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.

Schleps, Puzzles, and Packages: Solving Complex Problems the Iron Man Way

There is an old joke about cadets in a tank warfare training program with three sessions, on mobility, communications and firepower.

The first instructor, an engine expert, concludes his session with the declaration, “a tank that can shoot and communicate, but not move, is useless.” The next instructor, a radio expert, concludes his session with a similar line, “a tank that can shoot and move, but not communicate, is useless.”

The last instructor, a gunnery expert, finishes his session with the line, “a tank that can move and communicate, but not shoot, is basically a 50-ton portable radio.”

The lesson I draw today from the joke (which I first heard 30 years ago) is this.

Complex problems contain three sub-problems: schlep, puzzle and package.  For a tank, mobility represents the schlep sub-problem (building a vehicle for lugging a big gun around on rough terrain, using known technologies). Firepower represents the puzzle sub-problem (shooting accurately from a fast-moving, wobbling platform). Communication represents the packaging sub-problem (integrating the tank into a battle plan). It took decades to get the solution right, resulting in the modern main battle tank (MBT).

When you solve complex problems right, you are left with three corresponding intangible things of value: an asset, an insight and an aesthetic, which make the solutions both durable and generative (the solutions gradually and intelligently expand to occupy bigger problem spaces, realizing the potential of the original specific solution).

Understanding the interaction of these 3+3 input and output elements can make a big difference to how you attack complex problems. I am going to try and explain using the Iron Man movies.

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Deliberate Practice versus Immersion

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

I think I have finally sorted out my uneasiness with the so-called deliberate practice hypothesis.  Most Tempo readers will be familiar with deliberate practice (hereherehere & here) so I will just offer a quick refresher.  The idea is that abilities that what we commonly perceive as talent are actually the result of painstakingly focused training.  Anders Ericsson, whose research has provided much of the grist for the mill, summarizes deliberate practice as:

activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.

I am not the only person to express mixed feelings about the concept.  Others have noted that deliberate practice addresses the known better than the unknown, i.e. it applies to domains requiring mastery better than those requiring creativity.

But what is the alternative?  Without an alternative, criticism carries the scent of sour grapes.

The advocates of deliberate practice generally juxtapose it with either a) belief in the value of innate talent or b) more mundane varieties of accrued experience.  Their claim is that practice counts for more than natural talent, and in order to reach the highest levels of mastery that practice must take a specific form.

My objection to this framing, I realize now, is that deliberate practice is presented as the methodology that is active and therefore earned, while innate talent and non-deliberate(?) practice are portrayed as passive and unearned.  Though never explicitly stated, the normative implications are only thinly veiled in much of the non-academic cheerleading on the subject.   

I think it is a mistake to believe that learning must be deliberate in order to be active or earned.  There is an another alternative that is equally active and equally intentional but not deliberate.  That alternative is immersion.  I mean immersion in the same way it is applied to learning a foreign language…the practice of actively placing yourself in an unfamiliar environment and exposing yourself to novel stimuli. [Read more…]

Sensitive Dependence on Paperwork Conditions

I have struggled with paperwork all my life, to the point that I sometimes joke that it is my kryptonite.  A paperwork attack can reduce me from feeling superhuman to subhuman. Especially vicious Catch-22 types of paperwork. My life exhibits a sensitive dependence on paperwork conditions. When pending paperwork levels are high, I am nearly useless to everybody and not exactly in love with my own life either. When pending paperwork levels are low, I can move mountains.

In an extreme example, I was recently locked out of my bank account and to unlock it, besides the usual identity questions, my bank came up with the brilliant scheme of asking for a detail about a recent deposit for additional security. Thanks to paperless statements, I couldn’t supply the detail. Genius, right? You need to get into the account in order to find the information that would allow you to unlock it.

Eventually, we figured something out. We are finally at the baroque stage of industrial civilization with paperwork as strange loop.

In general, things aren’t quite so bad.  But having had to deal with more than my fair share of the universe’s paperwork in the last few months, I’ve come to some conclusions about why I am particularly oversensitive to the stuff (and why you might be too), and how to cope.

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Overtake on the Turn, Overwhelm on the Straight

Sometimes, doing the right thing is just way too hard. So you have use the best approximate substitute available. When you can’t fly like a bird, you can aspire to be a frog that can jump really high, or a flying squirrel.

Decision-making is like that. There is, in my opinion, a “right way” to do decision-making in complex, dynamic environments (VUCA conditions — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), but most of the time, the right way is way too hard. So like most people, I use approximations tailored to current conditions (I am partial to the geeky joke that life isn’t just hard, it’s NP-hard).

To explain the right way and the approximate way, it helps to think in terms of high-speed maneuvering as a metaphor. Think of the dog-fighting in-an-asteroid-field scene in Star Wars.  There are unpredictable moving obstacles and adversaries in the environment, and potential/kinetic energy considerations arising from the physics and energy levels of your own vehicle.

The “right” way to engage such a domain is with high situation awareness and calm mindfulness. Such a mental state allows you to maneuver smoothly and efficiently, with surgically precise moves that minimize entropy generation while achieving your objectives. This is the peak-flow-state, with your OODA-loop humming away at Enlightenment Level 42.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you’re in that state perhaps 1% of the time. What do you do at other times?

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Why Habit Formation is Hard

Recently, I moved from Las Vegas to Seattle. In the process I realized that activities like moving belongings and getting a new driver’s license are not the hardest part. The difficulty of moving habits is much higher. About 80% of the cost of a move, I suspect, is the cost of moving habits. We lose months of time in the run-up to a move and after.

An example is your gym routine. It’s possibly the most important habit in your life. But it is surprisingly hard to “move” from one context to another.

In my case, I signed up for a gym very similar to the one I used to go to in Vegas. It has similar facilities and a similar range of equipment, trainers and programs. Like my old Vegas gym, my Seattle gym is about a mile and a half from home. The membership cost is about the same.

Yet, it’s been more than a month and I still haven’t found my rhythm. By contrast, when I joined the Vegas gym, it took me less than a week to settle into a great routine.

Why is this?

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Allowing Personality to Flow

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

A couple weekends ago, during a break in the scheduled programming at Refactor Camp, I was walking around with Kartik Agaram and as we passed by a concession stand he off-handedly remarked: “I know things are going well when I can walk by something like that without experiencing any temptation.”  This was one of those statements that easily eludes our cognitive filters, but it becomes rather perplexing when you begin to tease it apart.

Why should temptation be easier to resist when things are going well?

What does it even mean for “things” to go well?

There are easy answers like – when we are preoccupied with more engaging tasks, temptations are perceived as relatively less appealing.  However, the easy answers are easily contradicted.  Sometimes when things are going well we are so preoccupied that we find ourselves guzzling coffee and eating take-out every night.  Apparently things need to be going well in a particular way in order for temptation to diminish. [Read more…]

How Many Steps Do You Really Look Ahead?

The planning/decision-making literature focuses a great deal of attention on computing actions many steps ahead. But it recently struck me that looking ahead is not actually a very natural behavior for humans in most real-time domains (which is most domains).

A simple illustration is the problem of adding milk or cream to your coffee in a self-serve situation. We all recognize that putting the milk in first and then pouring in the coffee eliminates the need for stirring (and therefore saves a wooden stirrer or a spoon-washing). But few people do it. I myself forget about half the time.

Even if you discount the people who prefer to put the milk in later for whatever reason (in order to use the changing color as feedback, perhaps), I bet there’s a sizable number of coffee drinkers who don’t care about the milk-coffee sequence but don’t choose the simpler and less wasteful sequence.


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Tempo Interview on ‘Smart People Podcast’

I am now officially a “smart person,” since I’ve been interviewed on the Smart People Podcast.

It’s a half-hour interview where I talk with Chris Stemp and Jon Rojas about TempoKinda fun, since it’s the first time I’ve talked about the book in an audio interview format.

Check it out here.


The National Day of Unplugging

Tomorrow is the National Day of Unplugging, a concept that extends the Jewish idea of Sabbath into a more general, secular idea. I wrote a post about it on ribbonfarm. Check out the site, and consider observing the NDU.

Here’s the blurb from the Sabbath Manifesto site, which appears to be promoting the idea. A very Tempo-ish idea of figuring out how to slow down.

Way back when, God said, “On the seventh day thou shalt rest.”  The meaning behind it was simple: Take a break. Call a timeout. Find some balance. Recharge.

Somewhere along the line, however, this mantra for living faded from modern consciousness. The idea of unplugging every seventh day now feels tragically close to impossible. Who has time to take time off? We need eight days a week to get tasks accomplished, not six.

The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is to take time off, deadlines and paperwork be damned.

In the Manifesto, we’ve adapted our ancestors’ rituals by carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and get with loved ones. The ten principles are to be observed one day per week, from sunset to sunset. We invite you to practice, challenge and/or help shape what we’re creating.

Good idea. Now go unplug.

The Cloistered Hedgehog and The Dislocated Fox

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

For this first guest post Venkat suggested that I discuss a contention (based on Philip Tetlock’s research) in Nate Silver’s book  The Signal and the Noise regarding the fox and hedgehog archetypes.  As I haven’t yet read Silver’s book I’ll have to reference Venkat’s paraphrasing of Silver:

…while all humans are terrible at predicting the fate of complex systems, foxes (“knows many things”) tend to do better than hedgehogs (“knows one big thing”), and improve over time, while hedgehogs tend to do worse, and get worse over time as they grow more doctrinaire.

Silver’s assertion may be surprising to people who are familiar with studies, like those by management guru Jim Collins, which associate preeminent business leaders with the hedgehog archetype.  Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule are other popular themes that would seem to favor the hedgehog.

To put some context around Silver’s claim it will be useful to consider the influence of environment on personality.

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