Monthly Archives: April 2015

Anatomy of Action and Understanding

The correct thing to do seems so obvious, its implementation so simple and clear in our heads. Why then is turning it into reality so difficult and error prone? Why is doing it ourselves so much easier than explaining it to others? Is the answer really obvious or does it merely appear to be? What is behind the feeling of clarity? What is behind effortless action? Why are they so elusive and difficult to convert into results?

Before we can tackle questions like these, we need a model of action. Such models tend to hide underneath arguments, disguised as something obvious, and are important to make explicit. I’ll develop my model in this post and apply it to the challenge of action in the next one. I suspect that while many will indeed find my model obvious, and perhaps overwrought, many others will find it incomplete, incomprehensible, irrelevant, or wrong.

At its broadest, an action can be separated into three parts: goal, strategy, and execution. Goals define the purpose of action and are the ultimate measure of progress. Strategies are plans to move from current reality to the state defined by the goal. Execution is the interaction with reality in service of the goal.

While roughly correct, this view ignores or abstracts too much to be very useful. A major issue is that strategy generates a hierarchical set of sub-goals for execution to implement, but this implementation requires strategy at each step. It is difficult to draw a non-arbitrary line between strategy and execution because they are themselves a hierarchy of actions, each with its own goal, strategy, and execution.

It is similarly unclear how independent child actions are. We can treat them as inseparable parts of a larger whole because their goals are substantially defined by the parent’s strategy; or we can treat them as largely independent because they determine how, or if, to achieve these goals.

We can thus defensibly approach action with a focus on strategy, execution, or interaction between substantially independent actions. The first two views correctly recognize the value of unified action towards a coherent purpose and of skill and autonomy on the ground, respectively, but tend to underestimate their own limitations and lead to disappointment and ineffectiveness. The latter view more accurately captures the challenge of action. Continue reading Anatomy of Action and Understanding