Pace layers of predictability

I’ve been talking about pace layering a lot, within the dandelions and elephants story and in other pieces. Here’s yet another way to apply this framing.

One thing that stood out to me was this notion of a common force that animates their formation. Here’s my guess: this force is the desire for predictability.

For example, in organizations, there is usually a larger group — often a dominant majority — of folks who seek a fairly predictable environment. They usually feel rather uncomfortable about the uncertainty of a problem space, and you can hear this discomfort in phrases like “just tell me what to do” or “we need clear timelines and deliverables”. There is nothing wrong with this stance. I find myself in this group at times, especially when I am in fallback. Another way to think of it is that we find ourselves here when our predictability footprint expands. This group tends to seek “one true shared mental model” and usually reacts with pain to disconfirming evidence, forming the slowest-moving predictability pace layer.

To manage that pain, there’s a much smaller group of those who are able to face unpredictability a bit more. These folks have a slightly higher tolerance for ambiguity and can experience polarities not as a series of harrowing swings back and forth, but rather as one nuanced system. They can play with multiple conflicting mental models and see disconfirming evidence as input, rather than pain inflicted. This ability is not without cost, and usually requires continuous support and scaffolding.

This smaller group forms a much thinner and faster-moving predictability pace layer on top of the slower layer. When an organization employs such folks effectively, they become instrumental in gently evolving the “one true shared mental model” of the larger group in a direction that is long-term productive for this organization. This is the stance that I myself enjoy the most and feel that resonant sense of aligning with Purpose.

Sometimes a team is lucky enough to have true pirates: a handful of people whose predictability footprint is so small that they are able to go where even the most ambiguity-tolerant people dare not touch. Disconfirming evidence is necessary sustenance to them. These folks can examine the load-bearing beliefs in ways that would terrify or at least profoundly upset most members of the organization. They can do deep ontological dives and come back unfazed, with insights that have the power to shape the future of the organization.

When employed effectively, these are the peeps that establish foundational frameworks within which the gentle evolution of the organization occurs. This is the fastest-moving predictability layer where I aspire to be, even though most of the time, I pop up to that layer only momentarily.

Of course, this is not some sort of normative layout of layers that every organization must possess. My guess is that each organization has their own layer configurations. 

What’s important about them is that they are typically mostly separate and insular from each other – and for good reason. Exposing folks at the lowest layer to the more intense pace of the higher layer will rapidly trigger allergic response. And giving them a sense of the top layer’s pace will seem like Lovecraftian horror. Boundaries tend to arise to prevent such shenanigans.

What’s most curious is that these pacing layers rarely respect hierarchies and organizational structures. There could be leaders of large teams who crave predictability. There could be random junior team members who are surprisingly great at diving into the abyss of uncertainty and bringing back useful insights. The ability to tolerate unpredictability changes with one’s circumstances, and hierarchies tend to strive for permanence.

As a result, the insulation between layers tends to develop in haphazard and unproductive ways. Within predictability-craving organizations, those who are comfortable with uncertainty are deemed “troublemakers” and shunned or ignored. Conversely, folks who desire more predictability are labeled as “unimaginative” in places where experimentation and exploration are valued. Instead of recognizing mutual significance and collaborating, teams at different predictability pace layers resent each other’s differences.

In practice, this means that harnessing the full potential of this pace layering and using it to the advantage of the organization is very uncommon. I keep wondering what a team that is designed around predictability pace layers – rather than in spite of them – would even look like.

Given that overall levels of unpredictability around us seem to be ever-increasing, this might be an important challenge to take on. Perhaps you, my readers, will find an opportunity here.

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