People who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing

I’m going to focus on research because that’s the primary concern that’s driving this note and I think that’s a better cruising altitude on the ladder of abstraction. However “people who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing” extends to almost everything.^1

Understanding a thing has to do with intuiting the affordances of a thing. It’s extremely hard to build up intuition for a thing without having done it. So at the end of the day ‘having done a thing’ is actually a heuristic for ‘has intuition about this thing.’

This heuristic is important to call out because it is not always true! People who have done a thing do not always have intuition for a thing and people who have not done a thing can sometimes build intuition for a thing! As far as I can tell, the only way to tell whether someone has an intuition for a thing is a track record of things that could only be accomplished through having an intuition for the thing or if you have intuition for the thing yourself. It’s The Map is not the Territory problems all the way down. So while ideally you could know someone’s intuition directly, the probability of intuition in someone who has done the thing is high and the probability of intuition in someone who has not done the thing is low.

In research especially, there are very few metrics you can use on their own distinguish whether a project is a good idea or a bad idea or how it is progressing once it’s started. Many things cannot be measured well. Even in the case of “everything is working great!” it is easy for researchers to fool themselves, optimize for the wrong thing, or overlook a core problem.

“Being in charge of a thing” is a rather fuzzy concept. I think what I’m grasping at is along the lines of “controlling the fate of thing” - this includes deciding whether a project/person gets approval funding, how well it’s doing, coming up with ideas for what should be done in the first place. Abstracting: the levels are binary go/no-go, progress measurement, and creation. You need different levels of intuition for each of these - they’re ordered from least intuition to most.

At some point someone needs to be in charge and they can’t have done everything, so how do you both have a §Trusted Hierarchy and stick to the assertion that people who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing? Delegation!

The “gotcha!” comes in determining what counts as ‘having done the thing.’ Does someone who worked in a biology lab doing experiments on rat brains count as someone who has ‘done’ biology? Should they be in charge of a molecular genetics project? This is where you need to defer back to the fact that the actual Highest order bit is

Of course, the contrapositive also holds:
People who have not done a thing should not be in charge of a thing Specifically people who have not done research should not be in charge of research

A corollary to this is that a PM’s (project, program, or product) power over a thing should be attenuated according to how much they’ve done the thing they’re PMing over.

In terms of investing at least, a counterpoint brought up by Sarah Cone is that sometimes someone will overspecialize and end up being less qualified to be in charge of a thing in an area that’s normally quite close. For example, someone with a PhD in molecular biology but doesn’t understand CRISPR applies an old mindset to a new technique and isn’t willing to update their priors. While on the other hand, an excellent, applied, and diligent person may be able to be better at investing at least.


^1: Of course there are exceptions. I suspect the strength of the assertion varies with the dimensionality of the thing.

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