a building, hugging his first-ever pair of new shoes. I think it was in black-and-white. It's one of my favourite photographs, hauntingly beautiful and a great antidote to materialism. Is there someone out there who (a) remembers the photograph and (b) knows how I can get a paid-for copy or print....?]

That conversation with my father in 1972 was probably the first time I considered that something could fail by being too successful. I hadn’t yet got deeply into economics or sustainable development or related politics or philosophy, I hadn’t yet read stuff like Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, nothing like that. I was just bemused at the idea of success begetting failure.

A few years later, I lived in a different India for a while. A state of emergency had been declared sometime in 1975, and the country was under central rule; there was considerable censorship of media, the emergence of something that looked and felt pretty much like a police state, opposition leaders were languishing in jail, reports of dissidents being shot in “police encounters”, that kind of thing.

Then, sometime in 1977, elections were called and some of the jail-languishers were freed, and the stage appeared set for a classic central-control any-vote-you-like-because-it-really-doesn’t matter election.

What would you do if you were an opposition leader in those circumstances? Shout “Foul” and “Fix” and “Unfair” and “Mommy”. So they did.

The results poured in.

The opposition kept up their chants of “Fix”.

And they were wrong.

The ruling party lost. The only party ever to have been elected to office since Independence, the party associated with freedom and Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the dynasties that followed, that party lost. The Prime Minister lost her own seat, which was akin to the Kennedy family being declared personae non grata in Massachusetts.

Funny fix that.

And again it made me think, what happened there? How come the incumbent party couldn’t game the system, couldn’t fix their own election? Were they so big that they couldn’t control it?

Not long after that, I sort of fell into information technology, and have been there ever since. And twenty-six years ago, people were talking about why big project teams don’t work, why Seven was a Magical Number, why man-months were mythical. But guess what? I’ve probably seen more large project teams than all other types put together since then. Large project teams. Large budgets. And often, large failures. And I wondered to myself. If big equals control failure, then why does big carry on? [Told you I was confused :-) ]

Then, many years later, I was talking to Professor N.Venkatraman about the things to look out for in setting up an in-house incubator function at the bank. This was 1999, maybe early 2000. And Venkat said something about Microsoft, which I interpreted as “They can’t promise the growth, so they don’t have the equity-currency to attract and retain the best talent any more”. My words not his. [So apologies, Venkat, if I've misinterpreted or misquoted you.] And I wondered again about sustainable success and scale, and the role of control in setting that scale target. And I still wonder.

With all that buzzing around in my head, I was skimming the waves of information this past week. Laptops and battery problems. Airport operators finding it hard to cope with the new security requirements at UK airports, with the airlines screaming at them. [Of course, customers were not part of the debate :-) ] And I wondered some more.

And somewhere along the line, I read that somebody thought Doc Searls was a gatekeeper and a censor. That bemused me. I know Doc well and can’t begin to understand that argument, so I won’t go there. But it made me think. And it felt a bit like Steven Johnson’s slime mould discussions in Emergence. Were the people calling Doc a gatekeeper the same sort of people who couldn’t accept that there were no slime-mould-leaders, who can’t believe that emergent self-organisation does take place. I began to wonder. Is the blogosphere made of slime mould, with similar characteristics. Mouldy snowballs? Hmmm.

So I went into Google and took another look at the LIFE shutdown story. And found these quotes, apparently from the day that staff were told that LIFE was shutting down in 1972. They are both taken from Dirck Halstead’s Platypus Papers Part 1, via The Digital Journalist:

  • Carl Mydans, who had photographed the very first photo essay for the magazine, a study of depression-era Texas, mistily said, “I never thought that I would outlive my profession”.
  • As one senior official at NGS told Fred Ward, “35 years ago when I first came to the magazine, we had 35 photographers and one Vice President. Today we have 42 Vice Presidents, and 2 staff photographers.”

Where’s all this leading to? I’ve said before that it’s all about Trust. Now I think it’s more than that, it’s also all about Losing Control. Gracefully. Which sometimes becomes an issue of size. And then you have problems that only size can bring.

Take air travel. All based on a hub-and-spoke model consistent with Big and Assembly Line. We now live in a world where it is becoming increasingly possible from a technical viewpoint to fly from the A you are at to the B you want to get to. Smaller airports, many more of them. Smaller planes, many more of them. Smaller queues, shorter delays, the possibility of more efficient fuel consumption both on roads as well as in the air, and maybe even less attractive targets for terrorists. But there’s a lot of pushback. Loss of control by the incumbent “scale players”.

Take manufacturing. I’ve read reports that the laptop battery problem is actually one of scale and the need for greater efficiency as demands on the industry grow. Now if I was cynical, I would say “That’s the kind of reasoning that created Mad Cow Disease”, but I won’t say that.

I could make similar arguments for hospitals and schools and even government, but I’ve spent long enough on this post.

Cluetrain is about the failure of centralised control and the success of empowered individuals. So is Small Pieces Loosely Joined. So is Emergence, in a roundabout way. So are the attempts at freeing up individual identity a la Dick Hardt and SXIP. So is Hugh Macleod’s Global Microbrand, in its own way.

This is not a rant against Big. Just an attempt to further the debate on how to make Big actually work. And what it will look like. There will be new and successful Bigs, but the control process will look different as will the structure of the organisation. And therein lies the difficulty. A difficulty exacerbated by the battles between professions as lines between professions blur faster and faster, as Andrew Abbott surmised.

The only Bigs that will work will be Because Of companies, because they’re fundamentally infrastructure, commoditised, high on trust and low on control. [Take a look at Doc's presentation at reboot if you want to know more about the Because Effect in tomorrow's markets].
You can have many Smalls operating as With companies, competing with each other. They too will be high on trust, but probably higher on control. Which is fine, because the consumer has a choice. Caveat Emptor.

What we are seeing today is that there are With people and Because Of people. And the With people are still looking for the leader cells in slime mould. In their worldview, they must exist. Gatekeepers must exist. Censors must exist. Crowds don’t have wisdom. Prediction markets don’t work. Their worldview. Not mine.
Otherwise they would not have control.

It’s all about trust. And losing control. Gracefully.
We need to get these things sorted out from the perspective of information and its enabling technologies, so that we can work harder on things like mobility and identity and simplicity and convenience and enfranchisement and accessibility and affordability. Because they can make a real impact on the world we live in.

Posted in Four pillars .


16 Responses

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  1. Dennis Howlett says

    I don’t agree wtih everything here. I can’t for example see how the efficiencies the airline industry gets from hubs improves with lots of little airports getting more traffic Would customers pay for the infrastructure that goes with it?

    Big often means complex. So how do you propose to solve the complexity issues?

  2. Zz says

    i>orphan, possibly from Central or Eastern Europe, probably about six or seven years old, sitting on the steps in front of the entrance to a building, hugging his first-ever pair of new shoes

    Instantly knew exactly which photoraph you meant. Here you go. [Via this page, where one of the comments also says, "It was taken by Gerald Walker and can be seen on page 190 in "The Best of Life."]

  3. Balaji Sowmyanarayanan says

    It is not about trust, control, evil big, or complexity. It is about loosing the sense of time and loosing aliveness.
    A flower that lives just a few hours is ‘more alive’ than say a huge turtle that live 350 years.
    Volunteer sector is a good place to learn from life limited projects( as opposed to perpetuity oriented big that creates 42 VPs) that work. A few years back a huge one-of-its-kind Dome( no cement, no steel) was constructed successfully with a large number of volunteers. ( Too bad the official website of the Dhyanalingam Dome no longer carries a link)

    Opensource, co-creation and hence rapid innovation are dismantling the perpetuity mindset. If Perpetuity is Passe – It is interesting times indeed!

  4. rama says

    Hi JP! Many thanks for another memory-enlivening post! Life magazine: I remember the pictures from the Vietnam war. Your recollection of the 1977 election in India – this was in our first year in college! I remember the discussions with your father on the political situation in late 1979 and during the 1980 elections.
    I’m now in the thick of very challenging all-round renewal of the small manufacturing business my father started in 1967. Your reflections give me a lot of confidence! Best, chutki
    P.S.: Yesterday I began a foto-series on Calcutta on my blog.

  5. JP says

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Zigzackly, I’m very grateful for the Gerlad Wahler link, now I can do something about the photograph.

    Dennis, in a strange way you make my point via your question on the airport hub and spoke. Big often means complex. What I am asking myself is, if that is the case, why try and solve complex? Why not try and see if we can avoid big? Or at least ensure that we understand that big has a ceiling, and that the marginal utility of bigger is negatve after a particular point.

    Sometimes I think we’re trying to solve a chess puzzle by putting more pieces on the board, and that we are now approaching 48 pieces. And the pawns are all still there as well. Gridlock.

    Simplification may require is to think a little smaller, see what optimal sizing means. More airports rather than bigger airports. More planes rather than bigger planes. More use of technology in managing aircraft-to-aircraft communications in a P2P model than bigger and more complex air traffic control systems.

    I guess it’s a subject for a further post, and I’d be very interested in seeing your views and response.

  6. Amrit says

    Hi JP.

    It’s just recently I’ve started visiting your blog and this post will make me come back for more :-).

    We should learn from nature where, although things seem bigger, at all micro-levels they work independently assuring one thing: they deliver what they are meant to deliver. If I’m not confusing the expression, the word that comes to my mind is, microcosm. In programming terms, you can take an example from object oriented programming where smaller modules are created to manage the bigger modules.

    The bigger companies can too formulate smaller sections and increase efficiency, as you’ve rightly said with regards to the airports. Too much obsession with “big” leads to mismanagement, loss of grassroots level control and chaos.

  7. Kristine says

    Calling Doc Searls a gatekeeper is just ‘old world thinking’, or trying to use an outdated map of the world to describe the world we’re living in now. It’s the same sort of thinking that goes into describing the blogosphere as some sort of right wing conspiracy, email groups as ‘virtual freemasonry’, and, to take a more mundane example, makes the Norwegian government focus on helping big industrial scale farming while the smartest farmers have all shifted to smaller, more specialised ‘niche’ products. It’s the worldmap of the
    Cold War and the industrial society applied to the open, knowledge-based society.

  8. Hugh MacLeod says

    I like the old saw, “A company is either growing or it’s dying”.

    I suspect the latter is what happened to LIFE. Or what will happen to Microsoft. Or SAP ;-)

  9. Sean says

    What an amazing photograph.

  10. JP says

    I’ve never been able to forget it. That picture said more than a thousand words to me in the thirty years since I first saw it, even though I didn’t have it in front of me. Now I have the impetus and ability to get a large print for the library.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Confused Of Calcutta » Blog Archive » More on Control and Complexity and Big linked to this post on August 21, 2006

    [...] Dennis Howlett commented on a recent post of mine, On Control, where I was musing over Big’s relationship to Control Failure, and arguing that we needed a Better But Not That Big approach. One of the things Dennis said was [...]

  2. Confused Of Calcutta » Blog Archive » Truth and fiction and strangeness linked to this post on August 23, 2006

    [...] In a recent post titled On Control, I wrote about what happened to LIFE Magazine in 1972; in it I referred to a number of quotes from something called Dirck Halstead’s Platypus Papers. [...]

  3. Confused Of Calcutta » Blog Archive » Counting what counts: Musing about Wikipedia and Drosophila linked to this post on September 4, 2006

    [...] I feel at ease. For once I am not confused. At least I am less confused than I was earlier. You remember the sequence of posts I wrote about opensource and gatekeepers? [Those new to the conversation can find them here, here, here, here and here, in chronological order. Alternatively you can enter “gatekeeper” into the search box in the sidebar and get the same results. But it’s not important.] [...]

  4. Design for Loss of Control is an Evolutionary Question | Exile linked to this post on March 1, 2011

    [...] joining a conversation JP Rangaswami started on his blog Confused of Calcutta in 2006. Last August, Tim Leberecht broadened the discussion to include the design world, and pointed to a [...]

  5. Design for Loss of Control is an Evolutionary Question | Exile Leadership linked to this post on December 22, 2011

    [...] joining a conversation JP Rangaswami started on his blog Confused of Calcutta in 2006. Last August, Tim Leberecht broadened the discussion to include the design world, and pointed to a [...]

  6. Design for Loss of Control is an Evolutionary Question | Exile Leadership linked to this post on June 2, 2014

    […] joining a conversation JP Rangaswami started on his blog Confused of Calcutta in 2006. Last August, Tim Leberecht broadened the discussion to include the design world, and pointed to a […]



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