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

Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability

Once upon a time I liked to derive lessons from stories; sometimes I still do. A recurring lesson is the impact of minor mistakes and random circumstances on the character’s fate. If only they stayed quiet, or paid more attention, or used a newer car, or avoided traffic, or were less trusting… Mistakes that were easy to avoid with just a little more knowledge or composure or preparation.

Of course, the writer needs to end the story and villain’s mistakes allow difficult odds to be overcome in an exciting way. But there are deeper reasons for errors: individual pride, complacency of experience, overconfidence of inexperience, effects of stress on decision-making, trade-offs inherent to skill-sets.

We focus on mistakes as failures to prepare at the expense of a broader lesson: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Leaders respond with deeper plans, contingency plans, redundancy, more data, explicit procedures, education… They develop meta-plans to make plans responsive to the dynamics of execution, they build ever-more complete ways to evaluate results and feed them back to decision makers at ever-faster rates.

But more complex plans have more ways to fail, redundancy breeds complacency, contingency plans are under-tested, procedures reduce individual motivation and attention to detail, credentials give a false sense of confidence… And problems again arise for reasons so banal they would be funny if they weren’t so painful. Continue reading Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability

Perfect Worlds and Their Limits

Perfect worlds occupy a sizable chunk of intellectual thought. They can be points of departure as with the Garden of Eden or Rousseau’s natural man. Or goals of progress as with Marx’s final stage of history, Plato’s Republic, or Buddhist nirvana. Or simplified models of reality as with much of economics. Or mindsets open to objective truth as with Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

The appeal of perfection is easy to understand. We want truth. We want to act ethically and effectively. We want to make correct plans to achieve worthy goals. Such efforts lead us to ever-higher levels of abstraction which culminate in perfect worlds.

Perfect worlds rest on correct principles. Principles that are true and mutually consistent. Principles that can be understood, communicated, and adopted by everyone. Principles we can link back to to resolve disagreements, motivate performance, and justify demands. Such actionable agreement makes the world efficient, fair, and stable, makes individual lives meaningful, ethical, and comprehensible.

Perfect worlds offer powerful answers that conform to our highest ideals, that inspire us with the possibilities of unity and clarity. So we search for truth to define and justify principles with which to build coherent goals, models, and systems. We communicate them to others and rally against those that are based on wrong principles, are poorly implemented, or are hypocritical.

When you find correct principles it can feel like you’ve unlocked the entire puzzle. Continue reading Perfect Worlds and Their Limits

Plurality of Absolutes

A common source of impassioned disagreements, bitter disappointments, and judgmental moralizing is over-extension of good principles. Such principles are not only deeply believed, but have proven themselves to the believers. They really do embody important truths and they really do work.

At the core of disagreement isn’t truth or efficacy, it is exclusivity and universality. There can be, and often are, multiple functional approaches. Even if one approach is best, it relies on assumptions – such as values and capabilities – that might not be universally available.

People try to prove that their approach is best and that, therefore, we should promote the required values and capabilities. The task is intertwined with their morality, sense of purpose and justice, the vision that guides their lives. It is difficult to acknowledge alternatives without putting your own morality and worldview on trial, without undermining the passion that drives you.

I propose a mindset, let’s call it Plurality of Absolutes, as a solution. The essence of this mindset is that (1) different mechanisms drive the social world at different scales and that (2) most beliefs can be justifiably held as long as one restricts scope. Continue reading Plurality of Absolutes

After Virtue – A Bird’s Eye View

Alasdair MacIntyre is a major figure in the modern revival of virtue ethics and After Virtue is a key text of that revival. The book covers a lot of ground, both in depth and breadth. Unfortunately, MacIntyre doesn’t lay out the argument he is meticulously building, and the writing style and formatting makes separating central threads from sub-arguments difficult. This post is an attempt at a very high level understanding of that central argument. [Note: MacIntyre did concisely write out his core argument a few years after publication in a very helpful article, The Claims of After Virtue (pdf).]

MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis of modernity, but believes there is an alternative to accepting Nietzsche’s prescription. Continue reading After Virtue – A Bird’s Eye View

Less Work for Less Pay – Why Don’t Companies Offer The Option?

You are a salaried employee in one of the high pay, high hours, high stress careers and want to slow down a bit. You are happy enough with your company and your job, you just want to do less of it and have time and energy for other things. And you don’t need all that money they are paying you. You want to trade some of that high salary for additional time.

You’ll be a happier, more productive employee who’ll be less likely to jump ship and the company will benefit accordingly. It makes perfect sense, so why is it so rare? Are companies just stuck in the stone age?

I’d like to focus on just one aspect that seems to blindside people asking for less work for less pay.

A Multiple Choice Question:

You are making $160,000/year and are working 80 hours/week. You want to work 40 hours/week. What is a fair annual salary at these reduced hours?

a) $100,000
b) $80,0000
c) $60,0000
d) $45,000

My guess is that most employees looking for reduced hours would say (b) with some selecting (a) or (c). For a company faced with this question the answer is generally (d), sometimes (c). Continue reading Less Work for Less Pay – Why Don’t Companies Offer The Option?