The World is Not Enough People

I was recently rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s hilarious riff, You Are Not Enough People, where he argues that most marital arguments are really about the fact that your spouse is “not enough people.” Human social needs are too diverse and conflicting to be met by one person. If you try to get every need, from intimacy to income, from chores to dramatic entertainment, from nurturance to intellectual stimulation, from your spouse, you’re going to have a miserable marriage. If you broaden the set of people you rely on for these varied needs (or at least buy a TV), you have a shot at a happy marriage. Vonnegut argues that this need was traditionally met by extended families.

I argue that it still is, except that we find the extended families we rely on today, for social-psychological sustenance, through work. So when leaders claim their organizations are like families, they are not bullshitting. Good organizations really do fulfill many of the needs traditionally fulfilled by extended family. Unlike families though, they also author stories in the wider world rather than persisting as storyless domestic units laboring in the background of the story of humanity.

This insight led me to another one. If I had to distill everything I’ve learned about organizations, leadership, and management over the last decade down to one sentence, it would be this: If you put people in the right story, all hard problems become easy; if you put them in the wrong story, all easy problems become hard.

The connection is simple: the “extended family” of work is the right size cast to sustain a story humans want to be part of. The right story is the story of a group of people that is both big enough to get something interesting done — the mission/plot of the story — while also being big enough to solve the “you are not enough people” problem for all characters in the story. A good leader solves both problems at once. A bad leader thinks one or the other problem is unimportant.

This idea has an unexpected implication: everybody's favorite economist of the brave new blockchain world of decentralized network orgs, Ronald Coase, was wrong about some important things.

Getting the story straight: 12-40 people living a story with an ending 15-40 years out.

1/ Beneath everyday battles, tactical situations being handled, strategies being steered, and interpersonal conflicts being resolved, there is always a story.

2/ Any story worth being part of needs to be converging towards a sweet spot of right size/shape/structure. If it isn’t, it will be a ceaseless, storyless, Sisyphean struggle.

3/ When there is no such story, people feel their efforts are futile and meaningless. Trying to make efforts more efficient and effective without a story fuels nihilism.

4/ The job of a leader is to get the story to where it needs to be, by directing the everyday slop of narrative energy towards interestingess and coherence: effective Boydian "orientation"

5/ This is not a distinct task. You drive towards it by using the free wiggle room in all tasks, to keep asking/answering "why?" in better ways, in all contexts/levels.

6/ Every local story is fractally part of the biggest global story of humanity. Shaping a story is about shaping how it fits into bigger containing stories at all levels.

7/ Narrative energy, the élan vital of human experience, is distributed across social and temporal scales, from human civilizational history to individual experiences.

8/ At least some small part of your narrative consciousness draws energy from the story of humanity at large, chugging on through the cosmos on this little pale blue dot.

9/ But a healthy distribution of narrative energy is one that has the bulk of it flowing relatively locally, within the 12-40 person, 15-40 year horizon box around you.

10/ What is “local”? Local is the scale at which you have a named role and are an independent, not entirely predictable actor, rather than a non-playing character or bot.

11/ If 80% of the narrative energy flowing through your life is local in that sense, you’re healthy in narrative terms. If not, you’re sick/diseased in narrative terms.

12/ Toxic tribalism and ethnonationalism are bad narrative energy distributions: Too little local action, too much narrative energy derived from larger scales as a narrative subsidy/welfare handout.

13/ You may still have a share of collective agency derived from an anonymous, interchangeable role, but you will experience real suffering.

14/ Above the narrative scale of shared, anonymous, collective agency, at the level of multi-generational national history, you may have no agency at all.

15/ This is the psychological toll of identity politics. Humans need named, active, unique roles and independent loci of agency and identity among "enough people" to be healthy.

16/ We need “enough people” in Vonnegut’s sense because we need to be seen ("recognized" in the philosophical sense) in enough different ways to validate our unique sense of ourselves.

17/ Class consciousness is not enough. Tribal/racial identity is not enough. Nuclear family roles are not enough. Patriotism is not enough. An anonymous 0.0001% share of collective agency is not enough.

18/ Recognition cannot be coerced through power, rules or norms. Nor can it be made to flow predictably independent of events and context.  Ceremony can only garnish it.

19/ Recognition must be voluntarily given and received by people exercising independent agency within a shared story, responding together to events in the environment.

20/ There is no fun being the only hero in a story where everybody else is a predictable automaton. There is no solace in pro forma apologies, no joy in desultory applause for a meaningless award.

21/ So the first order of business in getting a story straight is to get the right people in, and the wrong people out, to get meaningful potential for mutual recognition pumped up.

22/ Next, you must police boundaries so that the bulk of the narrative energy people need is satisfied locally. But more than a (notional) 80% is a recipe for complacent insularity.

23/ This is not something you can do once and for all at the beginning of a story. It is a "charged" condition you maintain through continuous management of the “cast”. You're a showrunner, not just an author.

24/ If you are an engineer and you pull off a clever technical stunt, and nobody around can appreciate it,  but they give you an award because the stunt saved money, is that enough?

25/ In a healthy hyperlocal narrative-recognition economy, individuals are neither completely interchangeable, nor completely irreplaceable.

26/ If the group’s clown leaves, you can cast another person in that role to restore narrative coherence. Sitcoms often use this dynamic as an explicit trope to get laughs.

27/ Most orgs do “culture fit” wrong because they do it at too high a level, too much of it, and using impersonal ceremonial "recognition" rather than "enough people"

28/ A group that completely meets its social energy needs internally is actually a bad group because it loses motivation to strive externally and put dents in the universe.

29/ This is why “traditional values” companies tend to be sleepy, complacent, and vulnerable to competitive disruption. Their needs are being too completely met locally.

30/ Unlike an extended family or a bad soap opera, the action in good stories is usually driven by shared beyond-social needs that cannot be satisfied locally.

31/ If the unmet need relates to something like shared grievances or insecurity you get deficiency-motivation narratives. These can only destroy, not create.

32/ Stories involving creation need an unmet, shared, growth need that is not entirely social psychological. A need that requires action beyond the social sphere.

33/ I think of this as an "action consciousness" by analogy to a social or class consciousness. A consciousness that derives narrative energy from non-social sources.

34/ Even the happiest extended family, where everybody is collectively "enough people" for everybody else, cannot get to Mars through cuddle-puddle energy alone.

35/ There needs to be a shared itch that can only be satisfied by working on something bigger along non-social dimensions. Often a man-versus-nature type story.

36/ The right story has the right number of not-quite-irreplaceable cast members, in roles that make sense in a specific story, striving for something worthwhile that is beyond-human.

37/ The beyond-human part is important because only by testing ourselves against new realities can we experience growth that expands the meaning of being human.

38/ A group that has all members' needs met and is on a humanity-redefining mission manages the yin-yang of being and becoming together. It grows superhuman together.

39/ A good mnemonic phrase for the right story is the straight story. As in “getting your story straight” in cop dramas, but with a slightly overloaded meaning.

40/ A “straight” story is one in which narrative energy flows smoothly, even as the action itself weaves in and out through circumstances and events. Where the plot is never lost.

41/ A “straight” story is one in which all the characters can cut loose and act with relatively uninhibited energy, trusting that the consequences will be net “good.”

42/ A story in which they can play out their roles without second-guessing themselves too much, and absorb the impact of the unknown with true forgiveness and deepening relationships.

43/ A story in which, the social costs and externalities imposed on the larger containing stories is lower than the spillover benefits being contributed to humanity at large.

44/ A story that, to use Tim O'Reilly's heuristic, can "create more value than it captures", a non-zero sum virtuous cycle egregore within the grander human drama.

45/ And finally, a "straight story" that is also possibly somewhat false in the sense a story you feed to a cop might be. One scripted to avoid bureaucratic trouble and confusion but not necessarily responsibility.

46/ Of course, this is a false narrative consciousness. The point is not that it is "true", but that it works as an inexhaustible source of satisfying, non-null answers to repeatedly asking "why?"

47/ What separates it from a cult-like narrative consciousness that is net toxic to itself and humanity, is the nature of the connection to the rest of humanity and nature.

48/ A good "straight story" balances great power and great responsibility and tries do no harm beyond its own limits, while doing net good. It's a sincere do-gooder story. A mission.

49/ A story that is connected to other stories at both all scales in minimally violent ways, competing to win, but not at the expense of others' ability to continue playing the game.

50/ The right kind of story is a local consensus reality that does not define itself in zero-sum ways with respect to other local consensus realities, even if it does not agree.

51/ Of course, getting the story straight is not easy, but it is 1000x easier than working in behavioral assembly language below the narrative layer of the Human OS.

52/ And the easy part of getting the story straight is right-sizing it. The sweet spot is about 12-30 characters in (social) space, and 20-40 years in time.

53/ In such a group, you typically have both enough skills to get something big done, and “enough people” so everybody can get 80% of their social psychological needs met.

54/ Usually, it is the second constraint that is the limiting one, not the first. Healthy organizations naturally evolve to develop a cellular structure of "enough people" narrative units.

55/ A marriage (2 people) is "not enough people” for most of us. Equally, groups above about 30 is “too many people" for most of us.

56/ If you pay attention, you will find that this sizing is often driven by social needs. There is usually no work-content related reason for groups of 12-30

57/ This is why Conway’s Law (“product structure mirrors org structure”) goes in the direction it does from organizations to products.

58/ One reason the output of artificially intelligence work seems so alien is that it breaks Conway's law. It smells like the output of non-human working structures.

59/ A group of “enough” people usually has the typical diversity of the cast of characters of a good story: the clown, the bulldog, the graybeard, and so forth.

60/ At a more technical level, you usually have people self-selecting into mutual-recognition roles like the visionary, the artist, the troubleshooter, the cop, the genius, the conscience, and so on.

61/ If your cast of characters has less personality/age/gender/culture diversity than a good television drama, you will usually have social fragility problems.

62/ This is a better approach to thinking about diversity than identity politics. Mutual recognition potential, not "representation" coverage. A dynamo, not a tableau.

63/ You don't want to naively random-sample the grand-narrative population. There is no reason to expect such a group to provide "enough people" chemistry for each other.

64/ Instead, you want to shoot for some sort of fractal harmony with the largest narrative scales at which your local narrative can be expected to cause positive/negative externalities.

65/ But this consideration cannot be primary. The primary consideration must be composing a cast of "enough people" for the active cast members.

66/ This is necessary to get the narrative engine going. Without it, forget externalities and unintended consequences. Even intended consequences are a pipedream.

67/ Narrative fragility through misguided diversity shows up in vulnerability to mission failures. Narrative fragility through missing diversity drives strong negative externalities.

68/ Why 20-40 years as the sweet spot? There is some evidence that people’s behaviors change when they sense mortality to be more than 20 years out.

69/ If the end of a story seems more than 20 years out, people seem to behave as though they have infinite time. Some narrative energy switches to infinite-game-playing mode.

70/ Another good reason to think 20+  years out is that it puts you into multi-generational time frames and responsible stewardship towards future cast members who aren't even born yet.

71/ Mortality is not merely a biological fact. It is also a social fact. There is such a thing as social death and its counterpart, social immortality in the form of a memetic legacy.

72/ The end of a story where a group of “enough people” is meeting all your social needs is a kind of collective social death unless the narrative energy feeds into newer stories, forming a continuing narrative tradition.

73/ This is why retirees disconnected from their former work communities suffer. This is why "short termism" is psychologically debilitating even if it is rational in economic terms.

74/ A 20+ year end-of-story horizon encourages ambition, open-ended growth efforts, and all the other good things that flow from infinite-game orientations.

75/ This horizon does not represent a concrete goal being achieved. It represents a fuzzy sense of a “better” afterlife.

76/ A condition where you’ll be rewarded for good deeds accounted for by people meaningfully able to appreciate them, and pass on the torch so bigger stories continue.

77/ Curiously, operating by this principle leads you to the conclusion, that below a certain critical size, org structure is not determined by Coasean transaction and social costs.

78/ Organizational structure is instead shaped by human social needs. In other words, for human groups smaller than about 150 (Dunbar’s number), Coase was wrong.

79/ Humans form organizations because they need them to satisfy psychological needs, not because the technology for sovereign individuals living on networks with low transaction costs didn’t exist.

80/ Like many, I believe the digital economy is turning the organization size distribution into a bimodal one: large platform-scale organizations on one end, small orgs on the other.

81/ Where I differ from many is in the shape of the "small" end of the distribution and the cellular structure at the large end.

82/ I suspect the small end will be a small peak between 12-40 individuals. Below that is "not enough people." The cellular structure of large platform orgs will also be 12-40.

83/ One factor that could truly throw a spanner into the works of this logic is AI. In a world overrun with Siris and Alexas and replicants, all bets are off.

84/ Can AIs count towards "enough people"? I don't know, but I strongly suspect they can, and they don't need to be conscious or sentient in the Strong AI sense to do so.

85/ Another aspect of Coase's models is also worth rethinking in light of this kind of narrative modeling: social costs and externalities.

86/ Unlike textbook examples of such costs, such as air or oceanic pollution, most human activities don't have undirected social negative externalities.

87/ The famed Eisenhower highway system in the US for instance, was deliberately routed in ways that destroyed the economic vitality of many black neighborhoods for example.

88/ Externalities and social costs follow the fractal contours of stories from local to grand narrative. At all scales, there are Self and Shadow narratives.

89/ A group trying to impact the world doesn't just throw the output of its efforts blindly over a narrative wall into an anonymous, unknowable "market" or "political economy."

90/ The impact is guided by the narrative consciousness shaping the birth of the work, which shapes the fallout long after it leaves the confines of the story that produced it.

91/ While it is possible to cast these effects in terms of Coasean transaction and social costs, it is a highly convoluted and contrived way of trying to understand them.

92/ A narrative consciousness approach: getting the story straight at every level, is more tractable, more effective, and more satisfying to those who must act.

93/ So to summarize and reiterate: get the story straight, and all the hard problems will get easier. Get the story wrong, and all the easy problems will get harder.

94/ If you are a leader, resist the temptation to focus exclusively on either the plot (mission) or the characters (organization). Both are recipes for fragility and failure.

95/ Instead, work both in a chicken-and-egg way, and up and down narrative scales all the way from humanity-and-posterity to this-workgroup-this-week.

96/ The first step is to recognize that "enough people" is a first-class citizen of the problem stack. It's what makes the mission -- the other first-class citizen -- worth pursuing.

97/ If you accomplish the mission without solving the "enough people" problem, the victory will feel hollow. If you just solve the "enough people" problem you'll create an artificial extended family that does little beyond existing.

98/ The second step is to at least stop doing the wrong things: "culture" engineering at large scales through myth-making and ceremony. Work the fractal bottom-up in "enough people" units.

99/ The third step is to slowly get better at steering and shaping the narrative through everyday behaviors rather than relying entirely on bolted-on grand speeches and "visions."

100/ And finally, get oriented on the ethics. You don't have to engineer with truth. All consciousness is false consciousness after all. But the power of narrative is great power. It does come with great responsibility.

101/ Homework: if you recursively apply the "enough people" idea up the fractal narrative, can you get to "the world is not enough people" and see why religions work the way they do?

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