Why Companies Still Emulate Feudalism

Yesterday, I talked about branching pathways in Tech, specifically as it pertains to a traditional QA division.

Writing about that danced around the bigger issue: The false dichotomy between technical and leadership roles.

On the left-hand path, there’s technical aptitudes like programming, financial analysis, content writing, etc. All of these have a stunted advancement chain — more the branch shooting off of a tree trunk than a fork in the trunk itself. At a technical career’s apex, a worker gets a “Sr.” preceding or “III” appended to their title. Meanwhile, on the trunk,  the climb ends somewhere above the clouds.

People make corporations, so of course leadership should be valued. Even I’ll admit good leaders are rare.

But are they rarer than good programmers? Good writers? Good game designers?

I dunno.

In an ideal world, technical skills, year for year, would be rewarded on par with management skills.

That’s now how the real world works.

Measured by status and financial compensation, management (judged by year-for-year experience) gets more. That’s often because an excellent technical worker’s reward for their efforts is to be made into Management.

Remember Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

Yeah, the one from before I was born.

Captain Kirk gets promoted to Admiral Kirk. A genius tactician gets promoted out of his competence zone. Yeah, he was already Management, but the analogy’s still solid. Kirk was happy just doing his thing, and the somebody above him said, “GOOD JOB BRO, HERE’S A DESK JOB!”

In real life, you’ve also got technical workers applying for managerial positions — even if they love their work and hate leading — because tribal status matters as much for an office-worker as it did a prehistoric spearchucker. When the only option for increased status is doing a job they loathe, people will still ladder-climb themselves into misery.

Why is this nonsensical incentive structure in place? Well, because corporations were originally chartered by lords, and that’s a management paradigm that the nobility understood real well. The first incorporated companies had their roots in Renaissance Mercantilism. For centuries corporations maintained private armies and fought wars independent of the Crown that chartered them, just like nobles had their own private spats outside the King’s behest. Don’t believe me? Man, you should do some reading on the East India Company.

For a Medieval infantryman, the highest honor imaginable was command and ultimately peerage. These rewards came only rarely, and it’s preposterous to imagine a footman-cum-peer looking back wistfully on deadly battle raging on the front-line and saying, “This lordship thing is nice and all, but all I ever wanted to do was infantry.”

I’ve met plenty of Dev Leads who’d love to be a line programmer again.

So that’s where it came from.

But why’s it still here? Feudalism’s economic inefficiencies — protocol obsession, illiquid resources, preoccupation with rank, sluggish reaction to changing circumstances — aren’t worth its benefits. Only compared against anarchy does it make any sense, and that’s setting the bar too low, like patting yourself on the back because you didn’t strangle a puppy today.

Maybe it boils down to tradition and convenience. Large organizations need a decision-maker to keep things going. There’s a reason why even democratic countries don’t govern their military the same way they do civic matters. It doesn’t work on a battlefield — and it won’t work in a corporation. At large scale, feudalism is the only practical way to run a business.

Blame the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

It’s a simple game. If Person A and Person B cooperate, they reap the greatest reward. If one doesn’t cooperate, they receive a greater reward by screwing the other person. If both don’t cooperate, they both get the same reward (less than the reward for cooperation.)

I’d just attack the structure causing the dilemma, but imagine that the players can’t.

Imagine a little Software startup. The founders are passionate, smart, hardworking, and trusting of each other. When the enterprise grows too large, they hire a few people. Some shitburgers sneak in. These turdsteaks see the ill-defined roles and slack. The game’s now in a bottom-left or top-right position. The founders’ trust breaks, and they defect too. Their defection means more rules for everyone: well-defined processes, a firm chain of command, less self-direction.

And what we’ve got now’s a feudal corporation. The founders usually sell their shares in the company and move on to new things at this point, because Camelot’s dead.

That’s probably why companies still emulate feudalism. Because the system works even when people suck.

Or something. I studied Economics, not sociology.
Incidentally, if you’d like to buy Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Amazon’s got you covered.

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