Our organizational constraints

It is usually human factors - not tech or resources - that prevent us from forming and developing higher performing groups, teams, and organizations

Our organizational constraints

Our greatest challenges are organizational.

Common company challenges include finding new customers, keeping existing customers, and improving customer service. National issues currently involve the economy, healthcare, and immigration, while globally our greater concerns gravitate towards the pandemic, climate change, poverty, and security. All of these are organizational challenges because all can be solved cooperatively.

Two concrete examples help make this clear. First, on a global basis we really do have enough food for everyone, it is just not always shared equitably. Second, technology gets easier to use every year. Using a cloud platform like Microsoft's Azure, a single developer can create a globally scalable web application that in 2000 or 2005 would have required dozens of developers. Many of our past resource constraints are diminishing, and many would-be resource constraints result not from availability but distribution.

Because our biggest problems are organizational, our limiting factors tend not to be hot topics like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as much as we hear about STEM. Instead, our key constraints are more often human factors preventing us from forming and developing higher performing groups, teams, and organizations. Given the right people organized in the right way with sufficient resources, we can cooperate and accomplish just about anything.

All of this will make sense instantly and intuitively to a human resources professional. When they screen a new job applicant, their first step is to assess soft skills like collaboration and personal attributes like company values fit. For example, that is why Amazon's initial interviews are targeted to ensure that candidates fit with the company's leadership principles, the cultural scaffolding that enables Amazon to exist - or, alternatively, keeps Amazon from imploding in on itself. (Both are true.) In an age when coding boot camps galore can teach anyone to be a full-stack engineer in 6 months, hard skills are relatively teachable, but life itself is the only boot camp for being a team player.

Because organizational skills take time to internalize, it is critical that kids growing up today learn those lessons early and often. By some measures, evidence suggests that we could be doing better. Looking at choices of bachelor's degree majors, we can see a decades-long migration towards majors that can pay off monetarily rather than those that can help a student learn about the humanities or the social sciences. For example, business and healthcare rose from 16.7% to 31.9% of all United States bachelor's degrees between 1971 and 2018, while education, social sciences, and history decreased from 39.5% to 12.2%.

Image 1: Bachelor's degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2017-18. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_322.10.asp, accessed February 2, 2021. Larger view here.

We cannot minimize the need to earn a living after college graduation. A student's ability to pay for their bachelor's degree is critical, especially with the increasing costs of higher education in the United States. Prices for undergraduate education rose between 23% and 31% on average between 2008 and 2018, after adjusting for inflation. An individual might have no other choice but to choose a major with high individual return on investment (ROI).

Yet individual financial independence is illusory if in societal aggregate we do not develop the cooperative skills needed for our organizations to continue to thrive. At the bachelor's degree level, individual students may sense that they are facing a Prisoner's Dilemma-like challenge: choose a more lucrative major like business or healthcare and make a high salary right out of college or choose a social science or humanities major that might allow you to contribute more to the public goods most needed right now, namely cooperation and trust.

Many college students I meet realize this instinctively and choose to double-major both in a human relations major and a bankable major at the same time, like history and computer science or sociology and business. Since this can be a lot of material to absorb especially with today's COVID-19 pandemic disrupting normal university life, I admire students who choose double paths like this. If everyone becomes a coder and no one understands how lies in the media undermined civil society in Europe in the 20th century, we become much more likely to repeat those mistakes, only with better tech. They get it.

I also admire educators of all subjects (even the "bankable" ones) who make it a point to help kids develop the cooperative life skills that they and all of us need to succeed. Even in uber-technical STEM fields, a clever educator can find ways to help their students accomplish more together. Team-based mathematics and engineering competitions are one great example of that.

Today's societal dividers include 24/7 news channels and social media, the decline of community organizations, increasing political polarization, and more, but it is never too late to build organizational and team-based skills. Because this blog is all about explorations and solutions here are a few of my favorite ways to help do that:

  1. Explore organizational psychology books. Read NYU professor Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, or just get familiar with the elephant and the rider, 90% chimp 10% bee, and moral foundations theory, which make up the core of the book. Or find a recent organizational psychology textbook such as Introducing Organizational Behaviour and Management by Knights and Willmott, which tend to
  2. Connect with others on a regular basis. Cooperation and trust are in some ways a cognitive challenge to understand but more importantly a skill and state of being. Volunteering can be a great way to spend time with others while giving back.
  3. Interact with a diversity of people. For example, the young and the old both have something important to teach us, whether that be how to find perspective looking back on life (the result of a long life well understood) or how to share (kindergarten being the source of arguably the most important lessons of any year we spend in school). And you have something to share, too.
  4. Turn on PBS. When in doubt, I like to turn on PBS, which the only antenna channel I can pick up from graduate school apartment in Bloomington, Indiana. PBS tends towards history, facts, and cooperation, an echo from another time that in ours remains timeless.

Header photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash