Not-knowing discussion #9: The fog of time (summary)
This is a summary of the ninth session in the InterIntellect series on not-knowing, which happened on 21 September 2023, 2000-2200 CET.
Upcoming: “Intent, causation, and values,” 19 Oct 2023, 2000-2200 CET. The tenth episode in my Interintellect series about not-knowing is about how the four types of not-knowing — in relation to actions, outcomes, causation, and values — reverberate back and forth between each other over time. We’ll discuss how to deal with the complexity of not-knowing using a reflexive and flexible mindset, broad approaches to action that bake in expectations of change, and a toolkit that looks different from conventional risk-management tools. More information and tickets 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
The fog of time
Reading: The fog of time.
Participants: Jen G., Indy N., Paul M., Chris B., Ben S.
A framework for strategic not-knowing begins to appear as soon as we understand how time affects not-knowing. Futurity (things that may happen in the future) affects not-knowing via five levers that can be affected by their respective influencing actions (in bold):
- Discoveries of new actions and new outcomes; exploration.
- Discoveries of new causal pathways; experimentation.
- Changes in the scope of the possible; imagination.
- Changes in the relative scarcity of resources; reallocation.
- Changes in norms about how valuable things are; philosophy.
Influencing actions, futurity levers, and types of not-knowing.
- “Values” = what things we decide are valuable and how valuable we decide those things are. Measures of value can range from the concrete (“X is worth $35”) to the abstract (“Robert Irwin was the best of the California Light and Space artists”). We have value frameworks for understanding almost everything, because values drive what we choose to act on and how we choose to act.
- Values are inescapably subjective. Values may seem objective and universally true when there is widespread agreement about them. But history repeatedly shows that widespread agreement about what is valuable (or worthless) changes over time (e.g., in our valuation of slavery, the ability of women to vote, the desirability of lobster, the prestigiousness of Japanese food, etc). Values are inherently and inescapably subjective, which makes them inconvenient and difficult.
- Organisations instinctively avoid actively discussing values. There are different avoidance strategies. Non-profits usually seem to choose different ones from for-profits.
- Non-profits avoid discussing values by having pre-baked values and value frameworks. Non-profits and other mission-driven organisations (including NGOs and governments) are usually formed around specific ideas of value that are chosen by the founders and/or the funders at inception. These value frameworks are usually borrowed from other nonprofits working in the same/adjacent areas.
- For-profits avoid discussing values by having heuristics that become functional substitutes for discussion. This is especially true for publicly listed for-profits. Heuristics are rules that simplify decisionmaking. The most common heuristic is the fiction that all value is fungible (endorsed by economics as a “simplifying assumption”), and thus that money is an acceptable proxy for value in guiding what an organisation does.
- Organisations avoid discussing values because of lack of awareness, insufficient processing capacity, wilfulness, or fallacious reasoning.
- Lack of awareness. Belief in the fungibility of value is a core premise of utilitarianism and thoroughly permeates the economics that informs management “best practice.” Believing that value is fungible makes it easy to believe that money (/revenue/profit etc) is objectively the best (or even the only real) indicator of value. Which leads to a lack of awareness that values are subjective and require discussion and negotiation.
- Insufficient processing capacity. Organisations are notoriously bad at focusing on many targets, especially when those targets are not easily fungible (and thus harder to trade off against each other). Discussing values highlights the non-fungibility of valuable things.
- Wilfulness. Recognising that values are subjective and non-fungible is uncomfortable. Some organisations choose to wilfully avoid discussing values to avoid this discomfort.
- Fallacious reasoning. Leaders who have been successful by implementing one value framework attribute success to that value framework and believe it is the only possible or the only correct one (related to the gambler’s fallacy). There may also be broader pressures for organisations to adopt the value frameworks that are widespread among peer organisations (related to institutional isomorphism).
- Avoiding discussing values eventually comes back to haunt organisations. Failure to discuss values leads eventually to divergence between what the organisation values and what its members value. This can manifest as, e.g., a growing rift between a political party’s values and the values of voters identifying with that party, or a growing disconnect between a company’s values and what its users value. Organisations can tolerate some level of such unacknowledged divergence and dissonance, but not discussing value divergence when it is minor and means that tensions come to a head unmanageably when they suddenly become too big to ignore (e.g., the last days of FTX). Avoiding discussing values can also lead to parties unintentionally misleading each other about their respective values. Explicitly negotiating acceptable and unacceptable tradeoffs
is an effective way to discuss values concretely.
- Value discussions are difficult but valuable or even essential.
- Explicitly agreeing (or disagreeing) about what is valuable helps with coordination across different parts of a team or an organisation.
- Very small organisations (e.g., startups of 1-5 people) may not need to carve out time to discuss values. Discussing values is important even for organisations that are 5-10 people in size. Certainly, the larger and more quickly organisations grow, the more they need value discussion — and the more often they need it.
- Especially in VC-funded tech, companies aim for hypergrowth (where they climb the steep bit of the S-curve). This means that they are growing quickly extremely quickly. Organisations in hypergrowth are adding many new employees/customers/suppliers very quickly. They especially need to discuss values, but usually avoid these uncomfortable discussions.
- Tools for training people/teams to be better at talking about values.
- Swapping job/roles, or doing something outside the job role. Doing different things provides a different perspective on what’s important or valuable, and makes it easier to have discussions about differences in values. This is related to perspective-taking.
- Abstraction laddering. This involves actively narrowing and broadening the focus when thinking about the framing of the problem being worked on. Intentionally changing abstraction levels can reveal implicit assumptions about what is valuable and lead to value discussions.
- Setting norms of talking about value in qualitative and quantitative ways. Normalising talking about value and articulating arguments about why something is (or isn’t) valuable also reveals assumptions about value and leads to active value discussions.
Fragmentary ideas/questions that came up which seem valuable
- Getting people to understand and accept uncertainty is not about haranguing but about teaching and persuasion, the creation of safe spaces to explore an inherently uncomfortable idea.
- Does “uncertainty” need a conceptual propaganda machine analogous to what exists for “risk”?.
- Is it possible to make uncertainty and not-knowing cool by reframing it as exciting and creative? Rick Rubin’s recent 60 Minutes interview shows how this could work.
- Approaches for governing ≠ approaches for enabling. Governing is focused on defining boundaries outside which activity does not go. Enabling is focused on creating conditions for encouraging particular activities.
Some links shared by participants
- Generative AI seems to help consultants work better if used for tasks that AI is good at (but it is hard to know what tasks AI is good at).
- Getting comprehensive views of strategy using a 360° view and “bizzaro” strategies.
- What very long-lived things tell us about the effects of time.
- An attempt at a unified theory of deliciousness which anchors deliciousness at the intersection of novelty and familiarity.
- Near Future Laboratory: A consulting company that uses design fictions as a tool for building strategy.
- A book about uncertainty in games.
- A couple weeks ago I wrote about how I would prefer more precise use of the word “uncertainty” in describing game mechanics.
- Some existing games that seem to embed forms of true uncertainty in how their rules operate: Nomic and Mothership RPG (see p8 of the manual).
- Using decision-forcing cases to simulate experience with ambiguous or uncertain real world scenarios.