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Why is it so hard to get people to do what we want?(Part 1)

Part 1: Unmasking the hierarchy of cooperation

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain of its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old scheme and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new…”(Machiavelli, The Prince)


One of the hardest things about trying to make something happen — whether it’s a transformation from the old to the new, or an entirely new construction — is the problem of cooperation. What we do alone, we do easily. What we do together with others is fraught with complexity and division. Without some unifying force, people are often little more than a shapeless mob, content to tread water for their day to day wants.

I’ve studied cooperation (mainly by accident) over many years, and the scaling of intent in both machines and people. It turns out that the principles for humans and machines are not as different as we might expect. We love to put humans on a pedestal, imagining that humanity to be on a uniquely different level, moved by intelligence and feeling. Yet, in practice, we don’t use those qualities all of the time. Continuous change is mentally and physically exhausting, so we suppress our agency. We tread water. We punt. We even imitate machinery in daily life, for consistency. In the context of work we deliberately suppress human qualities to encourage predictability. But expecting an enthusiastic awakening from laissez faire passivity, to engage in major change, would be a mistake. Change will awaken doubts and raise both welcome and unwelcome emotions up on an unwanted pedestal.

As a theoretician, I’ve studied cooperation as part of Promise Theory, often together with my long time collaborator Jan Bergstra, spanning cases from Information Technology, to services, to human workplaces, even politics. As a fellow flawed human, I’ve witnessed the theory in action, through the startups and organizations I’ve helped to build and evolve. I’ve learned that, even as we may begin to understand it, putting it into practice, and getting it all right is the hardest thing. This series of posts concerns how we can apply the theory as a lever into understanding the dynamics of cooperation for a human workforce — and what that means for leadership.

Leadership and management, from strongmen to mission statements

Organization heads, founders, and business owners (as well as their appointed managers) are in a confusing position. Backed by the alleged authority of legal convention, society appears to "grant" the owners of such things "rights" to make decisions, within the system of law. It's a nice idea, but that's not really how cooperation works.