Bottom-up vs. Top-down: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

This is the 3rd post in this series. Here are posts 1 and 2.

In post 1 of this series, I explained what I think are the key differences between top-down and bottom-up organizations and why it’s helpful to think in those terms, rather than other common organization characterizations like government vs. private sector.

At the end of post 1, I listed three reasons why I think bottom-up systems work better than top-down. In Post 1, I elaborated on the first reason. In this post, I elaborate on the second: No single point of failure.

This has been conventional wisdom for a long-time and you may know it better as the phrase, Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Why? Because you might drop the basket. This sage advice helps reduce the risk of breaking all the eggs should you drop that basket.

We use this advice when investing. No matter how much homework we do on a company, there are no sure bets. Best not to bet everything on one company.

We consider the advice when planning careers. We train for one career path, but we know it could be automated or outsourced, so it’s best to have backups.

Sports teams try not to bank too much on a single player. Great players are good to have, but they can get injured.

Engineers try to avoid single points of failure when designing systems. Bridges are designed with redundant supports, so they won’t fall if a single support fails. Systems without single points of failure save lives.

Bottom-up systems do not have single points of failure. Baskets can be dropped in such systems. Eggs will be broken, but there are plenty of other baskets to go around.

Why is this good? Because failure happens and it happens more often than success. We live in a trial-and-error universe.

Capitalism is a good example of a bottom-up system. When one business fails, there are others to take its place. It doesn’t take down the whole system. We survived Enron’s collapse, for example. It was not ‘too big to fail’.

Local government is also a good example of a bottom-up system. Local governments can and do fail. Detroit is failing, but it’s not bringing down the whole system. There are thousands more cities, counties and townships. 

School districts don’t yet have a single point of failure. Failing school districts do not bring down the whole system.

Though, school districts have moved toward becoming more top-down over the past few decades as a small group of folks in DC use taxpayer dollars to encourage school districts to deliver on what the folks in DC think is a good education.

This has moved accountability away from parents toward a central point of failure, the ‘common core’ curriculum.

Of course, ‘too big to fail’ is code for ‘single point of failure.’ If it is true that some organization has become ‘too big to fail’ (though I don’t think that was the case in the financial crisis), we should spend more time thinking about how we let a single point of failure crawl into our lives, much the same way the common core curriculum is doing now.

Bottom-up systems are not painless. Failure can be painful. But, bottom-up systems deal with pain and failure better than top-down systems.

Attempting to avoid pain and failure is one reason people advocate for top-down systems. Unfortunately, they soon learn that was a fairy tale.

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Teachers matter

Here’s an interesting write-up of a high school turnaround.

Decades ago, the school was slivered off from a suburban school district by the neighboring urban school district so it could meet its racial diversity targets. That district, along with this school, when down hill and only a third of students were graduating.

Fast forward to 2007 and the residents of this area voted to move back to the suburban school district.

Now, just five years later, 90 percent graduate from that high school.

The surprising bit for me: The new school district only hired 12 people from the previous district to fill the 400 positions to staff the schools that transitioned.

That surprised me because my mental model had been that the teachers are less important in the school failure equation than student and parent expectations. Perhaps I need to rethink that.

 

Sometimes free is too expensive

This post from a teacher on Instapundit reminded me of my Education: It Doesn’t Need to be One-Size-Fits-All post from 2010.

This part is a good example of what I meant that the preferences of the experts who set K-12 standards are not necessarily the preferences of everyone:

The only reason that the 60% of the kids who bothered to show up daily even came to school was for the 2 free meals and the climate control. We needed a force of 15 security people to keep the kids IN CLASS. They had no desire to learn. They did not CARE if they failed. I never, ever had kids who started at my school as 9th graders and had enough credits to be juniors by their third year. Most didn’t even have enough credits to be sophomores. And this was when summer school was free!

Granted…this is summer school.

There are some thought-provoking nuggets embedded in here. Why didn’t they care if they failed? Why didn’t they have a desire to learn? I think it’s because they believe they can get by without learning what’s taught in school. They don’t value the college prep value prop like the “experts” who designed the curriculum and most of the U.S. that has been brainwashed that a college prep education is the only way to go.

Something is broke if 15 security people are needed to keep the kids in the classroom. The disruptive kids need to be sent home. Let the parents figure out what to do with them. But, the incentives are against that. If the school sends those kids home, they won’t get money from the state. My guess is that the school district comes out ahead financially by paying for security and collecting the money for attendance rather than sending half the kids home.

Exit is more powerful than voice

In this post, I wrote about how competition and choice is important for encouraging bottom-up innovation. When we say things like “roads are socialized” we gloss over something very important. There isn’t a single road department. There are many. We have Federal highways, state highways, county roads and city roads.

Each department operates somewhat independently and tries different things to solve the problems they face. Every now and then, one happens across an improvement that works well and other road departments can choose to adopt it. That type of innovation would not happen as often if there was a single road department that pushed one set of standards.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes this point well in this post about how education was rebuilt in New Orleans after Katrina, when describing the source of innovation in education:

What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly.

I agree. In the comments of his post, I suggested re-framing this in terms of the benefit to the user (edited slightly here):

It is not a simple substitution of a choice between free-to-the user public and cost-to-the-user private, but a system substitution of more choice by the user.’

We often get hung up on the public/private distinction. That doesn’t matter as much as how free the users — the direct beneficiaries — are to make a choice.

The freer the users are to choose to exit their current option if it isn’t working for them, the better.

This dynamic drives innovation. Why, you might ask? Because the freer your users are to leave you, the harder competitors will try to give your users what they want to encourage them to leave and the more honest soul-searching you may do to figure out why your users are leaving you. If you can’t figure it out, you end up going away.

My parents decided to move to exit a school district that wasn’t giving them what they wanted. That choice was much more powerful than their voice would have been had they decided to stay and try to change the direction of the school district.

So, whenever we think about why one system works and another doesn’t, maybe we should think in terms of how free users are to choose.