The story of a threat

Continuing my exploration of narratives that catalyze coherence, I would be remiss to not talk about the story of a threat.

The story of a threat is easily the most innately felt story. When compared to the story of an opportunity, it seems to be more visceral, primitive, and instinctive. It is also a prediction of compounding returns, but this time, the returns are negative. The story of a threat also conveys a vivid mental model of a compounding loop, but the gradient of the curve is pointing toward doom at an alarming rate. Living in 2021, I don’t need to go too far for an example here: the all-too-familiar waves of COVID-19 death rates are etched in our collective consciousness. Just like with the story of an opportunity, there’s something  valuable that we have and the story predicts that we’re about to lose it all.

Structurally, the story of a threat usually begins with depiction of the vital present (the glorious “now”), emphasizing the significance of how everything is just so right now. It then proceeds to point out a yet-hidden catastrophe that is about to befall us. The reveal of the catastrophe must be startling and deeply disconcerting: the story of a threat does not seem to work as effectively with “blah-tastrophes.” Being able to “scare the pants off” the listener is the aim of the story.

A curious property of the story of a threat is that it is a half-story. It only paints the picture of the terrible future in which we’ll definitely be engulfed. Unlike with the story of an opportunity, there is less agency. Something bad is happening to us, and we gotta jump or perish. In that sense, the story of a threat is reactive — contrasted with the proactive thrust of the story of an opportunity. Being reactive, it propels the listener toward some action, leaving out the specifics of the action.

This half-storiness is something that is frequently taken advantage of in politics. Once the listener is good and ready, sufficiently distraught by the prospect of the impending disaster, any crisp proposal for action would do. We must do something, right? Why not that?

The story of a threat is a brute force to be reckoned with, and is extremely challenging to contain. Such stories can briefly catalyze coherence. But unless quickly and deliberately converted to the story of an opportunity, they tend to backfire. Especially in organizations where employees can just leave for another team, the story of a threat is rarely a source of enduring coherence. More often than not, it’s something to be wary of for organizational leaders. If they themselves are subject to the story of a threat, chances are they are undermining the coherence of their organization.

Prototype the problem

I was looking for practices that help expand shared mental model space and thinking about prototyping. I’ve always been amazed by the bridging power of hacking together something that kind-of-sort-of works and can be played with by others. Crystallized imagination, even when it’s just glue and popsicle sticks, immediately advances the conversation.

However, we often accidentally limit this power by prototyping solutions to problems that we don’t fully understand. When trying to expand the shared mental model space, it is tempting to make our ideas as “real” as possible — and in the process, produce answers based on a snapshot of a state, not accounting for the movement of the parts. Given a drawing of a car next to a tree and asked to solve the “tree problem,” I might devise several ingenious solutions for protecting the paint of the car from tree sap. No amount of prototyping will help me recognize that the “tree problem” is actually about the car careening toward the tree.

My colleague Donald Martin has a resonant framing here: prototype the problem (see him talk about it at PAIR Symposium). Prototyping the problem means popping the prototyping effort a level above solution space, out to the problem space. The prototype of a problem will look like a model describing the forces that influence and comprise the phenomenon we recognize as the problem. In the car example above, the “tree problem” prototype might involve understanding the speed at which the car is moving, strengths of participating materials (tree, car, person, etc.), as well as the means to control direction and speed of the car.

Where it gets tricky is making problem prototypes just as tangible as solution prototypes. There are many techniques available: from loosely contemplating a theory of change, to causal loop diagrams, to full-blown system dynamics. All have the same drawback: they aren’t as intuitive to grasp or play with as actually making a semi-working product mock-up. Every one of these requires us to first expand our shared mental space to think in terms of prototyping the problems. Recursion, don’t you love it.

Yet, turning our understanding of the problem into a playable prototype is a source of a significant advantage. First, we can reason about the environment, expanding both our solution space and the problem space. For that “tree problem,” discovering the role of material strengths guides me toward inventing seatbelts and airbags, no longer confined to just yelling  “veer left! brake harder!” But most importantly, it allows us to examine the problem space collectively, enriching it with bits that we would have never seen individually. My intuition is that an organization with a well-maintained problem prototype as part of its shared mental model space will not just be effective — it would also be a joy to work in.

Organizing and sensing connections

Tucked away in a couple of paragraphs of the brilliant paper by Cynthia Kurtz and David Snowden, there’s a highly generative insight. The authors make a distinction between the kinds of connections within an organization and then correlate the strength of these connections to the Cynefin quadrants. I accidentally backed into these correlations myself once. What particularly interested me was the introduction of connections into the Cynefin thinking space, so I am going to riff on that.

First, I’ll deviate from the paper and introduce my own taxonomy (of course). Looking at how information travels across a system, let’s imagine two kinds: connections that relay organizing information and connections that relay sensing information. For example, a reporting chain is a graph (most often, a tree) of organizing connections: it is used to communicate priorities, set and adjust direction, etc. Muscles and bones in our bodies are also organizing connections: they hold us together, right? Organizing connections define the structure of the system. Nerve endings, whiskers, and watercooler chats are examples of sensing connections  — they inform the system of the environment (which includes the system itself), and hopefully, of the changes in that environment.

With this taxonomy in hand, we can now play in the Cynefin spaces. It is pretty clear that the Unpredictable World (my apologies, I also use different names for Cynefin bits than the paper) favors weak organizing connections and the Predictable World favors the  strong ones. Organization is what makes a world predictable. In the same vein, Chaotic and Obvious spaces favor weak sensing connections, contrary to the neighboring Complex and Complicated spaces with their fondness for strong sensing connections.

Seems fairly straightforward and useful, right? Depending on the nature of the challenge I am facing, aiming for the right mix of organizing and sensing connections of the organizational structures can help me be more effective. Stamping out billions of identical widgets?  Go for strong organizational connections, and reduce the sensing network. Solving hard engineering problems? Make sure that both organizational and sensing connection networks are robust: one to hold the intention, the other to keep analyzing the problem.

Weirdly, the causality goes both ways. The connection mix doesn’t just make organization more effective in different spaces. It also defines the kinds of problems that the organization can perceive.

A team with strong organizing connections and non-existent sensing connections will happily march down its predetermined path — every problem will look Obvious to it. Sure, the earth will burn around it and everything will go to hell in the end, but for the 99.9% of the journey, their own experience will be blissfully righteous. The solution to war is obvious to a sword.

Similarly, if that engineering organization loses its steady leader, weakening the strength of its organizing connection network, every problem will suddenly start looking Complex. The magic of constructed reality is that it is what we perceive it to be.

This might be a useful marker to watch for. If you work in a team that merrily stamps widgets, and suddenly everything starts getting more Complicated, look for those tendrils of sensing connections sprouting. And if you’re working at the place where the thick fog of Complexity begins to billow, it might be the environment. But it also could be the loss of purpose that kept y’all together all this time.

Say it in many different ways

Shared mental model spaces are challenging to grow and expand. Mental models, especially novel and interesting ones, are subtle and have to be examined patiently to become shareable. The process of sharing itself often causes the models to mutate, creating variants that take off on their own. It’s a bewilderingly complex process, evoking images of mercury drops and murmurations.

And yet, this is how we learn. This is the only process we humans have at our disposal for creating intersubjective reality. Every failed attempt at sharing, each blank stare and subtle — or not-so-subtle — mutation takes us a tiny step closer to expanding our shared mental model space and becoming more capable of communicating together.

I used to get frustrated and give up pretty easily when my ideas were left seemingly unheard. Flip that bozo bit — make life easier. “They don’t get me.” As I’d found, that was a recipe for a self-isolating vicious cycle: my head is full of insights, but nobody can understand what the hell I just said. Why say anything at all?

It took me some time to figure out that for novel ideas and mental models, the rewrite count is crazy-high. Our minds are these massive networks of mental models. To become shared between us, a mental model needs to overlap with enough existing mental models to bridge to the new ideas. So, if I reframe “they are not getting my idea” as “I haven’t yet built enough bridges to their existing models,” the path toward shared mental model space becomes more evident. To get to that resonant moment of understanding, I have to keep conveying and re-conveying concepts in many different ways. I have to say it in many different ways, relying on different framings and metaphors, until the bridge suddenly appears and — click! — you and I share a model.

I also have to let my model mutate. Though it sounds similar, the process I am describing is very different from “convincing.” Achieving a shared mental model means accepting that what I bring with me is subject to change. The bridge works both ways. Your mental models enrich and influence mine. And each re-telling of a concept creates a new opportunity to bridge with someone else’s mind.

The story of an opportunity

While geeking out on this idea of coherence and possible mechanisms that bring coherence, I ended up in a fun rabbit hole of narratives as catalysts for coherence. There seems to be certain kinds of stories that somehow end up bringing people together, organizing them and the outcomes of their efforts into a coherent whole. Looking back at my experiences, the one that stood out was the story of an opportunity.

Generally, the story of an opportunity is a prediction of compounding returns. Such a story conveys a mental model of a compounding loop, along with a recipe (sometimes just a sketch) for reaping benefits off it. I use “compounding returns” and “benefits” here very broadly. It can be straight-up money. It can be gathering enough impact to get a promotion.  It can be acquired insights, carbon emission reduction, the attention of others, or practically any tangible or intangible thing we find valuable.

The story of an opportunity begins with describing the status quo in a way that’s resonant for the listeners. Then, it depicts the (boring/awful) future based on the status quo, setting up for the big reveal: the possibility of drastically different outcomes. This is the central moment of the story, the captivating twist in which the listeners acquire a mental model — how a change in their actions can lead to exponential returns. 

At this stage of the story, the fork in the road is presented. Do the old thing and get old results, or do this other thing and get to ride the power of compounding returns. The story of an opportunity continues with plotting a path, helping the listener become convinced that taking the new path is plausible and perhaps even prudent. There’s usually a discussion of costs that might be high, but meager next to the predicted outcomes — and a conclusion that asks for commitment.

There’s something incredibly powerful about such stories. The glimpse of that mental model can be intoxicating and inspiring (and sometimes, ruinous). Growing up in the Soviet Union, I was prepared for linear outcomes: things will happen in this sequence, and then this will happen. It will all roughly be the same. Then, the iron curtain fell and the American Dream unceremoniously barged into my youthful mind. The movie that truly changed my life was The Secret of My Success, a bad movie that aged even more poorly. But back then, the cartoonish portrayal of riding a compounding loop of wit and circumstance was my fork of the road, followed by dramatic life-defining choices.

A story of an opportunity can act as a force of coherence in an organization. It can inspire people to come together and do amazing things, putting their hearts, sweat, and tears into the common goal. It is also just a story, and as such, can morph or be replaced by other stories, affecting coherence. The durability of a story’s power seems to reside in the accuracy of its prediction: how does what happens next reflect on our chances for riding the compounding loop? In an unpredictable environment, this accuracy diminishes quite a bit, making it more challenging to find a lasting story of an opportunity. Yet, it does seem like we collectively yearn for these stories, continue to look for them — and feel betrayed by them when the predictions don’t pan out.

Consistency, cohesion, and coherence

My colleague Micah introduced me to this framing of different degrees of organization and I found it rather useful. Recently, I shared the framing with my son and he came up with a pretty neat metaphor that I will try to capture here.

Imagine a box of gears. All gears are of different sizes and kinds. There are spur gears, bevel gears, herringbone, and their tooth spacing is all different. It’s a boxful of random junk. We call this state disorganized: entities are disjointed and aren’t meant to fit together.

Now, let’s imagine a different box. It is also full of gears, but here, all gears are of the same kind, and they all fit. It’s still just a pile of gears, but at least they are consistent. This state of consistency is our next degree of organization. The entities fit together, but aren’t connected in any way.

If we took the gears out of that second box and built a working gear system out of them, we would achieve the next degree of organization, the state of cohesion. Here, the entities have been organized into something that actually does something — we turn one gear and all others start turning with it. It’s amazing.

But what does this gear system do? This is where the story’s final degree of organization comes. Running rigs of gears are cool, but when we build them to do something intentional — like changing the rotational speed or torque of a motor — we reach the state of coherence. In this state, the entities don’t just work together, they are doing so to fulfill some intention. The addition of intentionality is a focusing function. In the state of cohesion, we’d be perfectly fine with building a contraption that engages all the gears we have. When we seek coherence, we will likely discard gears that might fit really well, but don’t serve the purpose of intention.

We also noticed that the states aren’t necessarily a straight-line progression. Just picture a bunch of gears that barely fit, rigged to do something useful — thus skipping the consistency stage altogether.

Playing with this metaphor and developer surfaces (APIs, tools, docs, etc.) produces a handy set of examples. If my APIs are all over the place, each in different language, style, and set of dependencies, we can safely call my developer surface disorganized. Making them all line up and match in some common style/spirit turns them consistent. If I go one step further and make the APIs easy to combine and build stuff with, I’ve taken my developer surface to the state of cohesiveness. Given how rare this is in real life, it’s a reason to celebrate already. But there’s one more state. My developer surface is coherent when the developers who use it produce outcomes that align with my intentions for the surface. If I made a UI framework with the intent to enable buttery-smooth end-user interactions, but all the users see is a bloated, janky mess — my developer surface could be consistent and cohesive, but it’s definitely not coherent.

Limits of attachment and capacity are interlinked

It felt both liberating and somehow odd to make a distinction between the limits of capacity and attachment. I’ve been thinking about that oddness and here’s an extra twist to the story.

The limits of attachment and capacity are interrelated. They are in this circular relationship that’s reminiscent of yin and yang. When I am struggling to grasp something or feel overwhelmed and generally experiencing the limit of capacity, it is usually the limit of attachment that is holding me back from gaining this capacity. Conversely, when I lash out in fear and frustration, trapped by my limit of attachment — it is usually the limit of capacity that prevents me from reframing and shifting my perspective to loosen my attachment.

Even more interestingly, the limit of attachment sometimes rises out of experiencing the limit of capacity, and vice versa. A few years back, I was the tech lead of a large team. As the team kept growing, I distinctly felt that I was losing track of everything that was going on. I was in over my head, hitting that limit of capacity. Meetings and syncs were overflowing my calendar, with the notes from that period of time turning increasingly terse and cryptic. One of the distinct fears — limit of attachment! — I remember from that time, was “I will fail to produce a coherent direction for the team.” I was holding too firmly onto a certain way of leading the team, and as I became more overwhelmed, I instinctively tried to hold it even firmer. So what did I do? I decided that the problem was somewhere else — it was the team that wasn’t organized right! I dove into drawing up plans for organizing teams and programs and all those other doc and chart artifacts that ultimately were not helpful — and likely the opposite. Experiencing the limit of capacity fed my limit of attachment — the fear of failing my team as their leader. Which in turn fed my limit of capacity with all the teamification work I created. The vicious cycle ended up being so horrific and traumatizing, I ended up leaving the team.

This story has a happy ending. This experience was also the eye-opening moment I needed, my first glimpse into the nature of complexity, being subject to some unknown force with increasing recognition of this force’s existence — my first conscious subject-object shift. It also helped me see that when folks around me bump into their limits to seeing, they are likely facing both the limit of capacity and the limit of attachment at the same time. And when they do, they are standing at the doorstep of vertical development.

It’s a unicycle!

Thinking a bit more about correlated compounding loops, I would like to improve on my metaphor. I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier, but it’s clearly not a tricycle — it’s a unicycle! Having never ridden one, I can only imagine a bit more balancing and finesse needed to ride than a bicycle. So it’s settled then. It’s all about unicycles and bicycles from here on. Transportation of the future.

When the motor and the rudder rely on the same or highly correlated compounding loops, we have ourselves a unicycle. Conversely, we have a bicycle when the motor and the rudder use low- or non-correlated compounding loops. Bicycles tend to be more stable and unicycles more finicky.

For example, a tenured position is a solid bicycle. With the tenure secured, I can focus on steering toward the desired change, knowing that my motor will continue to provide the necessary power. Companies establishing research centers like PARC or Bell Labs is another example of bicycles: creating distance between the source of funding and the environment of change. This distance does not have to be large. Any buffer between the cash that’s coming in (motor) and the expenses dedicated to achieving desired outcomes (rudder) is acting as the unicycle-to-bicycle conversion kit.

There’s still more to consider in this transportation metaphor. It feels like the notion of groundedness is important. Are both bicycle wheels on the ground — is the rudder experiencing the same environment as the motor? What is the impact of that motor/rudder correlation on the time horizon of the intended change? I am still chewing on these.

Complexity escape routes and listening to learn

I was teaching the workshop on complexity this week, an outgrowth of my Adventures In Complexity slides. One of the interesting ideas that I was emphasizing during the workshop was this notion that we humans tend to be rather uncomfortable in Complex space. We traced the two intuitive pathways out of this space as escaping to Complicated and escaping to Chaotic.

We escape to Complicated space through insufficient framing: converting a complex phenomenon into a “problem to be solved” as quickly as we possibly can. We escape to Chaotic space by escalating: instead of viewing a complex phenomenon as a problem to be solved, we choose to view it as a threat. This particular kind of escape is just as tempting as the first one — and perhaps even more. How many difficult conversations did we turn into stupid, ultimately losing fights? How many emergencies did we create just to avoid sitting with the discomfort of complexity?

But the most interesting insight came when I was sharing some of my favorite tools from my complexity toolkit. I learned the Listening to Learn framework from Jennifer Garvey Berger and used it many times before this workshop. However, talking about the escape routes right next to it connected them in a novel way.

It seems that Listening to Win is closely correlated with the way we escape complexity by shifting to Chaotic space. “Winning” here is very much a confrontation with a distinct intent of containing a threat. In the same vein, Listening to Fix is a shoe-in for the steps we take to escape over to Complicated space: framing-shmaming, let’s fix this thing! It is the third way of listening, the eponymous Listening to Learn is what encourages us to hold complexity and resist taking the escape routes. I was surprised and delighted to make this connection and can’t wait to incorporate it into my next workshop.