A Disunity of Crisis

“We have an army.”

“We have a Hulk.”

— Loki and Tony Stark, “The Avengers”


I promise, no Captain America: Civil War spoilers here. I can make that promise because, as of the time of this writing, I have not yet seen the movie. The basic story line, though has been rather hard to avoid.

When it comes to power, the Marvel Superheroes have it in spades. They fly, they can withstand impacts that would turn a normal human body into jelly, shrink, climb walls, turn into an indestructible green creature with serious anger issues, and on and on. Given an alien invasion or an assault by a mad AI, the Avengers have everything it takes to defend the world. They do really well, except when they have a disagreement. Granted, it makes for a much more exciting movie when the Avengers are all pounding on one another, as they do in Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and, of course, in Civil War (I hope that wasn’t a spoiler for anyone).

The problem here is that the Avengers, as a group, really have no effective methods for making decisions. Sure, when the crisis actually hits, they fall into their specific roles and do their things really, really well. And, since they are all insanely powerful, they are successful. But that same lack of structure for decision making is also what leads them into trouble as well: they simply have no agreed upon mechanism, or social structure, for resolving differences and coming to a decision without getting into a fight.

Imagine for a moment what this might look like in a business or a, even worse, a government. At least in a business, when people refuse to cooperate it may be possible to fire them. Sometimes, that’s even the right thing to do. But when you can’t remove a recalcitrant person or group, and you have no agreed upon methodology for making and implementing decisions, eventually your options become pretty limited. The Avengers get to this point very quickly and, to be fair, that’s what we’re all paying to see.

So how do groups make decisions? There are really only a few ways of doing it.

Some organizations work on a purely hierarchical basis: someone is in charge, and that person makes the decision. The organization has rules that clarify who is in charge when and who the bigger boss is. Military rank is an example of this, as is many a corporate hierarchy. Sometimes the person in charge might request input from team members, sometimes they might make the decisions without involving others. This approach can work very well, but does suffer from some drawbacks. Most notably, team members may resent not being part of the decision making process, particularly if they bring their own particular expertise to the table. They might also have knowledge and expertise that is worth considering.

Decisions are also often made through voting. Voting feels good and nicely democratic. It has the potential to get people involved. Of course, for a voting system to be effective, people have to be able to argue productively and debate the issues honestly. The Avengers, as a rule, are still struggling with the productive argument concept, preferring to rely upon trial by combat. Being fictional, the consequences to them tend to be minor. More broadly, though, when a voting system lacks an effective means of agreeing upon facts and applying logical, reasoned analysis to a problem, then that system is effectively saying that ignorance is equivalent to knowledge and expertise. If you find yourself having trouble telling the difference between expertise and ignorance, just ask your doctor for help next time your car is making weird noises, and your auto mechanic next time you are. Sure, you might get lucky…

For voting systems to work effectively, participants need to go to the hard work of building consensus. This doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with the ultimate decision, but it does mean that everyone agrees to the process and agrees to support the outcome. Consensus is difficult exactly because it is hard for people to accept a decision they personally don’t like, particularly if they expected that the result would be different. And, of course, sometimes the result of a decision making process really is so awful as to be unacceptable. Having some sort of final method of checking or validating a decision before implementation can be very helpful for preventing such situations! Otherwise, the system can break down over fighting about whether the decision is worthy of being fought over (this is a separate topic all by itself). Granted, the process can also be revised for future decisions, provided the social structure is strong enough to handle that. Changing the process while it’s running, on the other hand, tends to be seen as invalidating the decision that results from that change; yes, there are counter-examples, which is part of why this process is difficult. Overall, though, one might imagine that if the loser of a voting based decision process kept trying to change the rules in order to find some way to claim victory, then that victory, assuming it even happened, might well be seen as illegitimate. It would be like deciding that the winner of the baseball game should be based on number of hits versus number of runs.

Decision making can also become non-functional, as when one or two people simply make the decision and present it as a fait accompli or try to rush everyone else into agreeing. Sometimes, people will agree to a decision and then go off and do their own thing anyway; Tony Stark has a habit of this behavior and it did cause a bit of trouble in Age of Ultron. In the real world, as in the fictional one of the Avengers, this sort of behavior is also symptomatic of a group that is really more of a group of people wandering in the same direction than it is a cohesive team.

Ultimately, part of what makes the Avengers fun to watch is that their efforts to work out their problems will quickly degenerate into a dramatic battle from which they will recover just in time to save the world. When you’re a fictional character, there’s no real reason to do the hard work to avoid a bad outcome. In the real world, doing the hard work to develop effective methods of decision making, and avoid the dysfunctional ones, is generally a better way to go.

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