3 Ideas I Wish Were More True

I’d be a genius if only the facts were on my side.

I’ll be honest. I try to stick to a schedule. I want to write more than I do. But it’s hard. And most of my stuff sucks. By the transitive property, this probably sucks. But I’ll see it through.

The way it works is that I have ideas. I jot those ideas down. Then, when I have the time to be thoughtful, I try to substantiate those ideas with supporting evidence. Sometimes that evidence doesn’t materialize in a coherent manner.

At one point, I just wanted to publish all of the unpublished detritus that lives in my drafts cache. But that would be unfair to the constructive detritus. So without further ado, the three insightful articles I wish I could finish if only the facts were on my side.

Idea 1: The Value of Ambiguity

My experience is that the world views structure as good and ambiguity as bad. Schedules, rubrics, road maps — these are the strategic documents of organized and efficient people. The shrug, on the other hand, is the fallback of the indecisive and lazy loafer.

But here’s the thing: when there are rules and structure, people exploit them. Or they can provide cover to do terrible things.This is the lesson of the Milgram experiment. Under the guise of following orders, 65% of test subjects delivered a 450 volt shock to what they thought was another human being. What’s more, when there is structure, outcomes are capped. A structured group can only achieve the goal.

When there is ambiguity, on the other hand, individuals apply their values to find their own way — even if that does come at the cost of time and efficiency. And when there is ambiguity, literally no one knows what can be achieved.

As a result, I believe the results will surprise if we let go of structure, release control, surround ourselves with good people, and increase ambiguity. Yet this idea doesn’t seem to work in practice and nothing in academia supports it. At my own place of work when there is a lapse in strategic guidance, complaints around role confusion, lack of direction, and groups working at cross purposes quickly bubble up. Then there’s Holacracy, the most formal movement towards self-management, which appears to fail at scale.

There’s a world where ambiguity is valuable, but it’s not this one.

Idea 2: How to Control Your Cycles of Self-Improvement

Look, we should always try to do more than we are obviously capable of. That’s progress. But how — and to what end — should we prefer the unknown?

I started thinking about this as I learned about how the Gittins index awards a small premium to the unknown since there is a chance it could be better, but not so much of a premium that people or machines should push on into the unknown against increasing evidence of failure.

This led me to the acting career of Tom Hanks. How else but with a firm understanding of the Gittins Index did the star of “Bosom Buddies” progress to Bachelor Party and Big and then on to Philadelphia, Forest Gump, and Saving Private Ryan? He did it by regularly stretching into new roles — from television to film, comedy to drama, acting to producing. There were misses along the way (The Bonfire of the Vanities was a disaster), but he mitigated the cost of risk of getting out of his comfort zone by regularly falling back into roles he could do well along the way.

The CEO at my own company encourages employees to “Be a monkey.” This means to climb around the organization and try new things in a never-ending quest to discover where talent, passion, and value creation overlap.

But I realized this is overfitting. There is no clear career path to the top. If there were, lemming-like everyone would follow it. Tom Hanks’s career was most likely a product of luck and serendipity just as tortured analogies are most likely stupid. In my own experience, changes have an even chance of being better or worse.

To the extent we believe we can control our cycles of self-improvement, that control is mostly an illusion. Sometimes you get better; sometimes you don’t.

Idea 3: The Right Way to Tell the Hard Truth

Here’s what should happen when you’re honest:

  1. People like it.
  2. It’s liberating.
  3. Productivity increases.
  4. Trust goes up.
  5. An organization gets better.

And yet the hard truth mostly goes unspoken. Why? The answer is itself a hard truth. There is no right way to be honest. Sometimes honesty is celebrated, while other times it’s cast aside. How it’s received depends on so many factors: What one is being honest about, how it’s phrased, who says it, the mood of the audience, and so on.

So there is no right way to tell the hard truth even though it’s always right to do so.