We are involved with an initiative at work that is running dangerously close to missing its deadline. It’s a national initiative that aims to take a stance on an equity issue, and the marketing behind the initiative put the deadline for a time once long in the future that is now rapidly approaching. Folks in industry have individually worked to support the initiative’s aims, but it’s a big, hairy, unwieldy problem that will take everyone to solve.
The specifics of this initiative isn’t important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is that there is a ticking clock that is creating a sense of urgency to act. To be completely honest, if we fail to reach our target, it won’t be the end of the world; it’s not an outcome that has immediate returns, but instead is about shifting culture and making things better for people in the long term. However, failure to reach the target will come with a certain amount of embarrassment and potential loss of good will.
I had a conversation with a colleague to discuss the initiative and the proposed action plan that’s up for consideration. A lot of work has gone into the current iteration, but some folks feel it is missing the mark in ways that can’t be ignored. The plan is being pushed forward so that work can begin and the worry is by not taking time to appropriately address the issues with the plan, we run the risk of either achieving nothing meaningful or we will cause real harm. By treating the problem as a pipeline issue, you focus your efforts too narrowly, where an “ecosystem” approach of seeing the problem as a multi-faceted set of interconnected issues that require careful consideration will require a lot more work.
It would be useful for us to understand what the cost of failure will be. The consideration must be that it’s better to fail to meet the deadline (and have a little egg on your face) than to push forward for implementation and potentially cause harm. We are dealing with people, and people will feel the deadline urgency mix with the sunk cost fallacy. If we push forward, we’ll want to ensure we do so deliberately and take responsibility for the outcomes.
Last week, I shared the insight that brakes enable a car to go faster. This week is a reflection on the issues inherent in progress. I generally assume progress to be a good thing, but it’s important that we critically examine the consequences when we break through barriers.
Brakes allow us to go faster, but this increase in speed means that accidents are likely to be more severe due to the increased forces of collisions. Even when not driving recklessly, the instances where collisions happen means the damage is amplified as a result of speed.
Brakes, and other safety measures, provide an illusion of safety. Because we can brake at greater speeds, we feel safer going faster. Because seatbelts save lives, we are more willing to trust them in a collision. Because helmets protect heads, we are less concerned with impacts during collisions.
I’m only referring to legitimate features that make things safer – there is a whole other conversation to be had around safety theatre (measures that pretend to make us safer but have little actual effect relative to the cost). Things like brakes, airbags, seatbelts, and helmets, are all real ways we can increase safety when we go faster. They are all valuable guardrails to impose to allow us to leverage progress to scale added value. But we must also be mindful that the increases in speed (or other benefits of progress) have commensurate scaling of harm when things go wrong.
Michael Sugrue recently posted a series of one-liner observations on his YouTube Community page; one of them grabbed a hold of me, and I wanted to share it.
“Brakes make a car go faster: self-discipline produces freedom”
While it reminded me of Jocko Willink’s Discipline Equals Freedom mantra, it still gave me pause to reflect on this quasi-koan. There are two paths for speed – you either are able to control it, or you give over to speed for its own sake. Unless you disregard all safety and practicality, there is little benefit to unrestrained speed or freedom. It is through imposing limits (or the ability to control the forces at play) that you are truly able to take advantage of what speed (or it is a proxy of) has to offer. It is narrow-minded to believe in absolute freedom without guardrails. To believe we should live without restraint is to place yourself and your needs above everyone else. You might win on a few games, but it is a poor strategy in the long term that hurts everyone.
Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.
The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.
An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.
This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.
A friend who recently was appointed CEO of a company called me this week looking for a soundboard to sort out ideas he had in his head about how to proceed with company operations and strategic direction. The company is looking to shift strategic priorities, and he was looking for an outside voice to make sense of the new direction in relation to the legacy systems he’d need to grapple with.
One of the topics that came up reminded me of a concept I learned about while reading Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather’s time during World War 2 and his subsequent Presidential years.
At two times during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in significant leadership roles, he had to create a beachhead to establish his forces (literal and metaphorical) to push towards his objectives. During the war, Operation Overlord’s first phase was to establish a beachhead in Normandy to create a defensible position to allow Allied Forces to work their way into Europe to push back Germany’s army. Establishing a beachhead is critical to success, but is often difficult for offensive forces to complete as the defending force usually has the upper hand in terms of resources and strategic positioning. While the offensive forces need to both set up a foothold and protect its lines to allow more troops to arrive, the defending forces merely have to reinforce it’s occupying positions to clamp down on fresh troops from joining the beachhead. Once the effects of first-mover advantage wears off, the offensive force must contend with protecting supply lines, fighting active defense from the opponent, and pushing past inertia to avoid grinding to a halt in order to win. Once established, a successful beachhead serves as a ratchet for the offensive force – the location of which all future offensives are launched from, and from which the troops need not backslide past. Traction is gained, and the army moves forward.
Similarly, during Eisenhower’s presidency, he saw the importance of passing civil rights legislation, but saw the difficult uphill battle that would needed to both move the country towards accepting civil rights AND enshrining those rights in law (turning both hearts and minds of the nation). While he would have aspired to complete civil rights equality in his time, he knew that if poorly planned, then history, culture, and opposing interests would ensure that forward progress towards equality would halt. Instead, he sought to establish a kind of metaphorical beachhead for civil rights, working on government programs and legislation that would lay the foundation for future leaders to take up and ratchet their work – allowing the movement to progress forward without worrying about losing traction and backsliding.
In listening to my friend, I noted that he also needed to take this lesson from history and focus on his own beachhead. While we think that a CEO is all-powerful in terms of exerting their will over the company, we must also face the reality that comes with working with legacy systems and people. Change is difficult and slow, and when poorly executed either stalls from inertia or alienates your workforce. And so I suggested he take a leaf from Eisenhower’s example and focus on what his core objective is that is reasonable within the timeline he’s being given, and focus on establishing a beachhead to deliver value back to the company president.
Since reading about Eisenhower, I’ve thought about my own beachheads – what are the areas of my life that I must focus on to ensure I’m moving forward with my goals, whether they are family, work, health, or passions. It is still very much a work in progress, but I want to find those areas that I can carve out and secure so that when it’s time to take risks towards my goals, I have a safe space to launch from.
I love Hank and John Green from the vlogbrothers YouTube channel. I don’t know how they manage to crank out so many thoughtful videos, but each time I check-in, I’m treated to another video where they somehow connect a thoughtful musing into a reflection of substance.
Feel free to check out the full video of one of Hank’s recent entries “Wrong on the Internet,” but below I have captured some of the interesting points that connected with thoughts I’ve had and resonated with me.
Layperson epistemology – it’s difficult for the average layperson to make sense of conflicting/contrary pieces of information when the business of the internet is motivated towards churning out content that screams for your attention.
Similar to the incompleteness theorem, solutions we create for problems will be temporary until we innovate new solutions based on updated information and advances in technology. This can bring about cynicism related to Kuhnian-style revolutions of our worldviews, that problems never seem to go away.
The internet business is not an information game, it’s a rhetoric game. Rhetoric is the prime mover of information, especially when hard data is absent. You can whinge about how “the other side” is devoid of logic and refuses to see the truth before their eyes, or you can accept this as a fact and play the game to win the rhetoric game.
Memes (of the information variety, not the funny pictures kind) that make you feel good smug are super dangerous for distracting the issues. Corporations might be the biggest cause of our climate or capitalist problems, but we can’t just immediately remove them and expect all our woes to be solved. The services they provide are still required for society to function.
Shifting blame breeds complacency. Instead, personal accountability and action at the individual level are still important.
A problem well-formed is half solved, but the internet business is not about forming good problems. In our smugness, we play games to win or gain prestige, and so reactions move far quicker and are easier than responses. In order to create well-formed problems, we need to place greater value on responding to solutions, articulating our values, and using tools like science, politics, and economics to optimize according to our values. (h/t to Seth Godin’s thinking that influenced me here)
On the topic of responding to emergencies (starting at 2:40 of the video), it’s important to remember in our smugness that we are not, in fact, rational creatures.
The insidious effect of the internet business: “If the tweet makes us feel good, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time doing a bunch of research to tell us whether or not it actually is good.”
I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning. The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available. The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side. This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.
In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search. This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded. However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars. Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.
If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event). I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.
My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:
My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door. This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots. Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots. These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.
Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.
First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots. By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly. Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time. If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.
Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there. Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.
Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots. I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps. When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row. If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot). If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.
The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row. There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined. This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot. Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.
A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from. That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.
All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.
If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???). I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem. I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria. In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.
It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time. For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time. Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.
When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time. So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options. Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want. It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.
While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).
One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.” By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies. Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome. The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself. Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.
For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%). There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:
If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour. If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.
Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome. If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome. It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating. I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher. I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.
I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program. I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.
I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me. I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place. A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want. They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at. If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy. But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just how the institutional games work.