The Danger in Your Objective Function, Missing Your Deeper Shared Purpose

You want your efforts to have an impact.  To increase your impact, you engage others in generating that impact with you.  While it takes a lot of work, that is your objective, why you do what you do.  Your ability to generate that impact, with others, is a function of your inputs and what you do with those inputs.  In technical terms, this is your objective function.

What if you actually achieved your objective function, in ways that you did not control, could not influence, or did not understand?  To avoid this unintended consequence, let’s understand what an objective function is and how to work with it.

With an objective function, you are trying to optimize the mix of benefits and costs.  Either maximizing the net benefit or minimize the net cost.  You are trying to optimize a set of things that vary, called variables.  UC Berkeley professor of computer science Stuart Russell warns us to be very careful with this kind of approach.  While Stuart is talking specifically about artificial intelligence, the advice applies to complex social systems as well.  If you give the system a goal, and you do not know what the system is doing, you might very well achieve the goal, but at what cost.  You might maximize impact, today, and ruin all relationships along the way, or miss the opportunity to receive a sustaining gift.  Since some variables were outside of the set you designed, and you gave clear mandates to achieve the objective, the system did achieve it, oblivious to the other variables, which could have changed how you would have optimized your impact.

My colleagues at Vibrancy and at the Institute for Strategic Clarity find that there are usually three dangers in your objective function:

  1. unspecified objective — you do not know what you want to achieve
  2. misspecified objective — you do not actually want what you state you want
  3. underspecified objective function — you do not know how to get what you want

What You Want. You can know that you have a passion, and that you want to have an impact.  This can lead you to a general goal of something you would like to achieve.  Do you want to help others?  Make money?  Teach kids.  Unfortunately, this very open statement of a general goal does not guide you to what you need to do to have an impact that is meaningful to you.  And, a general goal like this makes it very hard for others to focus their efforts with you in achieving it. To know what you want to achieve, either individually or as a group, you simply need to ask.  What is it I really want?  If I actually achieve it, will I be satisfied?  It will take lots of effort.  Will it be worth it?  It is a simple question, one many people have not really asked.  It is the first step to getting what you want.

What You Really Want. You might be working hard at achieving an objective.  It might even be a clear and obvious objective.  The question is whether that is what you really want.  If you do not know what you really want to achieve, achieving something less or different probably will not satisfy you, and you will have spent a lot of effort to get there. To achieve what you really want to achieve, you have to be clear and specific.  Following the work of our colleague Ralph Keeney‘s value-focused thinking, we use the 3 whys to structure your fundamental objective.  What do you think you want to achieve?  Why do you want that?  And, why do you want that?  And, finally, why do you want that?  This leads to the higher purpose, or deeper values, actually guiding the impact you want to have.  With this higher purpose, you have defined a boundary around the factors that need to be addressed to achieve your desired impact.  Knowing what you really want to achieve, either individually or as a group is easy to do.  For us, it usually takes less than an hour of real inquiry.

What Drives What You Really Want.  While you might know what you want, clear and specific, if you do not know how to achieve it, you are sub-optimizing your efforts, at best.  Now you need to know how to achieve it.  The “how” might be clear to someone, because others have achieved it (like how to prepare to run a mile), or it might be something nobody has done before (like ending poverty).  In either case, the “how” is a hypothesis, and you can increase your odds of learning how to achieve it by setting the intention, engaging people who understand key elements, working collaboratively towards the objective, and adjusting along the way, as you learn from the feedback the world gives you.

What Your Objective Function Does.  Once you know the why, the what, and the how, the objective function begins to work throughout your organization.  People are making decisions all day long, most of which you are unaware of and do not involve you.  You cannot control your way through that, though many leaders try.  There are too many decisions constantly being made.  This is a danger of an objective function.  You do not know how it is actually being operationalized.  So, you can either try to control it, which does not work as there are too many decisions being made.  You can just hope for the best, which also does not work as it gives no direction or feedback. Or, you can collaboratively engage the people who are making the decisions, constantly informing each other about the decisions being made and the lessons being learned.  That has proven to work.

You Can Choose the Agreements.  You can see your objective function as a set of agreements, with lots of people acting on those agreements.  You can assume that you and everyone else know what those agreements are, that the agreements are the right ones, that the agreements are working to achieve the desired impact, and that no lessons are being learned, so there is no need for adjustments.  That does not work well, most of the time.  You can also assume that it is important to be clear on the deeper intention, and that it is important that everyone else shares that deeper intention.  You can also assume that the agreements need to be surfaced and worked with, on a regular basis, to see if they work well, if they actually do what you think they do, and how to adjust them as the context changes.  This is a leadership system based on shared awareness, attention, and feedback amongst the people cohosting the purpose, the objective function.  This is what Stuart Russell suggested.  It is better to know what is happening and adjust.

Advertisements

Great Places to Work or Great Spaces to Shine? — Recommended Readings

Loehr, Jim, and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Mankins, Michael, and Eric Garton. Time Talent Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.

Zak, Paul J. Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. New York: American Management Association, 2017.

Work.  A word people use a lot, which means different things.  Maybe they are different.  In worker-employer relations, work is the labor power–the work done per unit of time–that the laborer sells to the employer, who applies that work to getting something done. In thermodynamics, work is the amount of energy transferred from one system to another.  In physics, work is the application of a force over a distance, transferring energy from one place to another, or one form to another.  The word “work” comes from the PIE *werg-o-, suffixed form of root *werg- “to do.”  Maybe they aren’t different.  The common thread of these perspectives then might be work as doing something, setting something in motion.  That seems straightforward.  We work.

Work is measured in energy terms.  Compensation is measured in energy terms.  Common terms for measuring energy include metric joules, British Thermal Units, kilowatt-hours, and calories.  This suggests that work is measured in the energy we bring to the labor we apply over a period of time, measured in some form of joules or calories.  The word calorie comes from the Latin calor for heat.  We give our calorie energy to our employer’s activity in exchange for money with which we pay for the calories that nourish us (food) or for the protection from excessive waste of our heat energy (shelter and clothing), which are both defined as our basic human needs.

It is nice when work is pleasant and engaging, though recent global surveys show that work is not pleasant for most people.  Maybe part of the reason so many people around the world are disengaged at work is because of the way we define the very activity.  Maybe the problem is that it is seen as work.  The labor contract pays me for my work, my energy, my calories applied for a period of time.  What if, instead, we saw that I was invited to contribute my creative expression towards a deeper shared purpose, integrating my head (thoughts), heart (passions and relationships), and hands (will, intention, and action).  The unit of measure might then be the creative energy that flows through and from me–lumens–the light we see in the creativity of another’s expression.  These recommended readings explore this other worldview, where creative people most express their talents in the form of energy when fully engaged in spaces of trust.

Expressing lumens energy in terms of calorie energy, to make it easier for business leaders to apply, management consultants Michael Mankins and Eric Garton find that, “talented people show up for work every day, but then something happens and they can’t get as much done as they believe they could or should.  We think of that something as organizational drag, a collection of institutional factors that interfere with productivity yet somehow go unaddressed.  Organizational drag slows things down, decreasing output and raising costs.  Organizational drag saps energy and drains the human spirit…While the level varies, nearly every company we’ve studied loses a significant portion of its workforce’s productive capacity to drag” (p12).

Psychologist Jim Loehr and journalist Tony Schwartz suggest that, “The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much time we spend on the planet, but rather how much energy we invest in the time that we have…We have far more control over our energy than we ordinarily realize.  The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not.  It is our most precious resource.  The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become…Human beings are complex energy systems, and full engagement is not simply one-dimensional…To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focus and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest” (pp4,5,9).

Neureconomist Paul J. Zak finds that, “Managing people as human resources to be exploited for maximum gain produced workplaces that confirmed economists’ claims that work provides disutility.  Or, in the vernacular: Work is a drag.  Except sometimes it wasn’t.  There are organizations in which employees love what they do, where they are satisfied professionally and personally by their work…You have humans at work, not machines…It turns out that both trust and purpose activate regions of the brain that motivate cooperation with others, reinforcing behaviors essential to meeting organizational goals…Trust acts as an economic lubricant, reducing the frictions inherent in economic activity” (pp4,5, 10,11).  “A Deloitte/Harris Poll shows there is a serious worldwide Purpose deficit.  Sixty-eight percent of employees and 66 percent of executives said that their organizations do little to create a culture of Purpose” (p175).

While we would prefer to spend our time in great places to work than being disengaged in awful places to work, it seems that we would far prefer to fully engage our creativity in spaces of trust, great spaces to shine.  Which do you prefer?  It is a choice.

Why We Whine

People complain.  As highly attuned beacons and processors of what is happening inside of ourselves and in our environments, people know when they are experiencing what they want to experience.  When the reality they experience differs from what they want, they complain.

If the energy they want to engage towards a purpose that pulls them is not engaged towards that purpose, the energy and the frustration of its misapplication leak out, in the form of emotions, of whining.  We can look at whining as an annoyance, of someone else hefting their pains, their difficulties, on us.  Something to be avoided.  Or we can receive the feedback.

Feedback is when the universe lets us know what happened when our vision of the possible and a pathway to manifest the possible intersect with reality, when they become real, when they tangibilize.  When a person’s purposeful energy is not engaged as expected, towards their own purpose or towards the one they were invited to contribute to, they get frustrated, their unengaged energy wells up, and it begins to leak.  That hissing sound of the tightly lidded, over-boiling pot is called whining.  It is feedback.

The question is what to do with the feedback.  To know what to do, we have to inquire, to ask a question.  What is going on?  The leaking of frustration might come out with a lack of clarity.  As an emotional expression, sometimes it is hard to express the frustration in clear terms, in terms of the lack of engagement towards one’s intended purpose.  A process of inquiry explores the feedback, the misaligned purposeful energy.

One can inquire with another, co-hosting their process of discovery.  One can inquire on one’s own, with coaching support.  One can also inquire as a group.  The point is to see that there is feedback, which can be ignored, or the feedback can be received, allowing the possibility of a shift in agreements, so that the purposeful energy can be engaged.  The whining is feedback, the choice is whether to receive it or not.

Note: Hat tip to LS for the inquiry.

How Natural Is Our Relationship with Nature? — Recommended Reading

Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. [Read an excerpt.]

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Orders of Nature. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013.  [Read 1st chapter.]

Thomas, Chris D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. New York: Public Affairs, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regine. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.  [More about the author.]

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Suzuki, David, Amanda McConnell, and Adrienne Mason. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2007. [Read an excerpt.]

How do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  While seemingly simple questions, they have troubled philosophers and practitioners for millennia.  And, the perspective you take directly affects how you engage with nature.  The six recommended books in this post all explore this relationship and the deep implications for our resilience as humanity of that relationship.

We depend on nature.  In The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki reminds us that, “It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity, and produces food, but in cities, these ‘ecosystem services’ are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy” (p12).  Through our reductive approach to science today, we have reduced the whole of nature into pieces, “and as the world around us is examined in pieces, the rhythms, patterns, and cycles within which those pieces are integrated are lost” (p13).  “Looked at as biological beings, despite our veneer of civilization, we are no more removed from nature than any other creature, even in the midst of a large city.  Our animal nature dictates our essential needs: clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy” (p18).  David Suzuki then frames and explores our current understanding of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans), lithosphere (mineral), where they all mix (soil), the biosphere (fire), and what makes us human in our relationships (kin, love).  We need to be aware of the interweaving of these spheres we depend on: “With consciousness, we are able to perceive that there is a relationship between our environment and ourselves” (p267).  “Each of us has the ability to act powerfully for change; together we can regain that ancient and sustaining harmony, in which human needs and the needs of all our companions on the planet are held in balance with the sacred, self-renewing processes of Earth” (p330).

In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, author Thom Hartman reminds us of our intimate relationship with nature.  “Sunlight radiating heat, visible light, and ultraviolet light is the source of almost all life on Earth…Every life form on the surface of this planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something else was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body” (p7)  In the final analysis, “survival and prosperity both hinge on how much sunlight energy is under your control” (p35).  Thom Hartman then explores our relationship with current and stored sunlight.

Nature is dynamic and resilient, whether humans are in the mix or not.  In Inheritors of the Earth, biologist Chris Thomas explores the ecological and evolutionary dynamics and resilience of the biological realm of earth.  “Ecological and evolutionary changes are both of great importance.  Ecological success will determine the species that will live among us in the short term, and evolutionary success will alter the future direction of life on Earth” (p29).  While species come and go, the number of species is growing (p62), and human environments are influencing which ones spread and grow, with species finding new niches where they survive, often different from where they originally evolved (pp79,118). Nature is resilient, with new species adapting to ecological and evolutionary changes.

We are nature.  In The Orders of Nature, philosopher Lawrence Cahoone provides the context and a current state of understanding for five orders of nature that constitute the reality we humans perceive: the physical; material; biological; mental; and cultural.  We exist as an integration of all five orders, partially in relationship with the minerals, plants, and animals that share some of these orders.  Students of each order have a different way of making sense of what is real, rarely understanding the logic of another.  This leads to difficulties in defining what is real, across orders, which influences the ways in which we interact with the order of our reality.

We better take care of the nature that we are.  In Down to Earth, philosopher Bruno Latour suggests that to deal with the level of ecological challenges facing humanity, it is time to shift our underlying understanding.  “Saying, ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying, ‘We are humans in nature.’ The two are not made of the same cloth–or rather of the same mud” (p86).  “The Terrestrial reorganizes politics.  Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with the others.  CO2 is not spatialized in the same way as urban transport systems; aquifers are not local in the same sense as bird flu” (p93).  In this reorientation towards the terrestrial, our home of which we are an integral part and which is an integral part of us, Bruno Latour suggests a shift in political focus from the dichotomy of either local-based or global-based to earth-based, which is both local and global.

In Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth frames an “ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity…point(ing) towards a future that can provide for every person’s needs while safeguarding the living world on which we all depend” (p39).  To develop this balance between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling, we need to move from an economics of “endless growth to thriving in balance” (p45).  Kate Raworth works through the basic tools of endless-growth economics, replacing them with tools of thriving-in-balance economics: from GDP to social and ecological limits; from self-contained markets to embedded economies; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from “growth will even it up” to distributive by design; and from growth addicted to growth agnostic.

Returning to the starting questions, how do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  These six authors provide updated, easy-to-approach explorations of these questions.  They each show that the perspective you take from these explorations directly affects how you engage with nature, and your life depends on it.  It is your choice.  I recommend the journey.

Scarcity As Verb, Not Noun

People compete with each other for scarce resources.  All resources are scarce.  That is the basic assumption of the western, economic-based view of the world.  The resources, the nouns, are scarce. There are only so many toothbrushes or hamburgers available.  They are scarce nouns.  So, the world is full of scarce nouns, right?  Some say yes, others say no.

Let’s start with the people who have most influenced the economic thinking that permeates western thinking today.  As Harvard economist Professor Mankiw writes, “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources” (Mankiw, N. Gregory. Principles of Economics. Fourth ed. Mason, OH: Thomson, 2008, p 4).  Nobel laureates in economics, MIT economist Professor Samuelson and Yale economist Professor Nordhaus agreed, “Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources” (Samuelson, Paul A., and William D. Nordhaus. Economics. Fifteenth ed. Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1995, p 4).

The definition of economics as the study of scarce resources is often attributed to London School of Economics Professor Robbins, who famously wrote, “Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses…Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others which, in different circumstances, we would wish not to have relinquished. Scarcity of means to satisfy ends of varying importance is an almost ubiquitous condition of human behavior” (Robbins, Lionel. An Essay of the Nature & Significance of Economic Science. Second ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1945, p 15-16).

So are nouns scarce?  Columbia University economic historian Professor Polanyi said no. “Polanyi suggests.. ‘to situations in which insufficiency induces choice between the alternative uses of the goods’, and should be used to denote a relationship between means and ends rather than ‘as an adjective appropriate to qualify things of goods’ in which the element of choice is absent” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 111).  Polanyi says that what might be perceived to be scarce is the relationship between means and ends, the verb of how people access resources, not the resources themselves.

Author Gareth Dale further clarifies Polanyi’s perspective, in that “scarcity cannot be assessed independently of its meanings in a given cultural context. In modern market economics scarcity becomes generalized: since everything is interconnected, everything is scarce.  By contrast, consider the Mbuti Pygmies, who, the anthropologist Colin Turnbull discovered, envision their forest habitat as benevolent and lavish, or the Trobriand Islanders, who normally grow ‘twice as much yam fruit as they need and allow it to rot.  They phrase their economic life in terms of plenty, while according to our standards they are surrounded by scarcity.  We, according to their standards, are surrounded by plenty but phrase our economic life in terms of scarcity” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 112).

What might be perceived as scarce are verbs, the “how” people access nouns.  Certain cultural worldviews with accompanying political and social structures might make the means to the ends scarce.  From this perspective, the nouns can be replenished over time, so maybe what is scarce is the accessing of the nouns, the verbs.

What do you see?

Is Somebody Else Using Your Will?

“A survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of employees had been bullied at work and another 15 percent witnessed workplace bullying, which was defined by repeated mistreatment and included behaviors such as threats, humiliation, and sabotaging employees’ work.  One of the most disconcerting findings about bullies of all ages is that they are not naive…(B)ullies have a better-than-average capability to mind-read and use their social fluency to manipulate others to achieve selfish ends…(When researchers) investigated the assumption that bullies have poor moral reasoning, which is to say that they have trouble differentiating right versus wrong…(t)hey found that bullies’ moral reasoning capabilities were just as sound as defenders’ and that both groups has moral reasoning scores that were higher than victims’.  However, bullies showed significantly lower levels of compassion and they were more likely to rationalize away their immoral behavior by seeing their selfish gains as taking precedence over the emotional costs incurred by victims” (p99), as described by psychologist Ty Tashiro in his book Awkward.  It is not wise to assume (1) that people do not use other people’s will inappropriately, or (2) that those who do are ignorant.  They are not ignorant.  That does not mean, however, that their actions are good for the group or for the impact the group wants to have.

What is the cost to any group of people interacting with one another in this kind of behavior?  What is the cost of shutting down the creative flow of others?  When someone’s will is used to someone else’s purpose, that FREEE energy is simultaneously highly inefficient and the risk of losing that person or at least their creative contribution to the group is very high.  Why would you invite people to engage in interactions with you, like the work context, to have their contribution collapsed to very low levels of energy, towards someone else’s purpose?  Not very clever.  And, that is from the perspective of the person who has invited people to engage in a group effort.

From the perspective of the person whose will is inappropriately being used by someone else, this is very disengaging, de-energizing, exhausting.  The documented physical and mental effects of this disengagement of the human being is clear, in the form of stress, fatigue, and poor physical and mental health.  Like every other use of your creative, purposeful energy, this is a choice.  Your choice.

The Costs of Empathic Inaccuracy — Recommended Reading

Tashiro, Ty.  Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. New York: William Morrow, 2017.  Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 here.

When it is appropriate, most people like being seen.  Seen for who they are, for what they contribute, and for their creativity. Appropriateness depends on the context.  In contexts of trust and support, people tend to like to be noticed and supported.  This seems obvious.  And, in many situations, people do not experience being seen.  They are disconnected from others in those contexts.  Recent global surveys seem to indicate that where people spend most of their time, at work, is one of those contexts where many people experience not being seen.  What is the cost to creativity, to innovation, to organizational resilience and impacts when people are not seen?

To experience being seen, someone else has to be doing the seeing.  What capacities are required for this seeing of another?  What happens when people lack these capacities or fail to use them in specific contexts, like at work?  In his recent book on awkwardness, psychologist Ty Tashiro explores the world of empathy, those who lack capacities for seeing another, and how the particular ways that they look at the world bring other gifts.

The World of Empathy.  “Empathy is defined as the ability to understand another person’s emotional state and to deliver an appropriate response” (p71).  To be seen is to be in relationship, a basic need of humans.  Research finds that “humans’ psychological drive to maintain a few gratifying relationships was as fundamental as physical needs such as food and water…When we satiate our need to belong we feel a surge of positive emotion…The strongest predictor of happiness is not our job, income, or attaining our fitness goals, but rather the presence of gratifying social relationships…People with gratifying interpersonal relationships have better physical health and longer life expectancies” (pp9-10).

Specific contexts, and the ways that we agree to enter them, are making many of us more awkward.  That we are always plugged into our devices, completely oblivious to what is happening around us, we become socially awkward, in a high percentage of the interactions we have with others.

The Costs of Empathic Inaccuracy.  Empathic accuracy is the agreement between (a) what you think another person is thinking and feeling and (b) what they are actually thinking and feeling.  How well are you perceiving what is actually happening in the other person?  This is a critical capacity for being able to interact with others, to seeing and inviting their unique contributions, to being able to collaborate on creating something unique together.  The lack of empathic accuracy leads to the costs of empathic inaccuracy.  When we ignore others or talk at them, we have no idea what is actually happening inside of them.  When this happens, none of their FREEE energy is being engaged towards the purpose we are inviting them into.  Despite the obviousness of this, most people in most processes in most interactions seem not to do this.  It requires curiosity, inquiring into the other, which most people, especially at work, seem not to do.  The costs of this are huge.  The potential energy that is always there does not engage.  People get exhausted, contributing nothing.  The lack of innovation and learning decreases resilience and increases the likelihood of becoming obsolete.  The problem, and the resulting costs, do not seem to be a problem with the individuals, per se, rather with the ways people consciously choose or unconsciously accept to interact–the rules of the game, the agreements field they interact in with others.  This is the good news, because we can agree to change our agreements much more easily than we can agree to change the basic nature of who we are and how we function as individuals.

Other Gifts.  While social awkwardness seems to be increasing rapidly, and its costs are huge, we should not be too quick to judge all awkwardness.  Some types of awkwardness bring other skills.  “If you think about the vibe that characterizes your interactions with awkward people, there is often an agitated energy that underlies the interaction, which can make them appear nervous, irritated, or generally upset.  But if you view the awkward person as someone who is experiencing the interaction as particularly intense, then the unusual vibe they give off starts to make more sense…Avoiding eye contact helps them avoid the strong emotional cues conveyed by faces and especially the eye region” (p75).  This type of awkwardness results from a high capacity to focus, on very specific, reduced sets of information.  One term for this is “localized processing style, which describes people who tend to narrowly focus on some of the trees rather than the entire forrest.  When people are disposed to a localized processing style, they tend to create social narratives that feel fragmented and incomplete…Although awkward people are missing important social information that falls outside of their narrow aperture, what they do see is brilliantly illuminated and this gives them a deep nuanced perspective about things that no one else takes the time to notice.  The parts of the world they can see are seen with remarkable clarity.  They become experts in all things stage left and their clear, focused view on their specialized interests give them a unique view of that part of the world” (pp21-22).

Whether the social awkwardness we might experience in ourselves or in others is due to the way the person is or to the way we agree to interact, greater empathic accuracy can help us.  More accurately interpreting what is happening in the other person’s thinking and feeling has great benefits in both cases, and it greatly reduces the costs of empathic inaccuracy.  It is a choice.

 

 

Confusing the Unfamiliar with the Improbable

“There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.  The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.”

— Game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas C. Schelling’s Introduction to, (p. vii, Wohlstetter, Roberta. Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1962, p. vii).

 

The unfamiliar.  Just because we have not seen something before does not mean that it is not relevant or that it cannot be seen.  There are a few possibilities for why it might be unfamiliar.  To start with, it could be because of different capabilities, intentions, or attention.

Different capabilities.  I am different today than I was yesterday, last week, last month, last year, and many years ago.  As I have changed, so have my capabilities.  Developmentally, I am able to perceive, understand, and work with things I could not earlier in my life.  I have grown.  Maybe what is unfamiliar now has always been there, and I was just not able to perceive, understand, or work with it before.  Maybe I can now.

Different intentions. What I give my intentions to today might be different than what was important to me in the past.  I have changed what I am in service to over the years.  My calling in the past had me pay attention to that intention and the different things that influenced it and that it influenced.  There was a system around that intention, and I paid attention to that system.  Maybe what is unfamiliar now had little to do with that earlier intention.  Maybe it is relevant in the system around my current intention.  Maybe now I care.

Different attention.  What I give my attention to is greatly influenced by how I see the world.  My worldview, in great part, influences where I put my attention.  What is unfamiliar now might sit outside of my earlier worldview, so I have never given it attention before.  That does not mean that it is not relevant or seeable, only that it was not in my earlier worldview, so it didn’t get my attention, before.  It could now.  I could change my worldview and what gets my attention.

Three reasons, to start with, for why something might be unfamiliar to me.  I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t see it, I didn’t see it.  I can now.  If I do now, then it isn’t unfamiliar, any more.

The improbable.  Something that is improbable is unlikely to happen, within a specific context.  We often assume that a context is given, as if it is a fact that it is that way, and that it will never change.  And, it turns out that everything changes, eventually.  Everything.  So, it is not whether the context will change, rather when.  If the context can change, then something that was unlikely to happen might become more likely to happen, when the context changes.  It can also remain very unlikely, in a different context.  The challenge here is to see what the context is that makes it unlikely now.  How will the context change?  Will the change in context change the probability that the improbable will happen?

It might seem easier to just assume that something that is unfamiliar is strange and therefore unlikely to happen, it is improbable.  And, if it does happen and impacts us negatively, that is our fault.  We could have paid attention, and we didn’t.  With a little effort, we can consider the contingency we normally would not, the change in context that will definitely happen, and seriously consider the consequences.  At least, then, we are making it familiar, and easy to pay attention to, now.

“Complex Problem Solving” as Top Priority of Leading Organizations

To be successful today and in the future, what is it most critical that you know how to do?  According to the 2018 “Future of Jobs” report from the World Economic Forum, leaders from around the world agree that “complex problem solving” is a top priority.

“With regard to the overall scale of demand for various skills in 2020, more than one third (36%) of all jobs across all industries are expected by our respondents to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills.”

Most people assume that complex problem solving is for people who think long-term and strategically, like an army General or a CEO.   But, before we accept that assumption, what is complex problem solving?  The OECD defines “complex problem solving” as “developed capacities used to solve novel, ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings.” This is a practical skill everyone needs for daily living, for consciously choosing the agreements they enter.

To see the embedded choices hidden in our social agreements, and to see how to liberate and engage the vast creative energy we each bring to everything we do every day, we need to understand how to make decisions in the complexity of social systems.  The World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs” report suggests that 36% percent of jobs will require this capacity in the next years.  I believe that everyone everywhere should be able to choose their agreements everyday.  My colleagues and I call this eCubed (everyone everywhere everyday).  eCubed suggests that everybody needs the capacity for complex problem solving everywhere everyday, right now.

The skills for complex problem solving can be developed by everyone.  They include:

  • defining a clear, concise, validated, and mutually owned objective function — this requires knowing what a clear, deeper shared purpose is and how to achieve it
  • defining the system of interrelated people and resources that, together, generate the desired dynamics of the objective function — this requires basic systems thinking skills
  • clarifying the actual values of each stakeholder influencing the desired dynamics, specifying the dimensions and parameters they use to make the decisions that influence actual dynamics — this requires knowing how to inquire, asking questions that identify and validate specific parameters
  • designing agreements based on efficiency, effectiveness, and impact resilience — this requires knowing how to put all of the other elements together, and how to choose agreements that meet these criteria

My colleagues and I, as well as millions of others around the world, have been teaching these basic skills for decades to people ranging in age from 5 to 100 years old.  Everyone can do this.  And, it gives them the capacity to choose their agreements, to decide what they give their yes to, everyday everywhere.

What Power Is More Resilient, Coercion or Collaboration?

Why do some people coerce people into doing things?  Why do others invite people into creative, collaborative work together?  Which is more powerful?  Which one is more resilient?

Power is the amount of energy for a given period of time.  In physics it is calculated as the work done over a period of time.  More power can get more work done in the same amount of time.  Power, or the energy available, to get things done can be used to get things done for oneself or for others.

There is an old saying that power corrupts.  Having power often leads people to the power paradox: while they get their power–the energy to get things done–from others because of their work for others, they can also begin to use the power to do things for themselves.  In the power paradox, people who begin to use their power for their own ends, start to lose their access to and grip on power.  To maintain their relative power, they have three options.  They can get more power through co-benefit, by doing things that benefit others, who give them the energy to do work.  They can co-opt the energy of others through coercion, forcing others to give them their energy.  They can decrease the power of others, through coercion, tipping the balance of power back in their own favor.  So, people can increase their relative power by (1) doing good for others, (2) coercing others, or (3) decreasing the power of others.  With the first, power is co-generated–they get more power, and others keep their power.  With the second, power is diffused–they get more power, and others lose their power.  With the third, power is dissipated–others lose their power to heat, to self-preservation.  The first is generative.  The second and third are coercive and destructive.

Power gains that are based on destruction must be less resilient, over time, than power gains based on co-generation.  Resilience is the ability to continue to function when the context changes.  While coercion can appropriate the energy of others, it must be mostly in the form of the energy resources of others, the capacities they already have.  Energy gained through generative interactions often engages (1) the energy resources of others, and (2) their development of relationships and capacities over time, and (3) engagement of their creative potential.  While destructive forces can get (1), generative forces can engage (1), (2), and (3).  That has to be more resilient.

In our Institute for Strategic Clarity research on groups that focus more on coordination, cooperation, or collaboration, we find that collaborative efforts engage people around a deeper shared purpose, to which everyone contributes their unique gifts, their energy resources and learning and potential.  We find that cooperative efforts invite people to contribute shared resources, and that coordination efforts assign people to use their own energy resources to do their own work, which might be pieced together later.  In the three cases of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, each group keeps their power, and is invited to contribute ever greater levels of it to the group effort.

In coercive efforts, the power of others is diminished.  It is co-opted by the coercive enforcer, taking the other’s energy, their will, and using it for the coercer’s purposes.  This can be done consciously and unconsciously.  In conscious coercion, the coerced know they are being coerced, that their energy is being usurped for another person’ purposes.  Bullying fits in this category.  In unconscious coercion, the coerced have often unconsciously accepted a set of agreements where their energy is used by the coercer for the coercer’s purposes, without the coercer knowing that this is what they are doing.  Many social settings fit this category, such as the use of fiat currencies to enrich the currency owners–we get loans and pay interest rates, with no clue as to how the monetary system works.

In collaborative efforts, the power of each individual and of the group is increased.  The energy is co-generated by the impact resulting from the engaging and leveraging of the unique contributions of each individual.  Everyone keeps their power and ends up with more.

In coercion, someone ends up with more, and others end up with less.  In collaboration, everyone ends up with more.  Which leads to greater resilience?