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I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!

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After finally cracking open the March issue of Wired mag, I came across an interesting thought by Clive Thompson about texting and transportation.

His argument:

  • Texting while driving is dangerous, and should be stopped.
  • People really, really love to text.
  • Texting-while-driving bans therefore probably won’t work.
  • Instead, we should discourage driving rather than discouraging texting.
  • This means we need to invest more in public transit:  other countries, like Japan and Germany, don’t have a texting-while-driving crisis, because people can travel without needing to mind the road.

It’s an interesting connection he makes, and one which is mindful of the general principle that people act the way they want, and it’s hard to prevent them from doing so.  Rather than treating texting (series of brief, digital written communications) as a problem to be solved, to Thompson it is simply a reality to be faced.

His concluding statement is insightful:

“Texting while driving is, in essence, a wake-up call to America. It illustrates our real, and bigger, predicament: The country is currently better suited to cars than to communication.”  [emphasis mine]

When setting policies which attempt to encourage, discourage, or prohibit certain behaviors, how do we prioritize?  Which part of a problem is the actual problem?

Also, could phone use actually become a legitimate argument for making certain choices in our transportation infrastructure?

On the way to class this morning, I was thinking about routes (I have a choice of 3 bridges to get to campus, whose convenience vary with destination) and street networks.  One of the things we’ve discussed in class is the Problem Of Congestion – primarily with car traffic, but certainly an issue in other modes as well.

In class last semester, the professor raised an interesting question:  is congestion really a bad thing?  One argument is that congestion is not always negatively correlated with quality of life – Paris is congested, but people seem to like it.  Another is that congestion can serve (to some degree) as a self-regulating mechanism in traffic patterns:  for those who don’t have to, travelling at peak time is a pain and a deterrent, keeping a certain number of cars off the road or people off the sidewalks or passengers off the buses and trains.

As I approached the classroom building, I saw more people travelling along the same route, including many of my classmates, coming from either of the two main routes from west campus to the building.  As we approached a central destination, everyone who had taken various routes from wherever they were, were now converging along the two pathways, simulating a bottleneck into the building.  It wasn’t that more people had suddenly appeared on campus, but that everyone wanted or needed to be in this particular spot.

It made me think that maybe this tolerance of congestion can be taken a step further:  it is not a problem, but an inherent property of our social system.  It manifests in where people want to live, where they want to go, even what they want to buy (why else would popular items sell out when substitutes are available?).  Therefore it cannot be “cured” or prevented or even almost-completely reduced, simply understood and (hopefully) managed.

Congestion, or tendency toward congestion, is a property of both space and time.  Many people tend to want to go to the same places, at more or less the same times, and there are only so many ways to get there.  Even on a perfectly-networked grid system, in which many combinations of route segments are possible, most people would tend to choose particular routes because they are most direct, have the least obstructions, or are easiest to travel along arterial paths.  And neither are all destinations equal – rarely does everyone want to be in the same place at the same time, many people want to be in only a few places.

One could argue that congestion is made worse by our current transportation system, by having one central destination or several destinations which aren’t well connected, or by our weekday, work day schedule in which most people need to travel at the same times.  I think it’s deeper than that, however:  whatever its manifestations in specific travel patterns, it comes down to the simple fact that, as William H. Whyte said, people tend to be near other people.  We tend to want to cluster together; to be in the middle of things; to get to the center as quickly and easily as possible; and to be part of larger social phenomena.  Supposed “solutions” to congestion like flex time, telecommuting, or increased transportation capacity can only go so far to alter a pretty fundamental fact about human behavior.

What I’m saying certainly isn’t new, but it’s a view that seems to be absent- or at least not prominent – in discussions of transportation systems.  Congestion is not a problem to be fixed, but an inherent property of our system called Society.  We should find ways to make it better for everyone, but we can’t simply treat it as a waste.  It is, I would argue, a part of what it means to be a social creature.

P.S. – I had to go for the old dictionary move, as I was curious what the -gest part of congestion is.  According to the OED, the earliest definition of congestion is:

The action of gathering or heaping together in a mass; a crowding together; accumulation (1563).

Only later – fittingly, in the mid-19th century, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization – did it become:

A crowding together or accumulation which disorganizes regular and healthy activity: congested or overcrowded condition, as of population, traffic, etc (1868).

While the tone of both of these definitions is neutral to negative, rather than positive, both also highlight the social nature of congestion.  Only later did the word come to really imply a problem.