Personal responsibility in the face of systemic issues

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last posted May 11, 2016, 8:44 a.m.
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This is a thing I think about a lot: You're in the middle of a systemic problem. What do you do? Facing it head on is basically a guaranteed route to burnout.


Example: Effectiveness of personal greenhouse reduction vs donation.

Basically: You want to reduce the chances of us dying horribly through global warming. What do?

The answer turns out to not really be "Try to reduce your personal carbon footprint" and more "Devote your spare financial resources to helping others reduce their carbon footprint", because there are a lot of places which are much more cost effective to spend your money than where you currently are.


The other big force multiplier you can use is to turn personal responsibility into group responsibility. Rather than face things head on, talk to other people and try to get them to face it with you.

  1. The more effort something is, the fewer people will do it
  2. High impact things done by few people have some impact
  3. Low impact things done by many people have large impact
  4. Low impact things done by few people have low impact

Therefore in order to make useful changes as an individual you need to:

  1. Find high impact things to do
  2. Persuade other people to do low impact things

In particular, high effort low impact things done as an individual will make you feel better (right up until you burn out) but they won't do squat.


I'm very much thinking about my new making work better project/community in this light: Being in a broken work environment is the very definition of systemic problems, and what you do about it is personal responsibility.


One of the things that seems to keep coming up in the work context is that cross-team communication is vital. I wonder how broadly applicable that is? Is maybe one of the biggest things you can do in broken systems in general trying to talk to people outside your corner of the system?

repost from embalmed ones by Dave

Believers in Conway's Law would say that spending time at other groups' water coolers may not have tangible immediate payoff; but it may well enlarge the feasible design space.

On a somewhat related point:

Excerpts from How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

Figure 1: The OGAS Project was developed by scientists in 1960s Kiev that also formed a group that pretended to be an independent country called “Cybertonia”: on the left of this passport is a map of its capital city, Cybergrad. On the right is their mascot and supreme leader: a saxophone-playing robot.

Chapter 5 chronicles the slow undoing of the OGAS between 1970 and 1989. Neither formally approved nor fully rejected, the OGAS Project found itself ... stalemated in a morass of bureaucratic barriers, mutinous ministries, and institutional infighting among a state that imagined itself as centralized but under civilian administration proved to be anything but. ... This chapter frames how hidden social networks unraveled computer networks.

(emphasis added)


The interaction with Conway's law is interesting. I mostly had in mind people who were in different job categories (sales, customer support, QA, etc) but maybe that's worth considering too!