Perilous Penduluming

This piece explores one concept through three contexts. The contexts will span the hobbyist, professional, and societal. I find the parallels striking and timely.

Paragliding

In paragliding you wrap your body in a harness, the harness clips to risers, the risers attach to lines, and the lines fuse with a fabric wing. This arrangement creates an enormous amount of flexibility but also complexity. Unlike any other form of flying, the pilot must constantly manage their position relative to the aircraft during both ground handling and flight. During flight, the wing getting too far forward risks a collapse while too far back risks a stall. During ground handling the same challenges exist while the absence of the auto-correcting benefits of gravity and centripetal force complicates everything.

Multiple senses inform the actions you ought take. Those sensory inputs, however, will be changing quickly and the wing meanwhile often carrying substantial momentum. Consequently finesse requires predictive analysis, proactive response, and a gentle touch. Sometimes the correct approach can even be to do nothing so as to damp oscillations. As a brand new pilot learning to kite, a strong wind will likely drag you all over the place as you apply uncoordinated inputs of excessive amplitude and duration and careen from one unstable state to the next. Anybody who has navigated this n00b reality knows the willingness of the wing to pendulum wildly while taking you for a ride.

Over time, however, if you stick with the program, you learn not only to provide gentler and more coordinated inputs, but also to apply and release them proactively, causing the wing to go and stay where you want it to be as opposed to lurching from one unhappy state to the next. In the meanwhile, thankfully, protective equipment and conservative setup keep these rookie ground handling mistakes from offering serious consequences.

Progressing to actual flying, however, offers much higher stakes, particularly as you begin to navigate complex wind behaviors and terrain features. Here a collapse or stall of the wing goes from moderately annoying to potentially lethal and inputs either excessive, inadequate, or untimely can pendulum you between two catastrophic extremes. You must sense impending danger early, respond proactively, do so in a measured way, and ease off before you overshoot. Your life literally depends on it.

Organizational Architecture

The relevant facets of organizational architecture number too many to address here, and I possess dubious levels of expertise in many of them, but one stands out as both illustrative and familiar, specifically the decision to take a mission-striped or function-striped organizational approach to designing, building, and operating technology, especially in an enterprise context.

In a mission-striped organization you fuse diverse personnel archetypes into product-focused teams that deliver concrete business outcomes. In a function-striped organization you cluster members of a shared archetype that operate either as a resource pool or focus on an archetype-appropriate facet of a project that spans organizational boundaries.

A mission-striped organization can yield enormous joy and impact during its early days. The diverse collection of personnel archetypes within a team offers empathy, amplification, and triangulation that ensures timely delivery of a useful product. Communication and coordination overhead operates at a minimum. The focus and impact drive satisfaction and camaraderie that boost energy and foster commitment. The arrangement, however, particularly at a global level, can cause fragmentation and inefficiency, deprive people of adequate mentorship, and create headaches around integration and maintenance. There also might not be enough work for a given archetype to keep busy full-time.

A function-striped organization has the potential for enormous efficiencies of a certain kind as well as ensures that individuals will experience regular contact with potential mentors. The hope for efficiency rests on maintaining a full loading of all employees as well as encouraging/enforcing shared design patterns. These posited efficiencies, however, carry the risk of being applied against the wrong problems and creating inter-team antagonism. Meanwhile, although the individuals in this construct may have good opportunities for mentorship they likely also will suffer burn-out from a toxic cocktail of excessive load, inadequate variety, and mission detachment.

I have lived in both kinds of organizations, felt the joy and pain of each viscerally, and watched ecosystems pendulum violently between such configurations. People get drunk on the early promise of such arrangements, then get sick when they start to realize the ramifications of their unmanaged consequences, then either flee elsewhere to a seemingly greener other-side-of-fence or foment a local rebellion that inverts the order of things.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact these two options considered alone represent a false dichotomy. As organizations stop being tiny, where mission-striped is the only kind of team because there is just one, the opportunity for a hybrid approach emerges. Instead of lurching toward a function-striped organizational architecture, one can instead blend mission-aligned teams that focus on concrete product outcomes with centers-of-excellence that bring together employees of a shared archetype to receive the mentorship they need and foster shared tooling and tradecraft.

Pulling off this transition, though, requires keen perception, shrewd proactivity, and a gentle touch. The longer one waits, the more likely pent up forces will trigger violent upheaval and a swing from the present extreme to another equally problematic one.

Political Capital

We Americans find ourselves presently living through a time characterized by polarizing rhetoric and violent penduluming between political regimes. This leaves us highly dysfunctional at a time when we can least afford it owing to the rapid intensification of an assortment of planetary-scale problems.

Increasingly our ecosystem runs under the Physics of an extremely powerful president emplaced for a limited term by an electoral college whose constituent elements operate a partitioned first-past-the-post system where only two parties have any chance of success. The prelude to a presidency, especially with the amplifying effects of modern social media, roils the country with PSYOPS intended to convince key populations to pick an extreme position.

Once installed these presidents wield the majority of their power through the issuance of executive orders and the installation of judges. If you have any doubt then look only to recent events to dispel them. Witness the whirlwind of executive orders rescinded and issued by President Biden during his first day, and look backward to the several preceding presidencies that played out much the same. Reflect on how much hinged on whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived just a few months longer, how long the effects of her passing may last with a new balance on the court, and how violently matters could pendulum once more if just a single conservative-leaning judge died.

Our politics have become a cyclic blood sport with two phases, an initial one focused on a succeeding in a winner-takes-all contest, and a subsequent one spent ruthlessly exploiting a temporary advantage, seemingly ignorant of the adage that those who live by the sword inevitably die by the sword. Somehow we must extricate ourselves from this ugliness and move toward a configuration where most people can consistently agree on the matters where we absolutely must have a coordinated approach, on other matters we can accept a degree of autonomy that prevents the creation of wedge issues, and in all matters at all times we are building diverse coalitions versus taking turns either fucking over or getting fucked by The Others.

Our government needs to operate with a steadier hand. Plans need to evolve but we cannot afford to perpetually do a violent 180 degree turn every few years on the big issues. Fixing the current situation will involve gradual bottom-up consensus building that hinges on showing empathy and creating a shared destiny. In this regard, I especially appreciated the recent Making Republicans Environmentalists Again episode of the relatively new How To Save A Planet podcast, the central tenet advocating for getting everyone to want the same thing instead trying to cram policy down people’s throats after narrowly winning an election. What good is, for instance, a Paris Agreement if we’re in and out of it every four years? That won’t save the planet, won’t make other nations trust us, and won’t keep us from a civil war.

It’s time to act like adults. We don’t have anymore time to waste.

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