Not-knowing discussion #6: Actions and results (summary)
This is a summary of the sixth session in the InterIntellect series on not-knowing, which happened on 22 June 2023, 2000-2200 CET.
Upcoming: “Connecting actions and their results,” 25 July 2023, 1700-1900 CEST. The seventh episode in my Interintellect series about not-knowing is about causation. Making good strategy is hard when you don’t know how particular actions are connected to particular outcomes. At the same time, not-knowing about causation can also offer freedom to act under specific conditions. This can be a strategic and tactical advantage. We’ll talk about four types of not-knowing in causation and how each type offers different constraints and opportunities for strategy and tactics. More information and tickets available here. As usual, get in touch if you want to come but the $15 ticket price isn’t doable — I can sort you out. And here are some backgrounders on not-knowing from previous episodes.
Actions and results
Reading: Not-knowing about actions and outcomes.
Participants: Les R., Indy N., Joe S., Florian W., Mike W., George M., Faye A., Zach K., Trey D., Chris B.
In this salon, we talked about the different ways in which we could not-know what actions and outcomes are possible. These two types of not-knowing are the source of new techniques for painting, new ways of making vaccines, and new business models — among many other things that are new. Among other things, we discussed how unpacking the different types of not-knowing highlights how each type calls for different approaches to resolution, and how a better framework for understanding not-knowing leads to better learning, greater curiosity, and equanimity, and seems to help build the meta-skill of being able to hold space/time for failure and discovery.
- How a framework for understanding different types of not-knowing can be valuable:
- Strategic value: Clarifies that there are different types of not-knowing and reminding people that each type needs to be dealt with using different strategies.
- Tactical value: Provides a taxonomy that helps in filtering situations to understand correct tactical response to different situations of not-knowing.
- Concrete tools: Allows concrete tools to be developed to help individuals and groups recognise what kinds of situations of not-knowing they face and relate better to them. (Episodes 10-13 of this series of discussions about not-knowing focus on building this toolkit.) Examples:
- Executive board of an organisation which mislabels uncertainty (about values and existential threats to constituents) as risk, and thus uses inappropriate risk-mindset frameworks for making decisions about how to act.
- In an organisation undergoing restructuring, employees and teams are experiencing stress from not-knowing and lack good ways of thinking and acting productively.
- Not-knowing has intrinsic value. Not-knowing is framed as something which we can benefit from if we manage it better (i.e., an instrumental framing of understanding not-knowing). But not-knowing is also intrinsically valuable. It is connected to meta-qualities of equanimity, curiosity, being able to hold space/time for failure, emotional stability, and being able to live in the moment. It is possible that not-knowing is a pathway to being happier and more content.
- We need a third way to deal with not-knowing that isn’t risk. Faced with situations of not-knowing, the two responses people seem to have now are to either be falsely confident (= assume that what’s unknown is knowable and to quantify it so that it can be managed away) or capitulate uncritically (= “we don’t know anything and nothing we do will have any effect!”). There should be a third way that navigates between these two unhelpful extremes.
- Doing the right thing > doing something > doing nothing. There’s a complex tangle of misconceptions around the concept of taking action as a way of dealing with not-knowing. Not-knowing can create paralysis, where nothing gets done because there’s no clear idea what should be done (= “doing nothing”). One response to this is the idea that “doing something is better than doing nothing” — which is often misinterpreted as “doing anything (even patently silly things) is better than doing nothing.” This seems obviously incorrect. Having a framework for understanding different types of not-knowing helps figure out what things to do that are less likely to be silly.
- General problems (“obsessions”) affecting how we think about not-knowing:
- Routinisation obsession: Relating to not-knowing means investing effort and energy into sensemaking. But humans prefer spending less effort or energy, which is what routinisation does. (Routinisation assumes that what happened before will happen again unchanged, so that it can be dealt with in the same way without investing more energy/effort in making sense of it).
- Legibility obsession: Quantifying a partially known situation makes it easier for a group of people to discuss and make decisions about the situation — because quantification makes the situation seem more legible. The impulse to make something legible by quantification seems to take over even when the situation being quantified is either self-evidently unquantifiable or cannot be quantified accurately and precisely. Examples
- Finance: Investment committees deciding on deals using spreadsheets with precise outcome probabilities for potential investments.
- Military: Decisionmaking via matrices with precise probabilities for different possible events to be confronted during an operation.
- Management: Dashboards for fundamentally unquantifiable metrics (e.g. “customer happiness”).
Fragmentary ideas/questions that came up which seem valuable
- Risk management has a clear stopping rule (because it is an optimising framework), but non-risk situations of not-knowing do not have clear stopping rules (for several reasons). This seems to be a significant barrier to building tools for dealing with non-risk not-knowing.
- Is there another type of not-knowing which could (maybe) be framed as adversariality? This is very nascent as a concept, but it would essentially consist of not-knowing arising from confronting potential actions or outcomes that have been strategically framed/selected by someone else for their own motivations.
- Is waiting a tool for dealing with not-knowing (about actions, outcomes, causation, and values)? One advantage of more structured understanding of not-knowing is being able to focus on what is known, while waiting to see what happens to reduce what isn’t yet known. Does waiting as a tool apply more to any particular types of not-knowing?
Some links shared by participants
- Three different types of tacit knowledge.
- Karl Weick’s substitutes for strategy.
- The US Military’s decisionmaking process.
- The US Army’s Applied Critical Thinking Handbook.
- What is the right amount of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’?
- Poker cards for estimating quantities without BS
- Narrative/qualitative approaches to monetary policy (vs quantitative approaches)