How Policies Stray

“A policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes” This blog is about, how policies of well intentioned people fail.

All that we plan, whether it’s in building our house, managing a business, creating an economic plan, or even a political goal, is governed by a strategy. Most of these strategies, goals, plans, policies, are well thought out in many cases, and theoretically work, but when it comes to the real world, they all suffer. The lucky ones adapt, with much patching up, but many fail.

People at the helm don’t intentionally want their plans to breakdown, unless they mean harm or are crooks, but inevitably most plans breakdown. By observing this phenomena I have realised, all such plans except the lucky ones are doomed. The reason is usually these plans are applied to a complex system where the most important variables are ignored.

As usual ego and self-worth is at the center of it. These traits are a natural part of the animal in all of us, and trying to remove them is as hard as trying to eat without enjoying the taste of food. So people may not like them, but as animals, they’re stuck with these feelings. The most they can do is try to control them. Being criticized is never pleasant, and there is nothing better than proving people wrong.

There are two main variables that people miss when implementing their plan. The first is, that their plan is usually not the only one that works, and the second is that their plan is usually accepted at the cost of other plans, created by people just like them, who believe their plan works. In a zero sum environment the chosen plan can probably work.

The problem in reality is there are always forces that oppose a policy or plan, and little weight is given to those forces when one formulates a strategy. The plans are mostly devised without consideration to these agents of opposition inherent in a complex society (system), which I shall call the Variable of the Opposition.

Someone hires a competent architect to build his house, and starts changing the blueprint to suit his needs, against the original design, only to find his wife also doing the same, and before you know it, the design morphs into something that works for neither, and looses the functionality and aesthetics of the original design, and finally the architect is blamed.

A CEO of a company with a 5 year plan is fired after two years because of forces beyond his control and is replaced by another CEO, who blames the mistakes on the former CEO implementing his own 5 year plan, only for the same thing to happen before the plan takes its course. Maybe failure in these plans did not take into consideration the board of directors or owners with limited knowledge will start inserting their own agenda’s and soon they are blamed by the CEO for the failure. People like to blame others justly or not, because their plan gets changed.

No where is this more prevalent than the economic and political planners, who always fail because the policies they implement we’re originally designed lacking the type of flexibility required to weather resistance and change forced on them by others who can have an effect, and wish to add their part. How many times are policies heralded by the creator and his supporters get stopped, and compromises not considered in the original plan change a good policy to a bad one.

You can apply this problem to pretty much everything that is planned, and is analogous to the “Three-body problem” in physics. It is intrinsic to the noise in a complex system, which was ignored by scientists for so many years, only to find out that it’s not noise but small active agents in a complex system that can create chaos out of order and cannot be predicted.

There is no solution, only approximations. Too many professionals go into too much details in very rigid plans not understanding that those plans have to take into consideration forces that cannot be predicted. No one has full control over anything that relies on other people. Scientists with their reductionist idealism have thrown the baby out with the bath water when it comes to complex systems. Hopefully this will change with the study of emergence.

Thus the foundation of all plans should first accommodate the likelihood of change before anything else. May be these plans will become resilient and robust with such thinking, and may be one day with our understanding of complex systems and emergent properties, we can make plans to be in, Nassim Taleb’s words antifragile. Plans and Policies that thrive in disorder and uncertainty.

I hope the science catches up before we destroy ourselves, because well intentioned Think-Tanks believe they can win wars in a modern interconnected world, without understanding the butterfly effect.

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