Random finds (2016, week 38) — On becoming self-organized, the power of constraints, and people who ‘tell it like it is’

The exhibition Good Design in the Museum of Modern Art, November 21, 1950–January 28, 1951.

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking.

On becoming self-organized

“The role of leaders is overrated. ‘Self-org’ is not about eliminating leaders, but rethinking their role in a more balanced way,” Gustavo Razzetti writes in Becoming Self-Organized: A Leader’s Take On Driving Change.

“When we kicked-off our self-organization initiative at LAPIZ, 9 months ago, the initial reaction from employees was that we were on a quest to eliminate managers or hierarchies. Actually, what got me into launching this experiment was the desire to make our organization smarter. Like many others I share the frustration of the way companies used to ‘work’ and I wanted to do something to change the status quo. In order to improve the whole system I knew it was important to not approach the problem from only one perspective but to take a more holistic approach. Instead of railing against hierarchy (as they seem to be natural and inevitable) I wanted to think about redesigning how people and roles operate and interact. What we needed was a new organizational operating system. We needed to shift decision-making away from a controlling/anticipation approach and toward one that promotes decentralization/adaptivity.”

For us, self-organization has been about people creating their own paths.

Razzetti embraces the similar mindset that Japanese architects use to design walkways on their parks. “Rather than someone deciding which is the right path,” he writes, “they let people walk freely across the park. After some time, by looking at where the grass is worn away, they realized where people walked and they just pave those paths.”

“As a leader you are going to be tested more than anyone,” he says. “People will question your commitment to play within the new rules even if you were the one who championed the idea of trying self-organization in the first place. Be resilient. You need to be ready to accept that things might slow down a little bit initially. Results might not be there, quality might drop in some aspects, some procrastination might happen. Be patient (that’s been hard for me). You’ll have to prioritize people learning to play the game over the end result — at least at first. It takes time for people to operate in a new way but it definitely pays off in the long run.”

“Finally, remember that you have the power to pave the walkway — but that doesn’t mean you should determine how people walk across the park. Leadership in a self-organizing company is about being mindful of your team’s footsteps.”

Warby Parker employees nominate engineering projects, and the tech team picks the ones they like best. (Courtesy Warby Parker/Barkow Photo).

“The problem Warby Parker faced was not unusual nor particularly complicated: How could the trendy eyewear company make better use of its computer programmers’ time?,” writes Oliver Staley in Warby Parker is getting better results by reducing managers’ control over workers. “To solve that mundane quandary, the company could have hired an outside consultant, or reorganized its engineering department. Instead, Warby Parker did something radical: It let its employees decide.”

“The company invented a process that invites all of its 800 workers to help manage the business,” Staley notes. “The new system, called Warbles, lets employees across Warby Parker nominate programming projects. Managers vote on them by assigning points to the tasks they think would add the most value. The programmers then get to pick the projects they’re most interested in, but they’re rewarded if they pick the ones with the most points. Teams of computer engineers compete to accumulate the most points, and after every quarter, the winning team gets a prize.”

Warbles, which has been in place for about two years, is illustrative of how the workplace is being reorganized. Once bastions of command-and-control culture, companies are increasingly willing to experiment with structures that give employees more say in their work. From online retailer Zappos, which was an early adopter of a system of dismantling hierarchy called Holacracy, to Google, where employees can write their own job descriptions, the structure and shape of the firm is being renegotiated on multiple fronts.

Ideas can come from anyone (Courtesy Warby Parker/Barkow Photo).

Undergirding the idea of crowdsourcing is the belief that diversity is a strength, and that the more perspectives that are brought to a problem, the more potential there is for solutions to be found. It’s a particularly valuable tool for unearthing rare and extraordinary ideas, the ‘right tail’ of a bell curve, not the run-of-the-mill ideas that make up the bulge in the middle, says Ethan Bernstein, a Harvard Business School professor who writes about organizational behavior. “They’re solving more problems and they’re solving them better, because they have more minds in the room, no matter how they get them in the room,” he says.

Founded in 2010, Warby Parker has grown rapidly (Courtesy Warby Parker/Barkow Photo).

In Montessori Schools Offer Big Lessons For ‘Managers’, a different take on self-organization from Ashoka, a Forbes contributor group that writes about finding entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s problems.

Founded in Italy just before the turn of the 20th century by educator and physician Maria Montessori, the Montessori approach challenged predominant educational theories by giving children the freedom to grow, learn and contribute in the classroom. Although her methodologies were developed for children and education, her philosophy can just as easily be applied to the work place. So it makes sense that studies challenging the paradigm of ‘management’ today would echo several Montessori principles.

“Help Me to Help Myself”: Independence and the Montessori Philosophy.

“Instead of seeing children as empty vessels that need to be disciplined and filled, Dr. Montessori saw their innate desire and ability to learn. […] She saw that an infant learns to sit, walk and speak without external instruction. She observed a child’s indifference to rewards and punishments and recognized her inner guiding principles as the source of learning. And Dr. Montessori concluded that a child’s innate hunger for knowledge and development naturally leads to inner discipline, concentration and joy.”

Similarly, implicit in traditional organizational structures and roles is a deep-seated belief that employees need to be given orders and disciplined. That is why traditional workspaces are built on the premise of ‘command and control’ with many measures for incentives, punishment and surveillance. But authors like Daniel Pink of Drive, question this idea. Pink speaks of the deep human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better for ourselves and our world. His research and studies across several companies show us that if we are looking to encourage (and not manage) people to be their best, we need to tap into their inner drive.

The parallels prove that Maria Montessori was not off the mark when she said children conceal within themselves a secret that can help adults solve their own problems. Her observations and principles hold strong clues to addressing growing job dissatisfaction in organizations and the challenges posed by the fast changing environment. But “simply creating open spaces and changing processes, while a great first step, may not be enough. We need to begin challenging our fundamental assumptions about human nature, organizational structures and our roles as leaders. And recognizing the child within may be the best approach to help us get closer to the answer.”

On the power of constraints

“Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer — how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means — are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.”

In Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints, Tiago Forte explores, what he believes are the two pillars of self-knowledge when it comes to productivity: meta-skills and macro-laws. “The ultimate purpose of productivity and self-improvement frameworks is thus to help you gain self-knowledge through the medium of practical lessons in getting shit done,” he writes. According to Forte, meta-skills are the skills you need to leverage other skills. They are the tools of survival, helping you stay alive long enough to find shelter, food, and water, while macro-laws are the map you’ll need to find your way to more interesting places.

There is a common thread uniting both meta-skills and macro-laws: the power of constraints. Meta-skills are constraints on how you work, to better leverage your knowledge, intelligence, time, people, and other resources. Macro-laws are constraints on what you work on, limiting your search space to a direction most likely to be fruitful.

“But there’s just one problem,” Forte writes. “How can something that is literally ‘not there’ have any effect on the material world? How can constraints have power?”

In his book Incomplete Nature, the American neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon, who is currently Professor of Anthropology and member of the Cognitive Science faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, proposes an answer. He argues that there is a problem with how we think about emergent, complex systems (like productivity, consciousness, and life): we imagine each as ‘more than the sum of its parts.’ This has become practically the definition of emergence: life is more than just chemistry, information more than just bits, and consciousness more than just neurons. But we run into problems when we try to define what this ‘something more’ actually is. But Deacon makes a daring argument that helps explain how meta-skills and macro-laws work. He argues that emergent phenomena are not more than the sum of their parts. Instead, they are less than the sum of their parts. In other words, emergence is defined by what is not there — by constraints.

Deconstruct complexity into its components, and you dissolve the very relationships that give rise to it, and are left with nothing.

“This seems, in fact, to be the nature of all sorts of things we have trouble explaining through simple causality — they exist primarily in relation to something not there,” Forte explains. “Purpose refers to a future goal that doesn’t yet exist. Function relates to an external mapping that is likewise immaterial. Even Information seems to be distinguishable from noise only by its being ‘about’ something else (its intentionality, in philosophical terms). This could explain why reductionist analyses don’t work in explaining consciousness, or any other emergent phenomenon: what doesn’t exist has no parts. Deconstruct the experience of mind into its components, and you dissolve the very relationships that give rise to it, and are left with nothing.”

One of Faig Ahmed’s ‘psychedelic’ carpets from classical Azerbaijani textiles.

“What matters is not even relationships between parts, but relationships between constraints,” Forte continues. “Think of a rug woven with many threads into intricate patterns. The rug is ‘defined’ by the self-entanglement and reciprocal constraints that the threads impose on each other. The ways they probabilistically shape each others’ possibilities for change. Nothing magical or mysterious is added to the threads to make it a rug, yet you could individually replace each thread and still have the same rug. It is the connectional geometry of the system, the ways that constraints interact at different levels, that produces the emergent rug. This geometry has great causal power, but is not something material. It influences the probabilities of how things will change, by declaring how they won’t change.”

We think that increasing complexity must mean ‘adding more and more of something.’ As bacteria become animals become humans (or data becomes information becomes wisdom), we look everywhere for that ‘something added,’ yet turn up empty-handed. According to Deacon, however, work creates constraints (a beaver building a dam to channel water), but constraints also create work (a dam using channeled water to produce electricity). Round and round they go, constraints generating work to create more constraints to generate more work.

What sets us apart from machines is the power of our intention.

“Is there any better definition of productivity?,” Forte asks. “We learn meta-skills to perform higher-leverage work, but the best source of leverage is creating new constraints — new macro-laws. These macro-laws channel our energy more efficiently, giving us the surplus resources to acquire yet more skills. Improving one’s productivity is not a self-organizing process, but a self-simplifying one.”

This theory provides a clue to understanding what sets human work apart from machine work. After all, machines are perfectly capable of acquiring both skills, and following laws. What sets us apart is the power of our intention.

A bit more …

What is common sense? It’s a stock phrase for politicians, but can there ever be ‘universal, unarguable agreement on matters of knowledge, judgement and taste’? Time to sift through the rhetoric, Rhodri Marsden argues in his 2015 article for TheLong+Short.

People who express themselves in plain, simple terms are invariably wrong, it has emerged.

“We in the west do seem to be developing an allergy to any form of expertise, widening the gulf between a know-it-all liberal elite and regular, down-to-earth folk. Politicians wield the term ‘common sense’ in an attempt to exploit that divide, and we see the same strategy used by the British media; right-wing columnists such as Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson will ‘tell it like it is’ or ‘call it as they see it,’ and we either cheer or hiss, depending on our political hue. The comedian Al Murray, in his guise as the xenophobic, self-contradicting Pub Landlord, has mined a rich seam of gags by satirising this kind of thinking, recycling phrases such as ‘it stands to reason.’ ‘it’s staring you in the face’ and ‘it’s common sense’ as he makes a case for British superiority, or bemoans the confused thinking behind hummus.”

“Digital crowds and mass movements are not all bad. We’ve all seen uplifting examples of people coming together on the Internet to effect truly positive change. Technology has helped to increase the speed of change in opinion currents that have resulted in policy shifts that have made society more equal and tolerant. But there are some troubling indicators that the downsides are increasing, unchecked, because the platforms themselves don’t believe that they bear responsibility for how they are used, or what individual and crowd behaviors they facilitate,” writes Renee DiResta on Ribbonfarm in her guest post Crowds and Technology.

Illustration by Grace Witherell.

“A good analogy may be the early Industrial Age. The new technologies of the time offered phenomenal potential, but also created great unchecked amounts of environmental damage until environmentalism emerged as a check and balance. Digital technologies too, are full of phenomenal potential, but are unfortunately creating social environments that are as polluted as the physical environment was a century ago. Perhaps it is time we began the hard work of cleaning it up.”

In The Illusion of Agency, Peter Vander Auwera writes: “People believe what is on their phones and PIMS is the reality, and are able to represent us as human beings. But as Markus Sabadello said at this event [MyData2016]: ‘Technology will not be able to represent the full complexity of human beings.’ Our devices and apps make us believe we are in control, because we now can “manage” our data and lives. But we are focused on managing life, rather than living it. That is our big illusion.”

“Are you intelligent — or rational? The question may sound redundant, but in recent years researchers have demonstrated just how distinct those two cognitive attributes actually are.”

Illustration by Marion Fayolle.

“It is, of course, unrealistic to think that we will ever live in a world where everyone is completely rational,” David Z. Hambrick, a professor in the psychology department at Michigan State University, and Alexander P. Burgoyne, one of Hanbrick’s graduate students, write in The Difference Between Rationality and Intelligence on The New York Times. “But by developing tests to identify the most rational among us, and by offering training programs to decrease irrationality in the rest of us, scientific researchers can nudge society in that direction.”

So who are these more rational people? Presumably, the more intelligent people, right? Wrong.

In A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin takes to task our seemingly growing inability to weigh multiple ideas in making informed decisions, relying instead on emotional reactivity clouded by invented statistics and murky evidence. According to Levitin, “misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years, and was documented in biblical times and classical Greece. The unique problem we face today is that misinformation has proliferated; it is devilishly entwined on the Internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate.”

You can read Derek Beres’ review of Levitin’s latest book in Can We Think Critically Anymore? on Big Think.

“As an entrepreneur, it was my creativity that allowed me to see existing boundaries from other positions from which to innovate. As a fine artist, the single most important factor in developing my practice has been this same ability to identify boundaries and strategize within the work. The important difference is that as a design entrepreneur, the strategies were outward facing and generally a reaction to customer or market forces. As a fine artist the strategies are a reaction to the work itself. For me, my practice is at its most engaging when I am able to respond to what the work is doing and push the boundaries to make work that quite simply does what I want it to do.” — Sara Berman in Entrepreneur vs. Artist: A Game of Boundaries.

Painting by Sara Berman.

The Museum of Modern Art’s Miraculous New Online Archive, available for free on the museum’s website, documents every show that it has exhibited, going back to its very first in 1929.

“For art-history fans and scholars, this archive uncovers the lineage of an organization that has ‘defined Modernism more powerfully than perhaps any other institution,’ as the Times puts it. And, surely, graduate students will consult its pages for years to come. But this is a remarkable project, and browsing through it will reward many more people than just scholars. These are stunning, discomfiting photographs, and they seem both recent and ancient at once,” Robinson Meyer writes on The Atlantic.

Dance, by Henri Matisse, as exhibited in 1951.

“These are such good questions, perhaps we shouldn’t spoil them with answers.” — John Cage