Prescientific Organizational Theory

Organizational Theory isn’t a science, though it would like to be. Unfortunately, building a scientific approach requires understanding from a number of fields that themselves are still only aspiring to be sciences. Because psychology, economics, and sociology are a mish-mash of rules of thumb and vague, non-predictive, and generally unfalsifiable “theories”, organizations are reduced to ad-hoc rules and guesswork: critical, but prescientific.

For now, to abuse the parable of the blind men and the elephant, organizational theorists are still groping at their respective elephants, unable to figure out that the trunk is next to the tusks, or even that they are part of the same animal. It’s not a science: if anything, it’s a field of engineering, albeit one without a grounding in physics or Asimovian psychohistory to draw from. Precisely because the field isn’t scientific, understanding the engineering rules of thumb that were developed over time is fantastically useful for a practitioner.

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When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.


Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

The Cyberpunk Sensibility

“Cyberpunk creeps up on us. Some kind of alchemy transforms its fictions into truths, and draws us towards places we thought unreal.”@uttunul

Conventionally speaking, cyberpunk is a media genre. It brings to mind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. You fondly remember Blade Runner, and maybe Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell. The phrase “high tech, low life” floats up from the back of your brain. You picture an exaggerated version of Hong Kong with a heavy dose of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. You’re envisioning the Walled City of Kowloon plus lots of computers. Within tiny apartments, disheveled vigilante hackers stare at their screens, busily infiltrating the databases of megacorps.


Illustration by Grace Witherell

But perhaps you’ve also noticed that cyberpunk plot points are turning up in real life. Robot security guards patrol shopping malls. A near-billionaire startup founder sees virtual reality as salvation for the downtrodden global poor. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is flush with VC money and homeless drug addicts at the same time. And speaking of those vigilante hackers, they’re here in our reality too, pwning companies of all sizes. Some state-sponsored ones like to meddle in foreign politics. It’s all very exciting! Only plutocrats and nouveau mafiosos can avoid feeling uneasy.

Cyberpunk examines the way computing changes power relationships. Asymmetric information warfare has become the norm, as foretold by our pulpy sci-fi prophets. The technological changes that have been snowballing over the past fifty years now mean that anyone can talk to anyone, anywhere, with their identity hidden or not. Edward Snowden can stroll away from his NSA job with a priceless cache of secret documents that detail the crimes of an empire, then escape across continents in a matter of days, to hole up with a rival regime.

So, why bother with any of this if you don’t intend to commit espionage?

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Can the European Union Break Smart?

For my fourth video blog, I bring you a wide-ranging conversation with David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Zurich. I’ve known the folks at GDI for a few years, and worked with them several times. Most recently, GDI undertook the German translation of my Breaking Smart essays.

This conversation is partly me interviewing David about the EU, and partly David interviewing me about the US. We talk about the future of Germany and the EU, Brexit, the rise of the new right, the history of corporatism in the US and EU, the rise of China and India, the future of nations, and various other things. Basically the sort of conversation about globalization and Big History that you can only have with somebody from Switzerland.

If the Germanic world interests you, you may like a recent issue of the breaking smart newsletter, Can the Germanic World Break Smart?

If you happen to be near Switzerland around January 17, you should consider attending GDI’s next conference, The Future of PowerThey put on excellent events.

And if you happen to have any German speaking friends or business colleagues, be sure to pass on the German translation of Breaking Smart.

Radical Candor

Today’s video blog (~40 minutes) is a conversation with Kim Malone Scott, creator of one of the finer 2x2s I’ve encountered in my long career as a professional quadrantologist. The radical candor 2×2 is deceptively simple: 4 management styles — radical candor, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression — arranged along two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. The result is one of the most robust and immediately useful frameworks for understanding how workplace relationships work, and how to be a better manager. I personally feel I spend most of my time in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, though Kim was nice enough to award me a radical candor badge.

Kim is a Silicon Valley veteran, with experience points founding a startup, major roles at Google and Apple, and several years coaching executives. I started chatting with her on Twitter when a friend passed along the 2×2. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and providing feedback on an early draft of her forthcoming book, Radical Candor (available for pre-order on Amazon, due out March 2017). I suspect it will join books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things on the Silicon Valley management classics list. Alongside writing this book, Kim has recently been booting up a company, Candor, Inc., built around practices and tools explained in the book. If you are an executive at a workplace with a managerial culture that isn’t quite working, this is probably among the highest leverage investments you could make. I have been using the 2×2 and recommending Kim’s models to all my own clients for the last six months or so, which isn’t something I can say about most of the business/management stuff I read.

In this conversation, we talk about the 2×2, the subtleties of how relationships work, differences and similarities between Silicon Valley today and in the eighties and nineties, how radical candor plays out in different parts of the world, how management culture has changed since the organization-man era, how these dynamics play out online versus offline, and many other interesting things.


Overpowered Metrics Eat Underspecified Goals

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Like Alice, most organizations, and most people, have goals that haven’t been articulated clearly enough. I call these rough ideas “underspecified goals” — we only sort-of know what we want. That’s normal for any complex process; when writing, my ideas coalesce only once they become more concrete. Novelists sometimes say that the story got away from them, when the characters behaviors don’t lead to the outcome the author had initially imagined. This can lead to slight narrative flexations, or a full out revolt of the characters.

This happens outside of writing as well, and specifically, in organizations. But it isn’t always a handicap. An explanation of why and how it happens is required to know when this underspecification is benign, or even useful, and when it’s harmful. And that understanding, in turn, will lead us to some conclusions about how, in the latter case, we can mitigate the problem or fix it completely.

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Mapping Organizational Realities

I have another video blog for you today: a salon-style conversation on mapping the external and internal realities of organizations. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes, and significant portions involve non-trivial visuals, so you may want to grab a drink or your lunch, lean back, and watch like it’s a TV show, rather than listening like it’s a podcast.

My guests are Simon Wardley, whom I met back in 2012 on a gig with the Leading Edge Forum, where he is a researcher, and Dave Gray, whom I met at the LIFT conference in Geneva in 2013, where we were both speakers. Since this is my first true video blog, I don’t yet have a transcription workflow. But I do have some brief show notes below.

Show Notes

Simon has developed, over the last decade, a very interesting mapping technique called Wardley Maps (slowly turning into a book on Medium), which are a way of visually modeling and mapping the context an organization operates in. Dave has written a number of books, most recently Liminal Thinking and The Connected Companyand among the things his consulting firm XPLANE does is reduce some of the thinking in the books to practice using a tool for culture mapping.

I figured it would be interesting to chat with Simon and Dave at the same time and explore the connections between mapping external versus internal realities. I am not much of a process person myself, but I often cobble together bits and pieces from people who do enjoy inventing processes in my own consulting gigs. So I’m constantly, if lazily, scanning for interesting new tools that I can then appropriate and abuse for my own needs.

This conversation came about thanks to a tweet by one of the earliest guest bloggers on ribbonfarm, Marigo Raftapolous who contributed a post on enterprise games back in 2008 before gamification of enterprises was cool. Funny how these things come together. Curiously, all four of us are consultants, so this is also a glimpse into how we consultants talk, think, and network when there are no clients around.

In terms of content, in a meandering, discursive conversation (what else do you expect from a salon moderated by me?) we touch upon:

  1. The mapping techniques used by Simon and Dave in their work
  2. Boydian thinking, OODA loops, orientations etc
  3. Comparisons between military and business cultures
  4. The problems with thinking of company culture as a single thing rather than a collection of distinct subcultures
  5. The pathology of thinking about culture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as opposed to just a matter of ‘fit’ with the environment
  6. The role played by time, and how different cultures grow at different speeds
  7. How organizational evolution in relation to the market affects its position and play externally…
  8. … and its culture internally
  9. The idea of wartime and peacetime CEOs
  10. How Amazon is a great model for nearly all these ideas at their best

Apologies for any rough edges in the video production quality. I’m kinda new to this particular game.

Startups, Secrets, and Abductive Reasoning

Guest post by Joseph Kelly.

But we must conquer the truth by guessing, or not at all.  CS Peirce

An early episode at at my last company demonstrated one of the paradoxes of startup product development.  At this time our product was still early and undefined.  I had spoken with a potential client about their goals for a project and was trying to create a sales proposal with the engineering team.

Pretty quickly I grew frustrated.  When I’d ask the engineers what we could do for a particular feature, every answer was “well, how does the client want it?”  I wanted to present the client something concrete, but being capable engineers, my team believed they could build anything.

This went on for several minutes before I broke the cycle and said: “If you’re a contractor and the client asks you to build them a gazebo, you don’t ask them everything from what roof pitch angle they want to what kind of screws to use.  You pitch one gazebo design, or a few, then you work together to reach a final version.”  That clicked instantly and we were able to move forward.  My anecdote forced us to adopt a lesser-known mode of reasoning that I’ll explore in this essay, called abduction, which is critical to developing your product strategy.

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Trace of the Weirding

Today’s post is hopefully a bit of a treat for those of you who like audio and video more than text. I’ve updated my You Are Here map for 2016 (thanks Grace Witherell!) and turned it into a narrated video walkthrough. It’s basically about an hour of me talk-walking through a map. If you prefer audio, you can just scan the map to get a sense of it, and then just listen to the audio.

If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this may be a good way to get oriented — or entirely confused. I don’t know. I’m too deep in this thing. The big change in the map from last year’s version is the addition of the whole western 20% or so, and the incorporation of 2016 crazy election year motifs into the landscape. It’s still very US centric, and doesn’t satisfactorily capture some of my newer interests, but it’s a start.

What’s not represented is some of the developing influence of newer residents and their writing on either ribbonfarm or my own thinking. That’s too new, and it’ll probably get folded into next year’s map. So this is mainly me talking about my own interests, with some digressions on Sarah Perry’s stuff.

The narrated walk through was heavily inspired by conversations at Refactor Camp 2016. Here are the links mentioned in the video.

  1. High-res version of the map (5MB)
  2. Refactor camp session slide decks: Thanks to Mick Costigan, Megan Lubaszka, Renee DiResta, Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.
  3. Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2×2 
  4. My gloss on Jane Jacobs Guardian/Commerce
  5. Economics of Pricelessness
  6. Hamilton vs Jefferson
  7. Post on future nausea and manufactured normalcy
  8. A post on New Horizons
  9. My extended riff on hedgehog vs. fox
  10. Bruce Sterling favela chic/gothic high tech talk
  11. Atlantic post on climate change
  12. Some stuff on serendipity versus zemblanity
  13. Sarah Perry’s roundup/introduction on postrationality
  14. David Chapman, Meaningness
  15. Sarah’s book Every Cradle is a Grave
  16. Less Wrong
  17. Slatestarcodex map
  18. The Gervais Principle
  19. Sarah’s theme parks vs amusement parks post
  20. My post on Crash-only thinking
  21. Breaking Smart if you’ve been under a rock and don’t know I do that
  22. The Breaking Smart newsletter in tweetstorm format
  23. Tempo, the book
  24. James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  25. My Now Reading page with a lot of background

Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety

Leak before failure is a fascinating engineering principle, used in the design of things like nuclear power plants. The idea, loosely stated, is that things should fail in easily recoverable non-critical ways (such as leaks) before they fail in catastrophic ways (such as explosions or meltdowns). This means that various components and subsystems are designed with varying margins of safety, so that they fail at different times, under different conditions, in ways that help you prevent bigger disasters using smaller ones.


So for example, if pressure in a pipe gets too high, a valve should fail, and alert you to the fact that something is making pressure rise above the normal range, allowing you to figure it out and fix it before it gets so high that a boiler explosion scenario is triggered. Unlike canary-in-the-coalmine systems or fault monitoring/recovery systems, leak-before-failure systems have failure robustnesses designed organically into operating components, rather than being bolted on in the form of failure management systems.

Leak-before-failure is more than just a clever idea restricted to safety issues. Understood in suitably general terms, it provides an illuminating perspective on how companies scale.

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