The Objective of the Innards

Dealing with SPOLFs and single wringable necks...

A complex latticework of ideas, concepts, frameworks, idioms, neologisms and inspirations swirls around the Yak Collective (and its Yaks). Like so many storms insistent on performing the loudest thunderclap and the brightest flash of lightning, they both clash and complement.

Here’s one such inspiration (full quote is, I assure you, definitely necessary here):

“Hurling Frootmig was the original founder of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He then established its fundamental principles of honesty and idealism, and went bust.

There followed many years of penury and heart-searching during which he consulted friends, sat in darkened rooms in illegal states of mind, thought about this and that, fooled about with weights, and then, after a chance encounter with the Holy Lunching Friars of Voondon (who claimed that just as lunch was at the center of a man's temporal day, and man's temporal day could be seen as an analogy for his spiritual life, so Lunch should:

  • be seen as the center of a man's spiritual life, and

  • be held in jolly nice restaurants

he refounded the Guide, laid down its fundamental principles of honesty and idealism and where you could stuff them both, and led the Guide on to its first major commercial success.

He also started to develop and explore the role of the editorial lunch-break which was subsequently to play such a crucial part in the Guide's history, since it meant that most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices on an afternoon and saw something worth doing.

Shortly after this, the Guide was taken over by Megadodo Publications of Ursa Minor Beta, thus putting the whole thing on a very sound financial footing, and allowing the fourth editor, Lig Lury Jr, to embark on lunch-breaks of such breathtaking scope that even the efforts of recent editors, who have started undertaking sponsored lunch-breaks for charity, seem like mere sandwiches in comparison.

In fact, Lig never formally resigned his editorship - he merely left his office late one morning and has never since returned. Though well over a century has now passed, many members of the guide staff still retain the romantic notion that he has simply popped out for a ham croissant, and will yet return to put in a solid afternoon's work.”

The bolded excerpt represents “the spirit of the law”. Some dedicated Yaks are attempting to convert this bolded excerpt (amongst other ideas) into a set of principles that forms the basis for “the letter of the law”. That effort has presented two related challenges:

  1. The presence of single points of leadership failures.

  2. The absence of single wringable necks for all functions.

A “single point of failure” is an engineering concept that, like many other engineering concepts, is applicable in an organizational context. Only one individual possessing the credentials for an organisation’s social media accounts, running a single home server instead of setting up with a hosting provider, writing private keys for Bitcoin wallets on an A4 piece of paper and storing it in a fishing rod case—these are examples of SPOFs.

A “single point of leadership failure” is similar in nature but is more specifically related to open-source software’s tendency to spawn “benevolent dictators for life” (BDFLs). Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, was BDFL and resigned the role in mid-2018. The presence of a BDFL has advantages but it also has one glaring flaw: the BDFL can become the bottleneck for progress. 

A “single wringable neck” is an Agile-derived term for someone whose role involves (formally or informally) stating, “The buck stops here.” In the Scrum framework, the Product Owner is the person with the single wringable neck. Another lens: in a nation state, the President, Prime Minister or monarch is sometimes the actual and sometimes the symbolic wringable neck. A visual summary:

The Yak Collective is:

  1. …trying to prevent the presence of single points of leadership failures.

  2. …encouraging assumption of “single wringable neck” status for all internally- and externally-facing “cells”.

YC’s current convention regarding active projects is to appoint two co-leads. They take dual responsibility for a project’s progress and co-own a project’s near-future trajectory. This offsets single points of leadership failure with regards to responsibility for progress and creates explicit wringable necks when issues inevitably arise. 

Internal processes and structures are a different matter. As described last week in Emergent Infrastructure, there is an ongoing effort to more effectively map participation, relationships and capacities within the Yak Collective. Mapping may seem irrelevant but consider that to actively mitigate SPOLFs it is first necessary to reveal them.

Creating single wringable necks is a thornier problem. Especially internally. That’s because it’s a human problem; it cannot be solved entirely by considerate, intelligent system design. Within a highly formalized, heavily mediated, strictly policed hierarchy, perhaps it could. Not within YC.

YC tends to let chaos reign before reining it in. A preference for an experimental approach coupled with a tendency to rapidly iterate often means that, like Rommel’s Afrika Korps, frontiersmen (and frontier-like functions) regularly extend beyond the limits of the required supply train. It often turns out that things get started and continue to carry on without clear indications of who is ultimately responsible. 

Fortunately, the Yak Collective is not actually an armoured unit dependent on constant supplies of gasoline and consent from a real-life, far-away, moustachioed dictator. Rather, it is a dynamic, loosely-networked collective that relies on trust, encourages divergence and welcomes competence. A frankenstack of modern democratised technology enables its truly rapid movement; the objective of the innards currently under construction is to enable YC to avoid the pitfalls, potholes and blockades encountered by traditional orgs.

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The Yak Talk team for this week’s edition is: Praful MathurMatthew Sweet and Grigori Milov.