Scale, Countries and Organizations

Excerpt 1:

“The Rise and Decline of Nations” put forth Mancur Olson’s theory to explain macroeconomic growth. Why do some countries grow quickly and others slowly? Why do some countries grow quickly at some times and slow at others? Though he doesn’t claim that it is the only factor, he answers that a main reason for this effect is that over time, in stable countries with unchanged boundaries, distributional coalitions (interest groups, collusive organizations) start to form and grow. The longer the country is stable, the more distributional coalitions it will have. These groups influence politics to gain benefits for their group, thereby imposing economic inefficiencies on the country.

Excerpt 2:

If you compare a Starbucks of ten years ago to a current one, they’re virtually the same. Compare this to the originals in Seattle, and the difference is startling.
The same goes for the design of a typical McDonald’s.
Apple launched the Mac with about a dozen full-time people working on its development. Today, they have more than a thousand times as many engineers and they haven’t launched a groundbreaking product in a while.
The same goes for Google. And Slack.
It’s not just famous big brands. Just about every organization hits a point where the pace of innovation slows as scale increases.

On the face of it, these might not seem very (or even at all) similar, but if you ask me, the underlying commonality is that both excerpts are talking about why and how continuing to grow at the same rate once you’re talking about a large organization (or a country) is very difficult.

Seth lists out a number of possible reasons for why firms innovate less over time:

  • Technical debt (shortcuts taken to make sure things work for now, future complications be damned)
  • Handshake overhead (the article I’ve linked to refers back to Seth’s post, but also has an interesting application of the idea)
  • Customer commitments (existing customers would prefer that you stick with the tried and tested, rather than try new things)
  • Partner preferences (same point as above, but with folks/organisations you work with, not customers)
  • Wall street’s fear (don’t rock the boat, go with what works)
  • Managerial anxiety (when leadership is replaced with bureaucracy that much rather do the bare minimum rather than experiment and try risky things)

Seth goes on in his post to talk about potential solutions to this problem. He mentions two things:

  • Boring as a strategy: iterative improvements on a regular drip schedule, and nothing out of the ordinary, ever.
  • Structural bankruptcy: by which he means one should ‘spin off the cash cow’ and go do something new with a brand new team.

Can these ideas be applied to nations? That is, can these solutions work to arrest the decline of nations? The decline of nations is a hard thing to define, let alone measure, but I think I am safe in assuming that we ‘kind of know it when we see it’. That won’t pass muster in a classroom discussion, let alone an academic paper, but you’ll allow me this laxity in a blog post, I hope. Here’s a thread that might help explain what I’m trying to get at.

I don’t know if these ideas can be applied to nations, but it is certainly true that (some, but not all) nations have a problem that needs addressing:

Andreessen’s essay ends with a call for mentorship, social pressure, and a realignment of priorities. “Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building?” He writes. “What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you.”
I don’t think that’ll be enough. So let me end with my answer to Andreessen’s question: What should we build? We should build institutions biased toward action and ambition, rather than inaction and incrementalism.

But the problem lies in that fact that ‘spinning off the cash cow and doing something new with a brand new team’ might be possible in a firm, but is all but impossible in a country with a democratically elected government, and that is (almost certainly) a good thing:

But that means doing the difficult work of reforming existing institutions that aren’t going anywhere. You can’t sidestep the existence of the government, as too many in Silicon Valley want to do. You have to engage with it. You have to muster the political power to rebuild parts of it. And then you need to use the government to make markets competitive again.

It makes me tired just thinking about what that paragraph means in practice, let alone trying to figure out how to come up with a plan for it… and definitely let alone trying to implement a plan like that. But it is oh-so-necessary, and not just for the United States of America.

The Rise and Decline of Nations, by Mancur Olson is a great book to read (but take your time over it, please). Read it, and reflect on how to use the ideas in that book to either arrest or prevent a decline in your own nation.

But also reflect on how that book has the power to help you explain why the organization you are working for may be in decline, and that, for me, makes this book a truly great one:

The persuasiveness of a theory depends not only on how many facts are
explained, but also on how diverse are the kinds of facts explained. Darwin’s
theory offers insights into the origin and evolution of creatures as diverse as
whales and bacteria, and this makes it more convincing than if it could explain
only mosquitoes, however many millions of mosquitoes might be satisfactorily
explained. If a theory explains facts of quite diverse kinds it has what William
Whewell, a nineteenth-century writer on scientific method, called
“consilience.” Whewell argued that “no example can be pointed out, in the
whole history of science, so far as I am aware, in which this consilience…has
given testimony in favor of an hypothesis later discovered to be false.

Olson, M. (2008). The rise and decline of nations. In The Rise and Decline of Nations. Yale University Press.