29 January 2007

Changing the Presidency Into a Two-Person Job

My daughter told me an amusing story. A group of medieval monks were arguing about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth, trying to remember what number Aristotle had claimed they had. A young monk said, "Well, we all rode here on horses. Why don't we just go out to the stable, open the mouth of a horse, and count the teeth?" His idea was dismissed as nonsensical.

In today's political world, we rarely go out to the stable to actually take inventory of what is needed. Instead, it is fashionable to debate about what the writers' of the constitution actually meant by this or that point. Readers of this blog will know that I frequently refer to the need for social invention as a partner to technological invention. I'd like to ask the reader to step away from the constitution and walk out to the stable with me as I make the case for a change to our current politics.

Intel is increasingly relying on "two-in-a-box" executive positions. Instead of putting a single person in charge of their communications division, they'll put two. The markets, the technology, and the direction of the business are so complex that it makes sense to share authority over it. Why not consider this model for the US Presidency. The complexity facing the holder of that position is certainly no less than that facing the two-person teams running an Intel division.

Imagine that we have, say, Joe Biden and John Edwards, sharing the presidency. Biden could couple his foreign policy smarts and experience with Edwards domestic agenda and youth. Or, depending on your brand of coffee, you might prefer to see McCain and Chuck Hagel, or for the really bold, Clinton and Huckabee (who may come from different parties but who both come from Arkansas). I, for one, quite like the idea of two people sharing duties, one able to largely focus on foreign policy affairs and the other focused on domestic issues.

I know, I know. Supposedly presidents have cabinets to help complement their expertise. But it is a very different thing to give advice and be responsible for implementing that advice. Partnership has a great tradition in this country. Think of Hewlett & Packard or Laurel & Hardy. Isn't it time that we stepped out into the stable and took stock of what we really expect of a president before concluding that it is a one-person job?


Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Working in pairs, in engineering or software programming, can be extremely effective in cases where both attention and creativity are required. Empirical evidence shows that programmers working in pairs (on the same computer) achieve better quality and their software has fewer bugs.

But what did W.E.Deming say?

"Making two people responsible guarantees mistakes."

Hmmm... :)

Ron Davison said...

Valdimir, you have this habit of making great points. You are trying to get me to think AND write? I'm going to have to talk to my agent again about this job description.

I work as a consultant in the world of project management and product development. I agree with Deming that individuals have to have a sense of ownership for TASKS. But the success of jobs and organizations is always a collective effort. So, clearly assign the tasks and then let people who feel vested in the task negotiate how to work the job.

Dave said...

A bit off point, but, I remember reading that police patrol cars with two officers are more likely to have violent confrontations with those they come across. The reasoning was that a single policeman will be more concerned with his or her safety and under-react to situations. Alternatively, a "cowboy" attitude feeds off of an audience.

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Of course, Deming's quote was just a teaser. I don't advocate taking quotes too literary, and certainly not living by them :)

The point on ownership is very important. One of the reasons why centralised economies in the Eastern block collapsed was the blurred concept of ownership.

Ron Davison said...

One of my favorite books is Deci's Why We Do What We Do. Among other things he talks about linkage - people have to see a link between what they do and what consequently happens. What was the saying in Eastern Europe? They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.

That's a fascinating bit about dual cops. The braver we feel the more willing we'll be to assert ourselves with force? Maybe one more reason to scale back on defense spending – it could force our dual presidents to take negotiation more seriously.

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.

Amazing that this saying has made it to the other side (of the now defunct) Iron curtain :)

The Eastern Block is gone now, but this saying still applies to a great extent to the last remaining bastions of central planning - the capitalist corporate world with its outdated and ineffective organisation systems.

Isn't that ironic? :)

Ron Davison said...

A friend of mine lived in Romania for a few years - he passed along the phrase "pretend to pay us ..."

And you are so right about the last vestiges of central planning being inside of corporations. Proof, I guess, that irony lies on both sides of the iron curtain. I still think that Catch-22 is the most insightful book on management and organizational behavior yet published.