Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Importance of Swimming Upstream

Well this is unexpected... today would seem to be one of my typical early mornings (woke up at 4am), yet instead of hopping on League of Legends, reading Reddit, working out, or engaging in one of my usual pre-sunrise activities, I have decided to start a blog.

I have considered starting a blog for quite some time now.  The concept has always seemed somewhat sexy to me: a place to collect my thoughts, to share my ideas with the world and to get feedback from random denizens of the internet.  Clearly exciting stuff   0_o

What spurred me into action?

Although several times prior I have "fantasized" about starting a blog, the most recent singular causal event would have to be the conclusion of the elections around the nation this past week because watching the experience unfold was such a wonderful reminder of just how silly our current political process is.  Yes, silly. (And special shout-out to my wife for breaking the "silence" that "normal people" like us conclude is the polite and most rational option for fear of offending people or coming off as abrasive - she has instead been diving headlong into debates).

Why do I use "silly" to describe our process for selecting our representatives to govern us?  Because I fundamentally believe that this media-frenzy spectacle that succeeds in capturing a large amount of attention from the world is actually ignoring the issues that matter more.

So that begs the question, what issues really matter then?   I need a term for these issues, so let's call them "upstream" issues.

But to understand and appreciate "upstream" issues, we need to explore what issues were being discussed first and then contrast that with what I believe matters more.

This presidential election was fairly standard as American elections go:
- There was a Republican candidate (Romney) and a Democratic candidate (Obama).
Trolls LOVE the election process
- Total campaign spending estimated to reach $6 billion
Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on TV ads, ~88% of which were negative
- The campaigns started well over a year ago and many agree the process is far too long
- Americans continue to be polarized with both sides pointing the finger at the other with many debates turning ugly

The primary platform for each candidates can be summarized as below:
Obama's platform was:
- Taxes: extend middle class tax cuts & tax the rich more
- Abortion rights: yay pro choice
- Gay Marriage: yay gay marriage
- Immigration: documentation / path to citizenship
- Medicare: support medicare more
- Healthcare: attempt universal healthcare
- Defense: cut defense budget

Romney's platform was more comprehensive, but he attempted to simplify his message and focus it on jobs.  And at the end of the day, his message didn't resonate with people, he came off as wishy-washy, he let himself be positioned as a corporate bad guy and he lost.

Now I'm not even going to debate the merits of each platform.  That is not the point of this post.  Sure, I can talk about why we're spending too much and why more taxes aren't the answer, but the point of this post is to highlight what is missing and what we are NOT talking about - because that is FAR more important in my opinion (IMO).

Both candidates, and virtually every election around the country was focused on coloring between the lines.  Staying within the usual frame of reference for the average person.  Clinging to the familiar.  They were talking about issues.

They were NOT talking about the PROCESS by which we actually solve the problems and address the issues.  And THIS is where our focus should be until we FIX it.

Let me walk through an example to explain why this is important, and highlight what is missing when we skip this step and move straight into discussion about the details (as my anecdotal experience suggests most political debates devolve quickly into):

Topic: Education!
Background facts:
US primary schools (highschools) underperform vs. the rest of the world despite spending more money per head than other countries.
- Contrast this result with the fact that US Universities are world class and largely considered the best in the world
Goal: To achieve world class status with our primary school education system
It's a fairly safe assumption to assume the vast majority of people in the US are aligned with the goal that we want our education system to be world class and effective.  Thus, we can assume that we have goal alignment, that we want our children to learn and perform well in school.

How to achieve this?
We should explore and openly discuss the best way to accomplish our clearly defined goal, yes?

Well, we don't.

In places like California (where I happen to live), there is largely the assumption that the only way to help schools perform better is to increase funding to them, as exemplified by prop 30, which recently passed in California and will have the effect of raising taxes on the "wealthy" and where there is no guarantee all of the proceeds will go to schools.

Per the step above about the goal, I would wager that the 46% of the people who voted against prop 30 still share the goal of wanting education to be great.  So why would someone vote against something that would increase funding for schools?  They probably voted against it because they have a perspective that is informed by different information which forms their opinion that this proposal is not the most effective way to address the issue (which again, they likely ALSO want to solve because they are aligned on the goal).

This is really where politics starts to get interesting, and where "upstream" issues start to matter.  Oftentimes, the devil IS in the details, and once you achieve goal alignment, the next step should be a focus on understanding the "upstream" causes of the problem you are trying to solve.

So if we want to solve the education issue in our state, country, county or local school, what should our approach be?  Should we just throw money at the problem?  Maybe money is part of the solution, but it is not THE solution.

The solution is a PROCESS.  We should solve the problem the same way we solve virtually every other tough problem humanity has ever faced:

Step 1: understand the problem.  There is an old adage  that "a problem well stated is a problem half solved".

Step 2: understand key metrics to establish a baseline and measure progress

This has more steps - but you get the point 
Step 3: create and implement a solution

Step 4: measure the impact and results of the solution

Step 5: Evaluate results

Step 6: Iterate and start back at step 1

The key issue that I want to highlight with this blog post is that our current political system BREAKS THIS KEY PROBLEM SOLVING PROCESS.

The more dependencies exist across different types of government (federal, local, state, etc) and the more layers of bureaucracy (meaning, the more government bodies that have responsibility over the area) the LESS able this process is able to execute.  This is not just true for the government, this is also true for large organizations such as NGO's and Corporations.  (Someone send me a chart that shows the directional relationship there and I'll add it to this post.)

Further confounding these problems is anything else which occludes transparency or obfuscates accountability.  What else occludes transparency and obfuscates the issues?
- Special interest groups
            - super PAC's
            - Unions
            - industry lobbying groups
- Ineffective media coverage

Why are special interest groups bad?  Because they essentially funnel large amounts of resources to drive government action to benefit themselves (as opposed to the whole, diverse population).  This leads to all sorts of negative "downstream" consequences like bad teachers that can't be fired, subsidies for specific industries which give them an unfair competitive advantage (corn, what?), and examples of industries such as the music industry who cling to the old trying to protect the outdated status quo and try to get laws passed to stop technology progress despite what consumers want (iTunes anyone?).

As to the media, this can be summarized by the fact that humans are prone to confirmation bias.  Thus, if you're a Democrat, you probably watch CNN or MSNBC and read the Huffington Post.  If you're a Republican, you probably watch Fox news and read the Drudge Report.  Conveniently, the information you're exposed to on a day to day basis from the news (but also your social circle) largely reaffirms your beliefs, as opposed to challenging them with the validity of the other perspective.  

If you care about the future of our states, country, cities and local governments, then focus on raising visibility with your social circles about these UPSTREAM causes that can really be summarized by three problems:
- Bureaucratic government structure & inefficiency
- Special interest groups
- Confirmation bias through media

It literally doesn't matter what your primary issue is - gay rights, abortion, healthcare, national security, education, economic growth - the issue that is blocking "progress" in those areas all stem from the same upstream systemic issues.  If you want to fix our society, start with fixing yourself and get out there and start looking for a broader perspective and be open to the possibility that the "other side" has merit to their perspective and is also well-intentioned.

Everything else is short term.  Seriously.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill

PS - It is simultaneously possible to be ideologically for something, yet against the specific implementation details of the actual legal proposal.  It would be nice if the media and our citizens would stop characterizing people as "flip-floppers" that take this rational perspective, and instead start applauding this discerning use of judgment.  IE - a person can be pro-universal healthcare (as a concept), but against the specific proposal which may be too expensive, ineffective, etc.

Don't be afraid to rational.  It's OK.



  1. Wall of text crits you for over 9000!

    You faint.

    Nicely written, very insightful and such as well. I like this idea of riot president blogging! x3

  2. No. Seriously. Tryndamere, run for 2016.

  3. It seems you are building a broad coalition here, because I am in no way affiliated with Riot . . . and yet I am totally on board with the Tryndamere 2016 campaign.

    Seriously, this is very well thought out and expressed. In the aftermath of Tuesday, I wish more people could be exposed to this. Celebrating or mourning after a narrow and partisan election is not really productive or helpful. Too many real issues remain, as you have sketched out.

    Please keep posting here!

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  5. I think it's safe to assume that the majority of people are taught to think emotionally rather than rationally. Not to say that emotionally driven decision-making is the polar opposite of rational thinking, but it became very clear to me while reading the comments of people disgruntled by the outcome of the election that per their emotion-filled responses, their thinking towards voting issues themselves were most likely driven by those same emotions.

    Here's what blows me away: Both Obama and Romney are smart guys. They both did what they thought they needed to do, to win the election. As you pointed out, neither of them focused on real solutions to the problems challenging us as Americans; they simply restated the problem(s) in different ways, in hopes of striking an emotional chord among specific demographics.

    I honestly think that both men were AFRAID to verbalize an actual plan to solve the problems they were attempting to address, simply because they believed (as evidenced by their campaigns) that people don't care about the process. And they are right, which makes the entire election into a glorified popularity contest.

    1. Agreed, good thoughts. Will be interesting to see if the public will reward some leaders who are not afraid to get into the details.

      I'm hopeful that the internet generation can help transition the political discourse from being a "broadcast message" to a "dialogue" and that this could change the political culture quite a bit.

      Maybe I will write on that topic later =p

  6. Hadn't heard the "A problem well stated is a problem half solved" adage before, but I quite like it. The corollary, of course, is that the really hard problems are difficult to initially define.

  7. This was awesome. Like Fireside chats/ " 15 Minute Coffee w/ Tryndamere". Thanks HUGELY for this.

    I really appreciate your emphasis on the process and about cleaning up process. After watching your retrospective on Riot a year ago (the one GDC posted yesterday), it seems that well designed processes are a key value for you. It makes me have to re-examine that in myself and in my own endeavors. I think it's easy to believe that we value process, when in fact we value bottom lines and our processes and the metrics that we use to achieve productivity are actually sloppy and inefficient. The means to the ends deserve just as much attention because in some way they are our "ends". At least, that's what I feel like I've learned from this.

    Anyways, loved the post. Great structure and organization and I appreciate the down-to-earth diction. Truthfully got a little lost in "downstream" "upstream" definitions, but overall, great post. Can't wait to see your next one.

    1. Upstream / downstream refer to where an event lies in a causal chain of events. IE - A to B to C to D to E (etc) - "B" would be "upstream" of "E".

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the takeaways - and thanks for looking at the GDC talk as well.

      Process IS important, in that in any organization, the structure of rewards, the communication paths that exist, the priorities that are communicated and reinforced through action are the "causal events" that will tend to lead to certain outcomes over time.

      That being said, process is NOT the end all be all. The result is what actually matters more for most things (although I would argue that in certain circumstances, intent also matters a great deal - as is the case in criminal law).

      The point I was attempting to illustrate above is that one of (if not "the") largest contributing factor to our lack of "progress" on many fronts, is actually that our process is broken. Thus, if we want progress (in whichever direction we so choose), then we need to do a better job of paying attention to where our progress breaks down, which in this case, is in the political process between overlapping agencies, special interest group interference and lack of citizen alignment on goals (because they're too busy debating the issues rather than the goals).

      Thanks for reading everyone! This has been fun for me to see so many interested parties.

  8. Can i make a point here without getting flamed? I'm Australian and i find the American voting system weird. Its only representative of those people who wanted to vote. In Australia it is MANDATORY to vote. If you do not vote - you are fined (the money goes to the government to use as they see fit). You can of course cast a donkey vote (eg - make a illegitimate vote) but most people will vote seriously due to the fact they made their way to a polling booth anyway - so making their vote count is suddenly important. It's preferential voting in Australia so even your second preference etc means something. That way the government is truly representative of the country.

    On a side note - i really enjoyed this article. American's get painted as morons most of the time here is Aus (sorry but its true) so it is good to see some critical thinking and analysis of the current political system.

    I am staggered at the amount spent on election funding though. Australians get very peeved when politicians spend tax payers money on those sorts of things and even recently our media blew up about politicians spending large amounts of taxpayers money on transport while doing their jobs! I would have thought in this digital age and social media the costs of election funding should be dropping significantly.

    I think you need to mobilize these lol players, form a party, and win some seats in the next election ;)

  9. Looking at the US Election from 10,000 miles away, it seems to me that for the first time that I can remember (which is since Bush the Father took office), the issues were more domestic focused as opposed to US being the 'World Military and Economic Leader'.

    Obviously, countering the adverse economic effects of globalization in 90s and 00s is more important for the long term health of the country. Therefore focusing on domestic issues makes more sense.

    That also will have a 'side-effect' especially in our parts of the world, in the eyes of the average citizen, that US not being anymore the 'Big Bad Wolf' meddling in the affairs of smaller countries.

    For your reference: According to polls negative perception on US has been historically all time high (%60) in Turkey as of 2010 and now is once again in decline.

  10. Sounds like you're ready to throw your hat into the political arena! We should discuss some of the problems that I see in public least in California...I'm looking forward to your next blog.

  11. I agree with you. The process is the problem, not the content. However, following your reasoning makes me reach a different conclusion.

    Why is it that companies tend to move towards always better processes but all democracies go in the same direction as the US'?

    I think the current problem-solving in politics is a consequence of the way we elect our leaders. When millions of badly-informed people give feedback once every 4 years about all the issues they biasedly feel they have, you're creating an incentive to craft reality so that in 4 years you look as if you were awesome. It means no real transparency or accountability. The current political processes are a direct consequence of democracy.

  12. Marc, you inspirate me.

    You're so young and you run such a big business.

    I got my own, but it isn't nearly as great as yours, and it's not about gaming, it's about security systems, although I'm just 21 years old.

    I'd like to post on this same account in 4 years, I'd like us to measure our progresses

    1. Oh, another thing, thank you for sharing your point of view.

  13. NICE BLOG!!! Education is the process of bringing desirable change into the behavior of human beings. It can also be defined as the “Process of imparting or acquiring knowledge or habits through instruction or study”. Thanks for sharing a nice information.
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