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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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William H. Whyte is awesome.

His 1988 classic, City: Rediscovering the Center, is a big book with big ideas–he discusses everything from the use and user-friendly design of plazas to the history of zoning in New York City to the emergence of company campuses (PRE-Garreau’s Edge Cities!) to pretty much everything we think of as contemporary urban design issues.

After so many keen observations, insights, and pronouncements about property city form, however, he concludes with a little bit of self-awareness.  Perhaps pointing out his own hubris is in fact a device which further contributes to it, but it is nevertheless an interesting statement on the role of the researcher in observing human behavior.  The perception of objectivity breaks itself down.

Here’s the final page, and a neat way to end a book:

“Let me append a methodological note.

“I have tried to be objective in this book, but I must confess a bias.  In comparing notes with fellow observers, I find that I share with them a secret vice:  hubris.

“Observation is entrapping.  It is like the scale models architects beguile you with; start lifting off the roofs and you gain the sense of power.  So it is with the observation of a place:  once you start making little maps of it, charting where people come and go, you begin to possess the place.  You do not possess it, of course.  The reality continues to exist quite independent of you or any thoughts you may project onto it.  But you feel you possess it, and you can develop such a proprietary regard for it as to become pettily jealous if anyone else arrogates it.

“A further temptation beckons us.  As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters:  100 percent conversations, prolonged goodbye, reciprocal gestures, straight man and principal.  Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well.  They are your people out there.  Sheer delusion, of course, but there is nothing so satisfying as to see them all out there on the street doing what you expect they should be doing.

“Three men on the corner are in a prolonged goodbye.  One of them is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.  No one else is.  At length, the man stops rocking back and forth.  I chuckle to myself.  I know that in a few moments another of the men will take up the rocking motion.  Time passes.  More time passes.  No one budges.  More time passes.  At length, one of the men shifts his weight; slowly, he begins walking back and forth.  I am very pleased with myself.”

William H. Whyte.  City:  Rediscovering the Center.    New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday,  1988 (1991).

On Saturday (last month) I spent a lot of time in Midtown Manhattan, seeing the big sites, and some smaller ones as well.  More photos from the trip.

Plaster Detail, Manhattan

Plaster Detail, Manhattan

Graffiti, Manhattan

Graffiti, Manhattan

Hot Dog Vendor

Hot Dog Vendor

Palm Room, Some Bar

Palm Room, Some Bar

Madison Avenue and 42nd Street

Madison Avenue and 42nd Street

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Buildings in Midtown

Buildings in Midtown

Times Square

Times Square

Times Square

Times Square

Vogue Covers

Vogue Covers

Chrysler Building, Lobby

Chrysler Building, Lobby

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

Well, only two weeks late with putting up some photos from my New York trip.  I took way more than was good for me, so  I decided to focus on some of the details in this set.

These are all from Day 1:  Brooklyn Bridge, Financial District, Broadway, Soho, and NYU/Greenwich Village.

Brooklyn Bridge Cable

Brooklyn Bridge Cable

 

City Hall Park

City Hall Park

Panda on Wall St

Panda on Wall St

Brick Building

Brick Building

Hydrants, Financial District

Hydrants, Financial District

Broadway and Pine

Broadway and Pine

Store Window

Store Window

Going to Temple

Going to Temple

 

The following is a list of wildlife I’ve seen so far in the past couple weeks – some of the numbers are approximate.  So far, no deadly and/or greatly inconveniencing encounters, just observations.  More to come I’m sure, and hopefully nothing involving Lyme disease (which is apparently a problem in Cayuga Heights).

Wildlife in the Ithaca area:

  • Deer (4 – mother, 2 babies, unknown tagged deer)
  • Snake (2 – both in streams, one very small and shy)
  • Small fish with stripes (~few dozen)
  • Smaller algae-eating fish with no stripes (~few dozen)
  • Crayfish on stream bottom (10)
  • Some small sucker-looking fish like a plecostemus (1, on a rock)
  • Squirrels (~thousands)
  • Chipmunk (1, briefly, unverified sighting)
  • Slugs (~thousands, all of them gross)
  • Skunk (2)
  • Cardinal (1 pair)
  • Sparrows (~thousands)
  • Frat boys playing beer pong (~6)