Micro and macro jank

If our team’s OODA loop runs just a tiny bit slower than the clock of the environment, we will generate a flurry of micro-jank — many incidents that are so tiny, we can barely notice them. Unlike with machines, our collective resilience will helpfully wallpaper over these thousand cuts. However, as we’ve learned before, an incident of jank creates a deficit for the next cycle. It is fairly easy to see that this deficit continues to accrue over time. So the micro-jank grows into larger problems over time.

This larger problem usually manifests as macro-jank: a big reset that is clearly felt by everyone in the organization. The whole team seizes up and briefly stops listening to the environment’s clock, focusing inwardly to sort out their own mess.

In my experience, this phenomenon has an easily recognizable marker. A team that accrues OODA deficit tends to fall into this gait of periodically changing things around to see if their troubles will go away. However, because the source of the deficit remains unexplored, the rearranging of furniture rarely results in lasting change. Be it a dramatic shift in priorities, changing of leadership, or a reorg — it’s at best a temporary fix, quickly leading back to deficit accrual.

One of my go-to examples of this sawtooth pattern is “leads reset.” As the team forms, a small group of leads is organized. At first, these leads operate as an effective unit, providing valuable direction and insights on priorities to the rest of the team. However, as the time goes by, leads discover gaps in their knowledge, and pull in more people onto the leads group. Sometimes this happens as a result of a team growing, but often, the breadth of the challenge is such that a small group of people simply can’t grasp it fully. Plus, it feels important to be in the leads group. After a little while, the group of leads becomes large and unwieldy. Effective conversations yield to bickering and eye-rolling. Leads themselves become disheartened, which percolates throughout the team. So what happens next? As you’d probably guessed, a new, smaller group of leads is formed — until the next reset.

Having been part of these groups and an organizer of them, it always struck me as weird: why is it that we keep trying this same method to organize a leadership structure, over and over again? When a question like this pops up, it’s a good sign that the OODA deficit is being accrued.

Can macro-jank happen spontaneously, without first accruing micro-jank? It seems possible. Like, let’s imagine a severe and rapid environment change… oh wait, we don’t have to. It’s right outside. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be a subject of many studies as a dramatic disruption of our environment. But was it truly an unexpected event or rather an outcome of micro-jank accumulating over a long period of time? How might we reason about that? To get there, we need to take a closer look at the nature of the OODA loop.

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