Nudging Embodied Strategy

The whole concept of the cone of embodied strategy is a bit depressing, to be honest. What’s a mature organization to do? Curl up and cry? Surrender to obsolescence? Maybe. But any statement of complete inevitability gives me pause. Though the force of habits is strong, we all have seen the evidence of habits being broken and people – including ourselves – changing themselves.

What does this mean for organizations? It is my experience that just like humans, organizations tend to feel the pain of being constricted by their own habits. There’s consternation about becoming too bureaucratic, moving too slow, or vocal concerns about siloing. It is usually that pain that creates opportunities for becoming aware of the embodied strategy. In a larger organization, there are nearly always moments, the junction points in time where a change becomes possible. Speaking in silly physics, the pain creates excess of potential energy that can be converted into kinetic energy of change with a relatively small nudge.

The key here is recognizing that nudges aren’t some magic thing. “Yay! We’re going to nudge things now! Let’s nudge everything!” isn’t going to get us very far. Nudging is a particular kind of tool that originates in Donella Meadows’ notion of leverage points. For a nudge to be effective, we must understand a) the place to which the nudge can be applied and b) the direction in which the system (our organization) is willing to move.

Both of these pose questions to what appears to be unsolvable problems: what works as a potent nudge for an organization today is unlikely to do the same for a different organization – or even that same organization in the past or future. This can be quite discouraging and disorienting, and frankly, seem kooky and like consultant-speak. Because they stem from the unsolvable class of problems, working with nudges is always going to have that flavor. They hang in tension between rational and woowoo.

To make this whole nudging story more concrete, let’s look at one facet of embodied strategy: the means by which the tacit knowledge percolates.  In my experience, the embodied strategy tends to have roots in there. Put differently, the communication structure of the organization defines the kind of embodied strategy it ends up with. All I am doing here is echoing Conway’s law: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Put next to the classic understanding of strategy, the causality may feel backward. Usually, we pay attention to team structure and communication as things that are subservient to strategic work. We launch reorgs and set up new meetings, slide decks, mailing lists, and program spreadsheets to set the strategy, right? I suspect that the relationship is much more reciprocal. Yes, when we are able to change how the organization communicates, its embodied strategy changes as well. However, I am skeptical of the idea that imposing a new communication pattern on a team will do anything of a kind. More than likely, efforts like this will result in the all-too-common outcome of a failed top-down initiative: the embodied strategy and the communication structure in which it’s rooted will neatly weave around the change, unaffected.

To get less frustrating results, we are better off examining how tacit knowledge seems to spread across the organization. Look for the spaces and channels that thrive. They may not have a clear purpose and even look like just people loitering about (remember the stereotypical watercooler?). Once these are discerned, see if there’s friction. What constrains them? And what effect do these constraints have on the sharing of tacit knowledge? Due to these constraints, is there an unmet need that perhaps could be addressed in a different way?

These questions are difficult to answer. But once we have at least an inkling of what’s going on, we can start experimenting with nudges. The presence of friction and the pressure of constraints indicates appetite for change: the system is willing to shift, awaiting our nudge. One of my colleagues recently shared that creating a cross-functional chat room was one of their greatest buck-for-bang career accomplishments. Just the mere fact of establishing such a room led to a noticeable improvement in collaboration across several teams, creating a place for having conversations that simply didn’t happen before.

I’ve had a very similar experience a while back, when a team’s sudden departure of key senior leaders left everyone shocked and rather lost. I didn’t know anything about nudges or systems back then, but following my intuition, I created a chat room titled “<team name> Kin”. The room acted as the figurative flag to rally around and helped sub-teams come together. Many years and several teams later, I was delighted to learn that the chat room still exists, still active, numbered in hundreds of participants, and having successfully survived the churn of chat software migration.

We might be tempted to summarize the learning from these experiences as “let’s create chat rooms for everyone and call them <team name> Kin!” And indeed, I’ve tried this recipe multiple times – with meager results. Looking back, in all cases, I followed my intuition about unlocking the sharing of tacit knowledge, but neglected to consider a system’s willingness to move. Both examples that worked did so because they were nudging the organization’s communication structure out of a constricted, miserable state. They were unlocking a metaphorical spring and releasing the accumulated potential energy.  In my less successful attempts, I was expecting the nudge to act as some sort of energy generator, and that’s not what nudges do.

Finding the right nudge can be freakishly hard. Even now, much more comfortable with my system thinker’s hat, I still find many of my nudges to be ineffective. What I tell myself is that I just need to do better than random. To get there:

  • Invest into learning the system you’re in. Keep looking for places where nudges can be applied.
  • Avoid the trap of imagining that the system is a machine that could be completely understood. Think of it as a garden: it’s a little bit different today than it was yesterday.
  • Look for friction and building pressure, where potential energy seems to be trapped. These tell me where the system is willing to change and a nudge may be effective.
  • Don’t bet on one nudge. Prepare to try many times. Be playful. Once in a while, give into intuition despite what logic might be stating. There’s a neat safe-to-fail experiment framing that helps me to get into the right mindset.

Changing the embodied strategy of a large organization is not impossible. In some ways, large organizations can change more rapidly than small ones, because they tend to amass incredible amounts of potential energy even in brief periods of stuckness. However, unless approached with a system thinker’s eye, they will appear to resist change with such strength that makes them look made of solid, immovable stone. Which is why the effect of a nudge can seem like magic when it works.

Embodied Strategy

I was having a great conversation with a colleague about organizational learning and at one point, I kind of just blurted out that strategies are embodied. Here’s my attempt to expand a bit on this idea.

Put very simply, organizations usually have two strategies: one that is stated, and one that is embodied by the organization. The first one is typically highly visible, and the second is mostly invisible and only detectable by its effects. As I mentioned before, every organization has a strategy. Even if this strategy is not stated, the presence of outcomes and the patterns they follow indicates some sort of strategy at play. It might not be the same as the stated strategy. It could be a strategy that accelerates the team’s demise. It could be a strategy that favors short-term outcomes to the long-term ones. But there’s a strategy nevertheless.

Why do I find this seemingly nitpicky point so important? Because when we say in exasperation “this team/organization/unit can’t do strategy!”, what we’re actually saying is that we have given it our best, but failed to influence this team/organization/unit in attaining a state of executing on a strategy that is coherent with its stated intentions. What I am offering here is some light on where the source of such a failure may reside.

If you ever met a human, you might notice that we are full of habits. Some of them are good for us. Some of them are not so much. Organizations are bunches of humans, so they follow the same pattern. We call some of these habits rules and processes, and others norms and culture – or maybe even mission-critical infrastructure. Organization’s embodied strategy emerges from the full collection of its habits. It is this embedded strategy that defines the range of the outcomes and behavior patterns that are within the organization’s reach.

As we all know from our own personal experiences, habits are hard to change, especially without putting in some intentional and patient effort. Some habits are so ingrained that they become part of our identity. This might add clarity to why sometimes, despite our best attempts to devise and instill a different strategy — no matter how elegant and sound — the outcomes remain the same. If our ideas fall outside of the organization’s range of embodied strategy, our efforts to realize them will be in vain. The habits will hold us tightly within that range. 

To visualize what’s happening, imagine that there’s a vertical line on the horizontal scale of time, representing the range of what’s possible, constrained by the embodied strategy. Even if the range stays constant over time, the choices we make are path-dependent. So, from our vantage point of the present, the line will produce a cone-like shape when projected into the future.  If our desired strategy plots a course outside of this cone, this strategy is unlikely to succeed. In such cases, the stated strategy becomes detached from the embodied strategy, resulting in loss of coherence.

It also becomes evident that if we are to influence what an organization does, we must begin with first understanding its embodied strategy and the range that it affords. We need to know the shape of the cone. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration, we need to stop looking at the stated strategies, load up on patience and dig deep.

Since it’s all habits, the facets of the organization’s embodied strategy will be hiding in plain sight. They will not seem like the usual strategy artifacts we’d find in a shared folder.  Embodied strategy is tacit knowledge, and not something that is cleanly captured in a slide deck or a spreadsheet. In fact, the less noticed the habit, the more likely it is part of the embodied strategy. In many cases, only newcomers or outsides can spot them. This is why I love chatting with folks who recently joined the team. They have the best chance of seeing what the rest of us have long stopped noticing.

There seems to be a fairly strong relationship between the age of the team and the shape of the cone. A newly-formed team will have an extremely wide-ended cone: there’s very little strategy that’s actually embodied. Nearly everything is possible. As the team grows and develops its collection of habits, the cone narrows. Mature teams are stuck with the needle-like cones: they graduate to what they’re supposed to do, and that’s the only thing they can do. The embodied strategy becomes a trap that doesn’t let them change.

I hope you hear parallels with the Innovator’s Dilemma in this story. Aversion to risk and sticking with what works isn’t some simple thing that organizations can just choose not to do. When the next big opportunity manifests, no matter how strikingly, a mature organization can’t act on it because its embodied strategy, over time, shrunk the cone of possibilities into a laser-thin line. The negligible likelihood of this line intersecting with new opportunities is what foretells the organization’s future obsolescence.

This shrinking happens naturally, as a result of the team encountering challenges and obstacles, finding ways to overcome them and committing these experiences into its memory. Some of these might be company lore. Some of these will be new gates in the launch process. Many will result in the broadly-adopted tools and frameworks being built. Each – though good and useful as a matter of progress – narrows the width of the cone bit by bit. This process is not something we can prevent from happening, and we’re better off realizing that it’s always at work.

Especially for organizations that have been around for a while, we must understand that while we can change what the organization does, the manner in which this doing happens is rarely affected. For instance, following Clayton Christensen’s advice in The Innovator’s Solution, we might decide to form a distinct team that will pursue a strategy that puts us outside of the organization’s current cone of embodied strategy. However, if we’re not careful, this team will choose to rely on the larger organization’s well-established norms, practices, and processes. As a result, we might be surprised to find out that our attempts to reach our desired destination are thwarted by the same cone of embodied strategy that we wanted to break out of.

It seems to me that every exercise in strategy must begin with the study of embodied strategy. The whole “know thyself” bit may sound cliche, but there’s a reason why both Roger Martin and Richard Rumelt emphasized “coherent actions” and “capabilities” as part of strategy work: they were pointing at the notion that our strategic aspirations are constrained by the cone of habits our organizations have accumulated.

Practices to break out of the cycle of not-learning

At each step in the vicious cycle of not-learning, there is a choice I can make. I can follow the familiar habit or I can practice a different path – and eventually free myself from the trap. “Eventually” is an operative word. Once in this trap, there is no easy way out. It takes conscious work to slowly chip away at each stop of the wheel of suffering.

Here’s a peek at the guide that I have for myself. For each step – a practice, five in total. First, I try to orient myself. At what station am I currently? Then, I draw on the corresponding practice. I’ve collected these along the way, learning them from wiser people and years of practice of my own. Perhaps they will work for you, too.

Before I go on with the second trip around the circle, I’d like to clarify something. These practices can be useful for working through mild instances of the trap. Like, closer to “why do I find people around me so irritating?” and “why do we keep having this argument over and over?” If there’s actual aggression and violence involved, please seek professional help.

I’ll start with Confrontation, because it’s the easiest to detect and the respective practice is the least subtle. Just stop. No matter how close the victory seems, no matter how clever the next attack you’ve prepared, just stop. Apologize and withdraw as quickly as possible. Even if your opponent is still throwing punches. Yes, they will hurt. Remember – it won’t be as bad as remaining stuck in the time loop.

The Fallout station will feel like ruin, and most of the pain will come from the sense of a broken connection. This is your blunt-force contact with the prediction error and it will suck. The practice is to sit with pain. Look at it, turn it over. Focus on the pain itself, not its source. Witness it, and try not to be alarmed by it. Slow down and breathe. Recognize that this is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, presenting itself in yet-unrecognizable form. Hang on to your hat: your mental models are due for some serious readjustment. As one of my acquaintances says, embrace AFGO: another freaking growth opportunity.

At the core of this practice is separating the pain from Self. It is in these moments that we’re most tempted to use the pain to confirm our fears that we are worthless. Use this precious moment to practice self-love. For me, the most resonant and eye-opening writing came from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. There’s also this fairly obscure book by Doug Silsbee, titled Presence-based Leadership that I found useful for learning how to sit with discomfort.

Lament will feel the most uncertain and disorienting of the five. If you’re confused and unsure what’s going on, you’re probably entering this phase. There will be a pull to ground your experiences in something. And usually it means looking around and relating them to others, along with the intuition that someone else might be responsible for your suffering. The Lament phase is where the narrative emerges and the structure of this narrative will define what is to follow. The practice is to focus on your agency in this narrative. How did you contribute to the situation? There will be a distinct desire to shift quickly to other factors, to things that happened around you and are not in your control. This is not bad in itself, but the thing to watch out for is the subtle flip from “what are all the factors?” to “how was my behavior not a factor?” To break free from the vicious cycle, we need to focus on the things we can control. As Derren Brown put it: “The only things you’re in control of are your thoughts and actions”. His book Happy has been a well-rounded lesson in the practice of agency for me. For an even more robust, more densely-packed wisdom on agency, check out The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich.

Indirectly, the practice of agency is poking at a curious part of the trap. There are some things within you that have worked really well in the past, things that you may see as important parts of your identity and perhaps even virtues. It is likely that you holding on to these things is what creates the inflexibility that powers the cycle of not-learning. If you feel like staring directly into that particular abyss, consider Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan or writings on the topic of “shadow work”.

Blame will have this delicious feel of knowing what the problem is, and it will be shaped like someone else. There will be the distinct flattening of the picture of our supposed offender.  Sonder is a wonderful way to capture the countervailing practice. As the author John Koenig put it: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”  I used to call this practice “empathy” and “kindness”, but both words have too many different competing definitions. As for the practical bits, the concept of fallback, a concept from adult development theory, has been very helpful to me – specifically, learning to recognize it in myself. Because fallback happens so quickly and feels so natural, I often find that this practice is only possible in retrospect. It is still worth it. Even noticing fallback in the moment despite not being able to do anything about it is a significant breakthrough. Sometimes, a quick reminder of “wait, this is another person whose internal experience is as rich as mine” seems to help shift thoughts to a more productive space.

Resentment is where the anger burns, confined only by civility. The easiest way to spot it is the righteous indignation that’s bound to boil over. If you were brought up in a culture where “being nice” or “not sticking out” is important, you may spend a lot of time in this particular kettle. As hard as it might be, taking off our own armor and being vulnerable is the crucial practice at this stage. This is the moment to reach out. To say something, however awkwardly and imperfectly. To give voice to the pain beneath the anger. Brené Brown has a ton of helpful advice here (Daring Greatly is my favorite), so you don’t have to struggle alone. If you’re really puzzled with how to even say things, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication might be useful to start speaking, though robotically and haltingly at first.

These may not be the definitive set of practices. I am certain that I will evolve mine over time, so this here is a static snapshot of the continuing process of understanding. These practices aren’t “shoulds”: don’t follow them because they are somehow good. These aren’t rules. They are one random person’s learned guides for a willing participant who is looking to unpick the knot of a mental trap. Remember the first rule of the “trap club”: to get out of the trap, you have to be aware that you’re in a trap. What happens next is up to you.

The cycle of not-learning

Now that I’ve mentioned mental traps, here’s one particular pattern that I’ve observed in myself and others. It seems like a very powerful device. Once constructed, it can hold in its grip not just one person, but entire polities – for years and perhaps for centuries.

The components of the trap form a circle. They are actions that are, if taken separately, aren’t necessarily reflections of good character, but aren’t trappy in themselves. However, if they are connected via particular habits, the trap emerges in its full force. As they say, one thing leads to another. I’ll describe the trap by tracing the circumference of the circle these habits and actions form, stopping briefly at each action. It’s a whistle stop tour of sorts.

We’ll begin the tour at the Lament station. Usually, we find ourselves here when something has gone terribly wrong, and all we have left is to grieve for the future that could have been, of the promise it held. There’s some possibility that is no longer available to us, and it hurts. These are the times for taking stock and asking – over and over – the question “why”. The Lament phase of the cycle is the most uncomfortable and uncertain. We are looking around and there aren’t any clear answers to the source of our pain.

This is where the first connecting habit shows up. It appears that, in the raw uncertainty of flux, by far the easiest way to ground ourselves is to look at those around us. And when we orient outward like this, a spark of an idea ignites a new-found understanding: we can shed the burden of ambiguity if we just point our finger at someone else. Welcome to the Blame station. This phase is characterized by certainty suddenly snapping into a comforting shelter around us. It is the others who are to blame for our woes, and it is their thoughts and actions – not ours! – that caused the pain we’ve felt at the previous stop.

The next habit is something that happens so naturally that we often miss how. It turns out, our brains are incredibly good at recognizing those who are in our in-group and those who are out. And we tend to do this amazing thing where we drastically simplify — flatten — our perception of those in the out-group. Without even thinking, we view them as caricatures of human beings, the “scumbags” or “worms” whose sole purpose in life is to cause us suffering. The trip to the Resentment station is so quick that we don’t even realize when we’ve arrived there, turning those whom we picked as targets of our blame into disgusting effigies that are only fit to burn.

The key habit that takes us to the next step is walling up. It could be simply due to us trying to follow some social cues. It could be that somewhere deep down, we may recognize that the sequence of steps we’re taking is not where we need to go, so we try to “keep a lid on it”. These walls create a cauldron, where our resentment stews, anger growing brighter and brighter, and the socially-appropriate facade begins to crack. What happens next feels almost inevitable. The logic feels foolproof. Of course, if the other is an insect that occupies an otherwise lifeless human body, the only reasonable action is to destroy it. At the Confrontation part of the circle, our certainty and inner clarity reach their zenith. Our only choices are in how to carry out our vengeance in the most effective way. Is it a toxic verbal jab that teaches them what’s what? Or an all-out violence?

It is here where the sharp downturn of certainty is encountered. Inevitably – yet in the moment, still so unexpectedly – our invasion of the other’s boundaries backfires. Sometimes we are repelled by them directly in a devastating way. Sometimes we see their suffering and stagger back in horror at what we’ve done. The moment we thought would be a triumph turns into sorrow and shame, bringing the tired train to the last station in the circle. At this stage, the habit that exacerbates the already-awful situation is denial: we prolong our own suffering by refusing to give up on the idea that we can relieve our pain through application of sharp instruments to others — until there’s ruin all around us. At the Fallout station, we reap what we had sown, and the force of the pain that comes with it sets up a new revolution of the circle.

It’s always surprising to me how, when back at Lament, we grapple with the same “How did this happen?” question. A habit that makes this merry-go-round-of-suffering endure is our desire to escape these steps where uncertainty rules. We want to do so as quickly as possible and return back to clarity and predictability. This is probably the most important habit to watch for. If I squint a bit, I can see that this circle of suffering looks very similar to the learning loop: we form a mental model of what’s happening (there’s a poopy head standing in my way), we come up with a solution (punch them on the nose), and grapple with the outcome (poopy head cries, making me feel really bad). Yet when the prediction error rate spikes proving our solution ineffective, instead of learning (oh no! am I the poopy head?), we do something different – we try to escape from this place of misery as quickly as possible (of course not! look! it’s another poopy head).

A repeating presence of the “how did this happen?” question is a strong indicator that instead of enriching our mental model, we have formed a vicious cycle of not-learning: the pain of the experience prevents us from enriching our mental model or reframing the problem. Most commonly, we do this by trying to reset the model to some state in the past, where we still could make sense of the world without this much suffering – and start the vicious cycle again. This can show up as “return to our roots” or “remembering who we are” in our language with a certain lust toward the past. Knowing history isn’t enough to avoid repeating it. If we are to untangle ourselves from this trap, we are better off listening very carefully to our internal monologue. It could be that we’re resetting ourselves in the endless time loop of self-inflicted pain.

This cycle may manifest vividly and undeniably as physical violence, or it could be as subtle as feeling constantly annoyed over things that other people keep doing. Though the two occurrences may seem so far from each other in the intensity of their outcomes, the same dynamic undergirds both: individually or collectively, we are failing to learn despite recurring experiences.

How to get trapped

So you want to add more suffering to your life and build a mental trap for yourself? Well then, look no further. This recipe is for you.

As the first step, you must be aware of the fact that you’re trapped. Traps aren’t traps if they are just a thing that happens every day. To become trapped, one must first recognize that there is another version of reality that exists without that thing that happens every day. This recognition is sometimes conscious, but often intuitive. In the most literal sense – and this is just my guess – an animal raised in captivity still recognizes that it is trapped, because there are eons of evolution whispering the songs of roaming the wilderness in its ears. For us humans, traps usually get complicated. The “learned helplessness” phenomenon is often used to describe the condition where a person is so unaware of the opportunities that might be available to them that they are unable to imagine a reality that’s different from what is. Put differently, if you aren’t aware that you’re trapped, you’re not actually trapped. You’re just living your life.

Once you’re armed with the two pictures of reality – a “what is” and a “what should be” – congratulations! You are part-way there. These two pictures form the primary intention. If your awareness of the trap is conscious, it will be a commitment or a resolution of one sort or another. If your awareness is intuitive, it will be a longing, a feeling that overcomes you suddenly and completely from time to time, and keeps nagging in the background. That nagging sense with sudden spikes of emotion is a sure way to spot that you’ve constructed a proper self-trap.

If you’re an overachiever, you could trap yourself with just this one step. Just make sure that the “what should be” is utterly unachievable. Long for something that never existed or cannot exist – and work hard to convince your mind otherwise. Look for idyllic memories of the past, or stories told by people you admire. The farther they are from reality, the easier it will be to construct that sturdy, long-lasting configuration of constant suffering. Nothing traps as well as vivid reimaginings of our ancestors’ ideals.

However, if you’re a slacker and your “what should be” is reasonable, move on to the next step. Here, the thing you’ll need is a barrier, or something that prevents you from simply traveling from “what is” to “what should be”.  Barriers come in the form of other intentions that aren’t aligned with your primary intention. We are mired in such intentions, so not just any will do. A secondary intention has to have these three important properties: strength, invisibility, and self-reinforcement. Let’s go through them one by one.

To trap ourselves well, we must pick a secondary intention that is strong. It must be at least as strong as the primary intention, and the stronger the better. Choose something that is sticky-sweet or horrifyingly spikey. Buddhists call them cravings and aversions. A traumatic experience works wonders in constructing a self-trap, but so does a simple but unyielding pull of physiological needs.

An effective secondary intention must be invisible. Find something that is a long-term habit, something you usually do automatically, without thinking. The best ones are those that you don’t even consider to be “bad habits”, or perhaps even view as virtuous. Look for the ones that formed so far in the past that you don’t even see them as habits. Behaviors based on childhood experiences tend to work well, since we may not even recognize them as distinct intentions.

Finally, if you’re serious about building a formidable trap for yourself, your secondary intention must be self-reinforcing. This one can be difficult to get right, but have faith: you can do it. One common trick is to make sure that the experience of acting on the secondary intention goes through this sentence: a) act on secondary intention, b) recognize that your actions are in conflict with your primary intention, c) feel as bad about it as possible and d) try to avoid thinking about  it as quickly as possible. That’s it! By making sure to feel horrible, you’re reinforcing the strength around the secondary intention, and by rapidly moving away from thinking about it, you’re keeping it invisible. I promise, it works like a charm. Shame is a power tool for building self-reinforced traps. If you’ve grown up in a culture that thrives on shame, you can master trapping yourself faster than anyone. Oh, and don’t forget to blame others. Few things can trap with more precision than moving the agency elsewhere. Get that sweet righteous anger going to solidify the trap.

And why stop with just one secondary intention? Traps work even better when there are multiple. Combine them and get an even more powerful trap.

To give you a quick example: if I am imagining myself ten pounds lighter than today (that’s my primary intention), an old habit of snacking while I am in the kitchen can serve me well as the secondary intention. All I need to do is make sure to feel shame while I am eating those potato chips while distracting myself with watching TV or another soothing activity. This forms a nice, robust trap: as my primary intention remains distant, the amount of shame grows, while my various means to reinforce the secondary intention continue to get more and more elaborate, producing more secondary intentions, and all the while churning out personal suffering.

Of course, if you find yourself wanting to get out of a trap, it is a bit more challenging than setting one up. After all, despite this somewhat tongue-in-cheek narrative, we find ourselves in traps of our own design without actually following any recipes. It takes self-patience and kindness to examine our traps, to discern the secondary intentions and their properties. It takes even more work to stay oriented toward them and gently untangle the habits, and find enough self-love to face them and have a long, quiet conversation with them. It may take weeks or it may take years or decades. But yes, you can get untrapped. I believe in you and I am rooting for you. You can do it.

Loops: dead or alive

There are two important shifts to consider when examining a setting. The first is the shift in my needs. Over time, as my customer-vendor loop develops, I will find that the choices I made early on are no longer as useful as they were. For example, I may want to continue accelerating my capacity to build a Product, and the tools of the setting that I started with have hit their limit. In such a situation, I will want to examine alternatives for these tools and rethink my choices. I will want to change my setting.

The second shift is in the setting itself. Time also influences the setting itself. The ecosystem I may have chosen for its torrent of Customers may suddenly dry up to a tiny trickle, necessitating a search for another source. This one can feel a bit more challenging, because it has an appearance of kind of happening to me, rather than me making the choices.

Both of these shifts illustrate that settings change, whether through our actions or by themselves. To accommodate these changes and persist, every customer-vendor loop needs a bit of slack built into its stocks. Put differently, for a customer-vendor loop to be sustainable, it needs a capacity to grow. Applying a bit more nuance on it, the loop does not need to always grow. It just needs a capacity to do so. A customer-vendor loop that’s deep into its asymptotes is a dead loop. Dead loops are structurally unsound, because they no longer have room to change. Some dead loops can survive for a while, because they still produce value even after they can no longer fit the setting. However, they are a “dead loop walking” – their demise is predetermined.

This may sound a bit abstract, so let me reach for a more concrete scenario. Imagine a sub-team that was organized around a particular feature of some larger app. Maybe it’s a button that does something interesting when you click it. If we draw a customer-vendor loop for this team, we will notice that its Customers stock has a strong asymptote. It’s bound to some percentage of Customers that use the app – which makes sense: to click the button, the users will first have to get into the app. Similarly, the value of the Interaction of this loop is strongly tied to its expected usefulness within the app. The feature is boxed in by asymptotes. 

In this scenario, the sub-team will happily climb the developmental stages of the loop, and run straight into the walls of the box. Once the feature reaches some plausible number of app Customers who click the button, the sub-team will quickly turn into a dead loop: the feature is still popular, and still needed by the app, but there’s little reason to improve it. A common side effect here is that the feature’s active development stops and the loop is abandoned. One by one, the members of the team move on to more interesting projects, with one burned out, yet still duty-bound maintainer left fixing bugs, grimly holding the dead loop of the original team in their grip.

An alternative ending to this story is the dead loop avoidance tactic, where the product lead of the team keenly avoids the deadness by steering toward new fronteers, defying the confines of the asymptote. What if instead of just users clicking on this button, we could also play a small video? What if we opened a tiny window that allowed the user to customize their preferences for how to use the feature? What if we made the button larger, or perhaps more colorful?

This creativity may seem wonderful, but because it plays out within the larger setting of an app, it may suddenly stop being an integral part of the overall app experience and instead start jostling with other features for user’s attention. If you’ve ever participated in an app experience that comes across as an incoherent mess of features, each seemingly operating within its own bubble, you have observed the effect of dead loop avoidance. If you’ve ever wondered why a particular app feature hasn’t improved in years, you’ve observed the effect of the dead loop abandonment.

At the core of these sad stories is a rule of thumb that’s worth repeating: to be sustainable, a customer-vendor loop must have room to grow. A team that’s organized to ride such a loop must have – and will keep seeking – flexibility to choose and change its setting. 

Builder and Gardener Mindsets

My dear friend Alex Komoroske did a podcast episode recently on all of my favorite topics. I highly recommend watching it and studying the excellent deck that the majority of the discussion rotated around. I also wanted to riff on the builder and gardener archetypes that were featured in the title of the article.

Briefly, the distinction emphasizes the difference in mindsets with which we approach unsolvable problems. As builders, we view them as ultimately solvable, and so our actions usually yield building something that solves the problem. Unfortunately, as the problem is unsolvable, the thing that we end up building is solving a problem that is different from the one in front of us. In rare cases we are lucky: the difference is small enough and we get to reap some benefits from the solutions. More often, we now have a solution that still needs to find a problem that fits it.

In my experience, the latter outcome is pervasive around ecosystem work, aka “platforms”. Since ecosystems adapt to our actions, changing them to behave in accordance with our intentions is indeed an unsolvable problem. So when a team charges forth with the idea of building a platform from scratch, my response is usually a skeptical eye roll or a wince: I detect the “builder” mindset and all that falls out of it.

The mindset Alex suggests as an alternative is that of a gardener. Just like builders, gardeners have blueprints. They have an idea of some state that they want the garden to eventually reach. The key difference is that they accept that they are working with a living matter. Living matter has a mind of its own and is likely to surprise us. The blueprints will need to be redrawn and mental models adjusted frequently. In many cases, gardeners never reach what they’ve drawn in the initial sketch. They know it and hold them lightly, and it’s the only feasible approach. Holding firmly to the original blueprints is a path to eventual madness.

For technologists, the shift from “building” to “growing” is a bit hard to perform. There are two common traps that I am familiar with. The first one is what I call “garden-builders”. Here, even after armed with the gardening metaphors and ideas,  we still imagine how we’ll grow perfectly cylindrical carrots and spherical potatoes. We may talk the talk, but underneath, the builder mindset is still present. Projects run this way will have words like “ecosystems” and “platforms” and maybe even “emergent” and “complexity” plastered all over them, but the manifested outcomes reveal the story of rigid construction.

The second trap is “garden-workers”. This one plagues teams that swung way too hard into the idea of working with the living matter and abandoned the intention behind it. Garden-working is still an engineer’s escape. Assuming that gardening is just about waking up very early, weeding, watering, and tilling the dirt is comfortingly similar to the common activity of continuous refactoring that many teams in mature stages undertake. The blueprints are mostly forgotten in the soothing practices of daily work. Projects run this way will ship incoherent bags of features that even they themselves can’t cogently describe. If you hear a presenter say “we can’t wait to find out what you’ll build with these APIs” to the audience of developers, chances are the team shipping this API is stuck in the “garden-worker” trap.

If I am being brutally honest, I don’t actually know if it is possible to achieve the full zen of the gardener mindset. Based on what I’ve seen, a platform team is usually either completely unaware of this mindset or is caught undulating between the two traps. Last release: “OMG, we shipped was a bunch of random stuff, let’s organize this better!” … next release: “Crap! We shipped things that nobody needs again, let’s get back to gardening, folks!” And that might be okay. Here’s my hope. By making these traps legible, I can help you, my reader, to learn how to work with them and countervail their effects.

Becoming a setting

I’ve been geeking out about this fascinating phenomenon when parts of one customer-vendor loop become a setting for others. By virtue of connecting the dots to find a functioning setting, we necessarily make this setting more accessible and legible to others. As one outcome, others can now copy our setting and create its clone. The discipline of business strategy covers this situation well, so I want to direct your attention to its alternative. When others can observe our setting, they may – and more than likely will – reuse its conveniences for their own purposes.

Take the ice cream shop example (boy, did I wear it out or what). When my shop becomes a destination for teens to hang out, it’s no longer about the ice cream. For them, it is a setting for satisfying their need to connect and belong. Teens take all of my hard work of establishing a setting and, just like that, make it their own. This might be good for me at first – more ice cream being sold! – but quickly, it turns into a nuisance. The teens loiter at my store after buying just a couple of cones and their youthful exuberance turns other patrons away.

In my experience, this “becoming a setting” is so common that it ought to be a law or something: as the Customers stock of my customer-vendor loop grows, the probability of this loop becoming a setting for others approachers 100%.

If we accept this “law”, our hypotheses for how our customers will behave must include scenarios of them setting up camp within our customer-vendor loop and appropriating parts of it in unpredictable ways. The more I embrace such scenarios and prepare for them, the more likely I will engage with them in a mutually beneficial relationship.

For a less made-up example, let’s look at Midjourney. If asked to define their product, my first response might be, “well, the AI-generated art, of course!” But that is only part of the story. As I mentioned before, their embrace of community-based creation, and the way they made the process of creation tweakable and shareable (thanks for pointing that out, Ade!) all hint at something different. 

Midjourney might look like a simple AI-generated art service, but as it grew, it became a setting for artists – a place where they can co-create, remix, riff off each other, and have that sense of belonging. The prompt and variation mechanism design seems to be begging: “please take this prompt and mess some more with it!”  Even if intuitively and completely by chance, Midjourney’s decision to lean into Discord had a big role in ensuring that the explosive power of creativity continued to play to their strengths – unlike the annoying high-schoolers in my ice cream example. 

Similarly, Midjourney’s eagerness to hallucinate compared to similar products becomes a feature: if I am an artist looking for inspiration, I don’t want the tool to give me exactly what I am asking for. I want it to surprise me, to stir my imagination. From the perspective of technical excellence, it might be tempting for Midjourney engineers to look around and worry about “more accurate and lifelike” representation, but that is not what technical excellence means for the audience that gathered around them anymore. It turns out, “weird and unexpected” is more valuable when it is part of a creative setting.

This is the most delightful and terrifying part of becoming a setting: it is impossible to know how it works out. Even if we have our eyes open to the possibility, we must be prepared to be surprised by what happens next. In human systems, exaptation is not a rare occurrence. It’s a continuous process. And most certainly, we must not start with an idea that we somehow can control it.

One of the greatest follies of high modernism – from architects to dictators – is the belief that becoming a setting can be constructed through a mechanical waterfall process. According to this belief, if we know enough things and think hard enough, we can draw the blueprints, plan, organize, and manage resources, and given enough time, bring forth the ideal setting of our design, be that a building, or a country. It is the belief that becoming a setting is solvable problem, that people will just come and dwell in the thing we create in just the way we planned for them. And when people refuse to and the conclusion of the waterfall process is revealed to be just a first step of an ongoing dance of exaptation, a high modernist is left with the choices of having a painful, but transformative learning experience or blaming the pesky people for screwing up their plans. You can guess which one happens more often.

A thing that might be helpful is recognizing that there’s a bit of a high modernist in all of us, and knowing how it shows up in our thinking. For instance, the irritation over “pesky users screwing up our plans” is a really good marker. Not expecting exaptation is a sure sign that we’ve fallen back into the waterfall model of becoming a setting.

Finding the setting

In the previous story, I talked at length about finding the setting, and I thought it might be useful to try and write down a pattern I’ve seen when looking to complete that puzzle of a functional setting for a customer-vendor loop.

The approach that seems effective is by studying the stocks of adjacent loops. As you may remember, there are four of them: Customers, Interactions, Vendors, Products. Each stock has value. There’s something here about abundance and lacking that I haven’t quite figured out yet. For the sake of this narrative, let’s assume that we can tell if the stock is abundant or lacking. When the stock is abundant, there’s excess value that presents us with an opportunity to create our own stock. When the stock is lacking, our opportunities in relation to this stock are rare and unimpressive. It’s not always so clearcut. Sometimes lacking stocks present opportunities that were previously unavailable, and stocks gaining in abundance seep energy away from the opportunities that were there before. But to keep things simple, let’s go with the simple rule of thumb: adjacent abundance leads to more opportunities, and adjacent lack to fewer.

I’ll start with the Customers. As their numbers grow, we start recognizing that the customers themselves create value. Think of a lively market, a bazaar. People flock to a bazaar because there’s something they may need to purchase, but also because they might be surprised to find new things they haven’t seen before. Half the fun of going to a farmer’s market is in discovering a new kind of honey that I didn’t realize I definitely needed to buy. Customer growth spurs the engagement flow, and is often a common phenomenon that strategists spot. If I am near a bazaar, I will have opportunities for engagement, and many business venture ideas start here.

Moving clockwise, let’s look at the Interactions. Sometimes, there might not be a clearly distinguishable collection of Customers. Instead we notice a certain behavior that is hard to ignore as random. Cowpaths are a common buzzword, but they nicely describe the value in the Interaction stock. Being carefully observant of common behaviors alongside well-traveled paths and detecting unmet needs is another trick that strategists employ. Often, the cowpaths are opportunities that lie just outside established roads, and their value does not reside in having an  audience. People can come and go as they please. The entrepreneurs are attracted to some emergent common need that these people start having as they do.

Looking at the Vendor stock, its value is in the breadth and depth of capabilities. Whether they are the knowhow and expertise, funding, or just plain raw brawn – capabilities accumulate in this stock. Many teams get their start by putting a group of passionate, experienced, and skilled individuals. By doing so, they amass capabilities – or put differently, value in the Vendor stock – to create new opportunities by building things. Areas like Silicon Valley are traditionally brimming with the Vendor stock, though I am very excited about new spaces that normalizing remote work is opening up.

The final stock in the customer-vendor loop is Products. This one is very familiar to the engineering teams. Every time we examine dependencies,  which framework we will use or which platform we will pick, we are evaluating the abundance of the adjacent Products stock. I won’t spend much time here, since it’s fairly straightforward. However, there’s another set of opportunities hiding in the abundant Products stock. Sometimes we find new uses for things we already have. There’s a fancy term in biology: exaptation, or a shift in function of a trait during evolution. Products stock may hold value not only because they serve their intended purpose, but also because they may be repurposed to do something entirely different. Especially for well-established Products, there’s always some exaptation going on.

I am sure there are other ways to uncover a setting, but this seems like a decent starter kit. It probably won’t help you find the next big business idea, but it might produce an insight or two when considering your organization’s strategy.

Customer-vendor loops and their setting

The notion of a setting for a customer-vendor loop is fairly intuitive. A loop doesn’t exist in its own, insulated bubble. Taking that ice cream shop I use as my go-to example, where do its customers come from? They don’t just magically appear in the air. Instead, they walk up to the shop, traveling down a crowded street or perhaps a shopping center. This street is part of the store’s setting. Similarly, where does the milk to make ice cream come from? More than likely, the owner of the store buys it regularly from a vendor. That vendor is also part of the setting. For an ice cream store, the setting may also include chocolate and other flavor vendors, and of course all of the equipment that is necessary to make and serve delicious ice cream. Put simply, the setting of a customer-vendor loop is everything that’s necessary to make the loop go.

I would go a step further and claim that the process of constructing a customer-vendor loop is first and foremost a process of finding a setting that results in that special kind of feedback loop I’ve been going on about. The key shift for me here is away from the mental image of drawing a feedback loop from scratch, dot by dot, and toward the mental model of spotting a few unconnected dots that are really close together, and linking them together. It seems obvious that if I choose my ice cream shop’s setting as the middle of the Arctic tundra, I will first need to invest into first erecting a city that attracts people to live in it. I can’t remember any city being built for the purpose of setting up an ice cream shop.

It is probably not surprising that this kind of setting-spotting is largely about discerning existing customer-vendor loops that already exist. To drive this point more precisely, a setting of a customer-vendor loop is composed of other customer-vendor loops. As I write this, I imagine a densely connected network of loops, each reinforcing and weakening each other in various ways. The capacity to establish my own customer-vendor loops stems from my ability to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and strengths within stocks and flows of customer-vendor loops of others that are adjacent to me.

The discipline of business strategy dwells in this area and I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom of its purveyors. As one pointer, Hamilton Helmer’s 7 Powers is a rather beautiful capture of various setting configurations. There’s also a pretty comprehensive framework called “Business Model Canvas” that is described in the Business Model Generation book (thank you for introducing me to it, Ujval). If I tilt my head a little bit and squint, at the core is the process of defining a setting for a customer-vendor loop.  Finally, a thorough five-force analysis of a setting can do wonders for opening that strategic third eye. For instance, the setting defines how unique and differentiated our product can be. Borrowing Michael Porter’s example, to start an airline, you and I can just rent a plane and lease a gate at the airport – but so can everyone else.

More generally, when I hear the words “product market fit”, I hear “choosing a setting for our customer-vendor loop”. In software engineering, we usually use the word “dependencies” to talk about our team’s setting – though limiting our understanding of a setting to project dependencies can be fraught with peril. In my experience, one of the key challenges that software teams run into is not being deliberate about understanding their setting. I’ve been there myself, swept  off the ground by a fascination with some cool bit of technology. When we say “solution in search of a problem”, we usually talk about a customer-vendor loop that doesn’t actually close onto itself – and more often than not, it’s a result of plowing forth with developing a product without considering a setting to which it is born.

To emphasize the necessity of being intentional about the setting, I’ll close with this anecdote. I once had an enlightening conversation with a pastor of a small-town church in Central California. Their attendance was down year over year, and with the onset of the pandemic and ensuing isolation (remember 2020?), there was quite a bit of worry about whether the congregation is still, in fact, a functioning church. I immediately launched into the fixing mode and suggested reexamining the setting: embracing the momentum of moving the services online could possibly mean the expansion of the audience, opening up all kinds of new opportunities. Kindly, the pastor noted that the story of that particular church is deeply intertwined with and is inseparable from the story of its town. No matter how appealing the growth potential might be, the “small-town” bit was an immutable, foundational part of the setting. 

So yes, beliefs and principles are also part of the setting and they play a large role in defining what’s possible. It seems like a good idea for a leader to understand what those beliefs and principles are — both theirs and of their team, and how they influence the configuration of the setting.