There is a terrain where angels fear to tread. Over and over again it is discovered, and a small professional guild forms around it in the unfortunate field has arrived at the conclusion.
- The US military has called it VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)
- Social planners discovered it as wicked problems
- Later, the military called a specific facet of the terrain complex contingencies
- Sometimes those are known as complex operations
- The Cynefin framework calls the space chaotic
- Mathematics has some parallel ground in chaos theory, complexity and specifically complex adaptive systems
- Economics brushes past on multiple sides – Nash works on lock-ins, Coase on organization size and cost landscapes, and Benkler on network economics all touch it – as do all market traders
- Colloquially, terms like SNAFU and clusterfuck (surprisingly precise!) are liberally applied
But of all these terms, the newest to my ears is also my favorite: a goat rodeo. Originally referring to the use of goats as lasso targets for children, the term has come to mean a profoundly messy, complicated situation which has few-to-no good outcomes. A fair example of the original use can be seen here.
The Goat Rodeo, the Great Goat Rodeo, the Travelling Goat Rodeo etc. all capture this hard-to-define quality of utter fuckedness which is the essential instinctive reaction to the 100% genuine article situation in which four factors combine to produce the kind of insoluble nasty, the black tar at the bottom of the test tube of life, the problem.
These situations are goat rodeos. There are other situations which the term may well perfectly apply to, but these situations, for sure, are goat rodeos. For all the fancy language used in the complexity consulting trade, we all know the feeling – 14 people around the table, with no clear idea of where they are going, going through the motions of mapping a complex problem with no belief that their respective organizational chains-of-command will every approve any common-sense solution to the problem at hand, and slowly the coffee pot drains, and people consider their pensions. For all the theory, for all the hope for elegant solutions, you know it when you see it and the political need is to be able to name and identify the goat rodeo when it arises, and begin to build an alternative rather than expecting it to be resolved in its current political form. The true goat rodeo is intractable. When you see it, run. If you can’t run, call me.
Here, then, is the Goat Rodeo Index, a handy way of expressing the complexity and horror of a situation.
- I – A divorce. (damage is confined to one family unit)
- II – A commune. (a tribal level goat rodeo)
- III – A dying industry; the extinction of one species.
- IV – The economic collapse of a small nation, or the death of a river.
- V – NATO. US healthcare policy. (regional, one sector)
- VI – The United Nations. The auto industry. Airlines. (global, but mostly-harmless)
- VII – The 2008 global liquidity crisis. Software. (global, fast moving, single sector)
- VIII – A severe global food crisis, or a lite pandemic. Religion. (multi-sector, with occasional flurries of mass mortality)
- IX – Kyoto, Copenhagen and the continuing failure to reach a global agreement about how to handle anthropogenic climate change including economic, scientific and political factors. (Planet-wide, cross-sector, high-stakes negotiations between a plurality of competing parties and sectors. But slow moving)
- X – Future problems with regulation of programmable matter, nano/biotechnology, AI, artificial life, self-replicating robots, elective germ-line modification, alien contact etc. (global, high stakes, technically sophisticated, riven by intra-sector and inter-sector competition, plus totally misaligned fundamental evolutionary cognitive biases – the whole megillah )
I have a new twitter account, @GoatRodeoX, which I use as link-and-chat overspill from my main twitter account.
Please feel free to use the Goat Rodeo scale (“This is a 4th Degree Goat Rodeo problem”) when thinking about the scope and difficulty of problem areas. Note how many of the things we are struggling with are GR7 to GR9 problems. We’re chest-deep and rising in Goat Rodeos in the complex systems which keep our societies alive.
If you’d like to read more about Goat Rodeos and State Failure, read “Why Nothing Works” which is one of the pieces of my writing that turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.
Sobering. On how many sides are we hemmed in by the problems caused by our inability to agree?