Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stuck in the Slow Lane

You know that awful feeling when you’re stuck in a lane that’s moving so much slower than the lane next to it that it’s actually unsafe to move over? The other lane is moving so fast that you couldn’t possibly get up to speed quickly enough not to get hit, so you just sit there. If you were moving faster, you’d have the option of trying something else; as it is, you’re so badly off that you can’t. You just keep losing time.

I’m convinced that some committees are like that.

Most committees have a mix of the generally sane and the slightly nuts. In a perfect world, the generally sane have the majority and set the tone; the problem children raise their game, or get outvoted, or just stop showing up.

But sometimes the nutty ones take over, and the committee gets stuck in the slow lane.

It’s one of those “tragedy of the commons” problems in which individually rational decisions lead to a collective failure. As the committee tips into nuttiness, the sane folks gradually start writing it off. As the sane absent themselves, the nutty ones start reinforcing each other, uninterrupted by reason. The nuttiness escalates, more sane ones bail, the echo chamber intensifies, and the spiral accelerates.

The decisions by the sane ones to stay away are individually rational. Life is too short, and given the option of walking away from a toxic situation, there’s something to be said for taking it. After all, a single sane one trying to show civic virtue by stepping in is a sacrificial lamb. Without reasonable certainty that others will show up, too, the cost of individual initiative can be prohibitive. So the loonies consolidate their authority.

As with the construction example, the usual self-correcting mechanism -- lane changing, or rational argument -- is ruled out by the sheer size of the problem.

In the construction example, the usual solution is endurance; sooner or later, you get out. But ‘later,’ in that context, is still pretty short, and the cost is usually fairly low. In the context of committees, we’re talking about years.

Have you found a reasonably effective way to short-circuit the death spiral? Is there an elegant way to get out of the slow lane?