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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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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Jason Ho on Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Jason Ho has a very practical, yet philosophical post up on his blog, qaboom.com on themes very relevant for students of decision-making. Well worth a careful read (the whole blog, not just this post). There’s more between the lines than just the personal examples he describes.

Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Every once in a while, when a hobby like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu captures my fascination, it takes me by surprise. Since I’m usually interested in more things than I have time for, I tend to be very selective of the hobbies I take up. When I find myself falling in love, I take a cautious step back and start asking questions.

Why have hobbies like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, programming, and bodybuilding captured my fascination, when others have lost their appeal? What do they have in common, if anything? Why BJJ but not Muay Thai? Why computer science but not engineering?

In a world full of options and not enough time, often the hardest decisions are not what to do, but what not to do.

It occurred to me that my love-at-first-sight attraction to BJJ was more than just serendipity. BJJ, and its underlying principles, are a perfect representation of the kind of philosophy I’ve internalized. If I could compress all its wisdom into one motto, it’d be this: Spend your time and effort on where it will make the most impact.

He cites an old post on this blog that I’d forgotten about and just re-read. I didn’t really understand what the heck I was thinking back then. This often happens to me these days. I must be headed downhill.

The Examined Life

A useful idea for people interested in narrative-driven decision making is the Socrates quote: the unexamined life is not worth living.

Fair enough, but how do you actually apply this insight? Clearly you need an element of living to provide fodder for the examining. You cannot be born and raised in a dark sensory-deprivation chamber and do any useful examining (in fact, horrendous medieval experiments along these lines generally destroyed the unfortunate victims).

How do you balance examining versus living?

Here’s a quick primer. It’s more subtle than you might think.

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Literary Darwinism

Spotted this interesting piece on the evolutionary origins of literature, and its potential purposes via John Hagel.  Here’s a brief extract:

The real mystery is not just the evolutionary origins of literature, but movements and attitudes such as modernism that insist on transcending the traditional plot lines that Booker diagnoses. If Booker is right and all stories fall into seven basic templates, then writers who strive for complete originality might be out of luck. The human mind, it appears, has its limits on literature. This is supported by several cross-cultural studies clearly demonstrating that all humans gravitate towards similar literary theme. As Hume said, “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousands years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.”

Of course, the fact that humans share certain literary hot buttons didn’t stop Joyce from throwing out plots altogether in Finnegan’s Wake. Nor did Virginia Woolf hesitate when crafting the free-flowing Mrs. Dalloway. For various reasons, writers in the 20th century were motivated to create stories that don’t appeal to the senses. Pinker explains that a “compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.” Why, then, were so many authors in the 20th century obsessed with disjointed narration, bewildering characters and exhausting prose? And why did they (and do they) look down on the mainstream?

The piece is agnostic about the Big Question here: whether narrative-making/reading is merely some sort of pleasure-seeking behavior pattern or whether it  serves a utilitarian purpose in decision-making.

Obviously, I am personally inclined to the latter view. The big mistake anti-narrative types make is in inferring from the existence of a handful of dominant narrative patterns that they cannot process information. In this post for example, the author notes that Jaws is like Beowulf and both are examples of the “defeat the monster” pattern in Booker’s taxonomy of 7 basic narrative patterns.  Booker’s is one of many taxonomies and there are others with dozens to hundreds of “types.” But this does not mean each instance of a story is identical in the role it plays in cognition.

I haven’t made up my own mind about how narratives process information, but my basic theory is that they are patterns that help us organize our understanding of boundary conditions, which obviously differ from context to context. In Beowulf, one boundary of human civilization is an unknown ocean with a dangerous monster. In Jaws, it is a known ocean, with a known beast. But in each case, we understand something about the boundary conditions within which human lives play out. This is one reason why narratives so often involve extreme or improbable or corner-case scenarios: they are not about characterizing normal, but about characterizing the limits of normal.

Read the whole post here: The Literary Darwinists: The Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling

Forged Groups

In the military, they have a saying: soldiers don’t fight for causes or countries, they fight for the guy next to them. Why would you die for the guy next to you?

It takes a very special kind of extremely cohesive grouping to sustain the kind of punishment that warfare dishes out. There is absolutely no reason to believe that members of a random group, without ties of kinship or race or shared political values for instance, would be willing to die for each other.

It turns out that what makes people willing to die for each other is actually the pressure of war itself. Facing death together means being reborn together.  The metaphor of fire and forging is apt.

The cohesion has to be manufactured. The result is forged (as in metallurgy, not fraud) groups. How do you create forged groups?

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Hacking Grand Narratives

Grand narratives are probably the most frequently mentioned subject in reactions I get to Tempo, even though I carefully restricted myself to individual narratives in the book. Apparently the urge to apply narrative models to collectives is irresistible. Several readers have gone ahead and sort of hacked the narrative models I discuss in Tempo, and applied them to grand narratives. To be frank, I don’t completely understand most of these attempts. I know of applications to unconventional crisis response, the political process in Honduras, the history of Western art, and the history of debt/finance.

But as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am treading carefully here.  I’ve learned something from each hacking attempt people have told me about (do share if you’ve tried this sort of thing), and I’ve made two experimental attempts myself: applying the model to 19th century American business/technology history and on a smaller scale, to software projects. I am starting a third experiment: applying narrative analysis to wannabe-Silicon-Valley tech hubs like Boulder and Las Vegas. But overall, I am not satisfied that my models (or anyone else’s) are good enough yet.

But let me try and lay out the problem here, and have you guys weigh in.

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Trigger Narratives and the Nuclear Option

We use the phrase nuclear option rather casually as an everyday metaphor for highly consequential, irreversible and consciously triggered decisions. But chances are, you’ve never actually considered how the actual nuclear option is managed. The turning of this one little key — the picture is of an an actual nuclear trigger —  is easily the most analyzed decision in history. The design of the decision process around it is one of the greatest feats of narrative engineering every accomplished. That the trigger has  (knock on wood) not been pulled since World War II is an engineering accomplishment comparable to the Moon landing.

The nuclear option is the most extreme example of a special kind of decision narrative that I call a trigger narrative: one built around a major decision requires an explicit triggering action after all the preparation is done: things like proposing marriage, submitting a manuscript to an editor or issuing a press release. Not all major decisions are framed by trigger narratives, but for those that are, the nuclear trigger narrative has much to teach.

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The Second Most Important Archetype in your Life

In Tempo,  I distinguished between two broad classes of archetypes: generic ones that have names and explicit descriptions, which apply loosely to many people, and specific ones that apply to just one person, and may be only implicitly recognized based on characteristic behaviors.

The more intimately and personally you know somebody, the more you need a specific and implicit archetype. This means that your self-archetype is the one that has to be the most specific. At least if you agree that self-awareness is generally a good thing to seek.

This does not mean that a specific archetype needs to be detailed. It can still be an impressionistic thumbnail sketch that is no more than a characteristic shrug or turn of phrase. It merely needs to be one-of-a-kind; sui generis. 

Your self-archetype is arguably the most important archetype in your life. It can be either specific or general, and a thumbnail or very detailed. But most often it is specific and detailed.  It is sometimes useful to compute with a very generic, thumbnail self-archetype, to break out of toxic self-absorption.

What do you think is the second most important archetype? Hint: it is not necessarily the one that maps to your significant other.

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