Sunrise on Monkey Ranch

Being responsible while inside a sociopathic juggernaut

Alan Cooper
Oct 8 · 5 min read

It wouldn’t be an unreasonable argument to say that complex systems cannot be designed, and software is always a complex system.

But of course, complex systems are designed all of the time. The main problem is that the design given to them is simple, because everyone struggles with the complexity.

But that “simplicity” is an illusion. The complex systems don’t become simple systems behind a simple user interface. They just become inscrutable complex systems behind an interface that is unsuited to the task.

That is, you don’t achieve simplicity by making things simple. You achieve simplicity by making things understood. And making complex things understandable is a complex problem, and a difficult problem, and a problem that takes a lot of time and iteration to understand, solve, and refine.

And the people who can do that job are rare, and adequate training for those people is not widely available, and organizations with a firm grasp of the core practices of that job are few. But that isn’t the worst part of the problem.

The worst part of the problem is that people who claim to do that job are very common, and training that claims to be adequate is very common, and organizations who erroneously imagine they grasp the practice are everywhere.

That is, lots of people think that the job is getting done even though it manifestly is not.

Like all complex problems, solving it starts with observation. Then one has to make some sense of those observations. Then there’s a creative interlude where treatments and solutions are proposed and assessed. And then the work begins. In other words, making the complex understandable takes a lot of time, money, skill, and resources. Even more so, it demands that business executives commit themselves to creating a better world. Unfortunately, that’s not what business people do. It’s not what they are paid to do, and first and always, business people do what they are paid to do.

Basically, everyone in business is looking for a way to do things more quickly, more easily, and with less skilled people. The solution, of course, is to take more time, work harder, and use more highly skilled people.

In other words, the best business people are wrong. Sadly, those same business people often make lots of money being wrong.

Don’t conflate making money with making successful products. Your boss will not reward you for taking time and working harder. Do you want a raise and a promotion? A nice house and a new Tesla? Or do you want to create a supportive, healthy, peaceful world in which your children can grow old in happiness? You have to make a choice about how you wish to shape the world you live in. That’s a very tough choice.

I’ve been a business person all of my life, and I’m not against business. It’s just that business needs to be constrained from the outside in ways that healthy humans don’t.

Over the past 30 or so years we have removed all of those constraints, and businesses have turned from being a productive part of our community to being ruthless predators in our midst. So who do you think they reward in the middle management ranks?

Humans have a conscience. Humans who lack one are sick, and we call them sociopaths. Businesses are cultural structures without a mind, and therefore have no conscience. All businesses are inherently sociopathic.

When you think about it, it becomes obvious that the higher up you go in the ranks of business, the more sociopathic the behavior gets. Almost by definition, CEOs have already sold their souls. By contrast, practitioners have it easy: they just do stuff. It’s middle managers aspiring to something higher up the corporate ladder who have the hard choice.

But practitioners don’t really have it easy, because they tend to give a damn. Generally, they care about the world and their fellow humans. Sure, they want a healthy bank account, but not at the cost of their soul.

So, it’s no surprise that all of the practitioners I know are suffering from acute cognitive dissonance. Their values, attitude, and training all orient them to delivering quality products.

But sociopathic businesses don’t want quality products and don’t care about that. They don’t even really want money, except in the shortest of short terms, otherwise they would care about quality.

Quality products and service are how you create a lasting company of value with trusted, happy employees and customers. Today’s businesses are clearly not creating such things.

Unconstrained businesses loot marketplaces, and loot established companies. They destroy communities and plunder their wealth as the citizens go under. The most skilled of modern business people buy companies with leverage, sell off the assets, lay off the workers, steal their pensions, outsource the processes, borrow on what’s left, hide the cash in offshore accounts, and then let the beloved national brand go bankrupt. They are like sharks: a giant muscle that eats, and never stops eating. They’d eat their tails if they could only reach them.

Practitioners — being the good citizens they are — try to reconcile the unreconcilable. They ask, “do you want it faster?” “Do you want me to calculate the ROI?” “Do you want it jazzier, sexier, prettier?” “Should I be more agile?” “Should I use design systems/thinking/methods?”

It’s like we are in the cockpit of an airplane with the engines dead and the control wires all cut, trying to find the correct settings on the levers and gauges that will somehow right the aircraft.

We are looking for answers in the wrong places. We have to look inside.

Inside each person is a complex system. Taken together, we form a culture: a wickedly complex system. The thing about complex systems is that you can’t direct them, you can’t control them, you can’t even guide them. But you can influence them. That means that taking a stance, taking responsibility, taking personal action is as effective as anything else you might care to do. And then you are on the path to becoming a better ancestor.

Alan Cooper

Written by

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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