These posts were originally published on the Tempo book blog between 2011-14, and imported here in 2019 when that blog was shut down and replaced with a single page.

Everyone is Special

Found this interesting article on national grand narratives (ht Mick Costigan):

It follows that understanding a country’s exceptionalism narrative is key to anticipating how public opinion might move or be moved there, or to communicating effectively with the people of that country. Lack of this understanding makes it all but inevitable that U.S. statesmen and officials at various levels miss important signals and commit needless diplomatic missteps. Regardless of how any American assesses the accuracy, legitimacy or uniqueness of America’s own exceptionalism narrative, it is critical that we understand what other countries think is exceptional about themselves.

Read the whole thing: Everyone is Special. Covers Russian and Chinese exceptionalist narratives among others.

In related news, this narrative based business intelligence outfit looks interesting: Narrative Science.


The Rumsfeld Behavioral Landscape

I made up an interesting way to visualize habits, routines and larger behavioral complexes in terms of Rumsfeld’s famous known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown typology.


Here’s how it works. Your basic building block is a habit, and these are either built around attractors or repulsors (the green and red contour sets respectively, with the green representing valleys and the red representing hills). Your behaviors are decision patterns that may orbit one or more habits in complex ways.

Here’s how you read/use the map (you can build a real one around your own habits of course, this is just an illustration).

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Frustration Effects and Curse of Optimality

Let’s say you have a project to staff with three available roles: a leadership role P with power, a sexy role S with opportunity for high public visibility, and a grinder role G with a lot of tedious schlepping. For logistics reasons, the partitioning of the work is not negotiable. You have three people with whom to staff the project: Alice, Bob and Charlie.

You chat with each, and it’s clear they all have the same preference order of roles: P>S>G, which means there’s no way to satisfy them all perfectly. All three believe they can do all three roles well enough. So you sit back, think through how good each is at each role, make up a little table like the one below,  crunch some numbers and assign roles: Alice gets power, Bob gets the sexy role, Charlie gets the grinder role. Your configuration has a nominal value of 5+4+2=11 points, and is the best you can do among all possible configurations.

Skill\Person Alice Bob Charlie
Power  5  4  3
Sexy  3  4  1
Grinder  3  4  2

Unfortunately, each also has an unknown motivational drop-off element to their personalities, due to which their commitment and productivity drops by at least a certain fraction for every degree removed from most-preferred role. So how does that change the actual outcome?

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Two Examples of Narrative Time

In the last week, I came across two interesting examples of what I called narrative time (as opposed to clock time) in Tempo. The first is this interesting analysis of the creative potential of tempo in the pacing of episode-releases in television shows, now that they have been decoupled from clock time by on-demand technology (HT Kartik Agaram).

Let’s quickly survey the Cambrian explosion of season-shapes. House of Cards falls from the sky like a crate of emergency rations. Sherlock delivers a tight burst of movie-caliber episodes, then disappears for two years. True Detective and American Horror Story remake themselves every season with a new cast and story. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. braids itself into the Marvel movie machine. (As I’m writing this, the show has just pivoted in mid-season to reflect the revelations of the Captain America movie that premiered the week prior.) This year, Louie marches double-time, airing not one but two new episodes every Monday. No season of TV has yet pulled a Beyoncé and arrived entirely without warning, but surely, it’s coming.

Complete article over at Medium: The Art of Anticipation.

The business story behind the artistic evolution is also interesting: check out this Wired story on how Netflix and other companies are fighting over narrative time.

The other example is this hilarious set of clock-time estimates for the narrative time vocabulary of the modern workplace (HT Alan Martin):

“Just a sec” = 5 minutes

“Just a minute” = 10 minutes

“Pick your brain” = 17 minutes or, in rare cases, 90 seconds

“Quick chat” = 48 minutes

Complete article over at McSweeney’s: Corporate Time Equivalents

Reboot Travel vs. Pause Travel

I find that traveling is one of the most disruptive things in my ability to keep my workflows in reasonable order. Over the years, I’ve oscillated between two modes of travel, which I call reboot travel and pause travel.

Reboot travel in the ideal case involves getting to Inbox Zero, clearing all pending time-bound work at your home base, achieving zen mind, and then rebooting into a sort of minimalist “travel mode.”

Pause mode involves doing none of the above, but just taking care of any urgent red-flag home-base items that you are already aware of, mentally hitting “pause” on everything else, and heading out, relying on Internet connectivity to keep you going with only minor interruptions and delays and breakdowns. In pause mode, I don’t even bother to set an out-of-office (OOO) message.

In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly favoring pause mode. I haven’t used an OOO autoresponder/voicemail message in 5-6 years. It’s slightly risky, since hitting pause without assessing the  state of your workflow means you could suddenly find yourself on the hook for doing things you can’t do on the road. But the subset of tasks that fits that description appears to be shrinking every year. If your trips are short, and you can get to a scanner, you’re covered for 99% of cases. The set of things which can’t wait till you get home and require non-digital actions is pretty small. And increasingly, you can live with the cost of delay.

I’ve come to view my workflow as a patient who is always on the brink of a medical emergency and must always be stabilized to some extent to be moved. But the patient has been slowly improving in health over the last couple of decades, thanks to better tools (not to me getting any wiser or better at staying away from the edge of chaos). So it takes less work to stabilize the patient, and the consequences of being sloppy are getting less dangerous.

Packaging-Heavy Projects

I posted earlier about discovery-heavy projects that are front-loaded with input firehoses. The complementary kind of project is one that has a lot of messy complexity near the finish line. I call these packaging-heavy projects. An example is writing a book. The hard work from the 0-90% mark is relatively clean and easy to structure.

Then you hit all the packaging work: getting the cover design, figuring out formatting needs (fussy conversions to specific print and electronic formats), uploading stuff to various websites, putting information into databases, and of course, copyediting, proofreading and all the rest of it.

Cooking certain kinds of meals is another example. The actual cooking may be tricky and complex, but limited in behavioral scope. But when you have to do the finishing touches: plating, laying the table, garnishes, serving sequence, keeping stuff warm and coming out at the right time… things can get packaging-heavy.

When there is a whole lot of packaging, it’s worth asking whether you’re really trying to shoehorn an entire distinct project into the tail of the current one. Introverted maker types who dislike marketing often make this mistake: they turn an entire marketing project into a shoehorned set of short-changed activities.

But that pathology aside, packaging-heavy projects are a real thing. I haven’t yet found a good way to navigate packaging tail-end phases effectively. Sometimes you can outsource packaging activities, but other times, you just have to power through all the finishing touches and polishing. It’s a high-risk phase, because a lot of effort can fail or deliver very sub-par returns simply because you forgot a simple finishing touch.

Running Lean, Running Fat

The term lean has become way too overloaded with complex management ideologies and procedural scaffolding. This is one reason I have come to dislike it. Leanness is a variable in a process optimization model, not an ideology. Cutting the fat is not an unqualified good idea and can actually be dangerous. Lean as ideology often turns into anorexia.

But the core idea is a useful one. In any work process, leanness is simply the amount of work in various stages of completion between input and output. Stuff near the input is raw material inventory, stuff near the middle is parts inventory, and stuff near the output is completed inventory. The sum is Work-In-Progress (WIP), loosely speaking.

I suspect lean became an ideology because of the obesity of 1970s industrial processes in America. Now we’ve come to the other end of the pendulum swing. Anorexia is widespread.

How do you manage leanness without ideology?

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Discovery-Heavy Projects

I don’t like processing huge fire-hoses of complex, poorly structured and somewhat arbitrary information, but I am good enough at it, mainly because I’ve had a lot of practice. I call these discovery-heavy projects. They require three cognitive skills:

  1. Triage Skill: Simple information, such as a shoe-box of family photographs, can usually be categorized rapidly within a simple taxonomic system. Complex information, such as a pile of paper documents that are part of a legal discovery process, tends to require much more thought to codify into usable form for processing. You have to triage the simple and complex, and resist the temptation to find a pigeonhole for everything. Some critical stuff will stay sui generis. 
  2. High-touch processing: Poorly structured implies low automation potential. This means you will need to examine every bit of information that comes in via the firehose.
  3. Data slumming: Arbitrariness of information means you cannot infer it from other information you’ve already processed. For example, the GDP of Great Britain in 1973 is something you just have to look up.

These behaviors can be very exhausting to those who are not naturally skilled at them, or energized by them. So what can you do?

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When Finishing is Easier than Starting

When you are young, beginning new projects is easy and finishing them is hard. As you grow older, beginnings get harder, but finishing gets easier. At least, that has been my experience. I think it is true of anyone of at least average intelligence, creativity and emotional resilience. The reason is simple.

When you are young, the possibilities ahead of you, and the time available to explore them, seem nearly infinite. When you try to start something, the energizing creative phase, (which comes with internal brain-chemistry rewards on a fast feedback-loop), gives way to exhausting detail-oriented work, maintenance work, and unsatisfying overhead work. You need to get through these to bank distant external rewards (money and such) that only come with completion. It is then that you are most vulnerable to the allure of exciting new beginnings. So you abandon things halfway. You bank the internal rewards of beginning, but not the external rewards of finishing.

But with age, this changes.

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New Year’s Resolutions as Self-Directed Camp

I’ve written a couple of whimsical posts about resolutions in the past, but I can’t bring myself to write about them seriously. Resolutions are not serious. Not anymore. I vaguely recall reading old novels whose characters took them seriously, but in our time, New Year’s resolutions are widely regarded as a joke. Very few expect to actually accomplish them.

I think Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “failed seriousness” applies to New Year’s resolutions. They are a ritual we repeat as a kind of entertainment we manufacture for ourselves.

But while camp of the normal sort involves laughing at others, resolution-camp involves laughing at ourselves. There is a part of us that secretly hopes we will be able to miraculously figure out how to achieve our resolutions this year. The camp arises out of another part of ourselves laughing at the serious, but naive and wishful, part.

Which is why we actually follow through on resolutions by taking first steps in many cases. The cliched example is signing up for a gym membership, going once in January, and then failing to keep it up.

It’s an expensive way to get your campy entertainment. It’s probably smarter to just indulge in a marathon viewing of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies