Organizations and Subjectivism Pt. 2
…the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started.
I wasn’t paying attention during this particular philosophy class in high school, until the class got riled up and the professor got quiet. The topic at hand were Zeno and his deliberately inciting paradoxes as described by Aristotle. Everyone instinctively thought the story was bonkers, but they couldn’t put into words — why. I was curious. I flipped through my textbook looking for that passage about Achilles and the tortoise. Whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has some distance to go before he can even reach the tortoise(1). Coincidentally or not, that same year in high school we were learning about limits and integral calculus in math class. There was a clear connection here. The distance between the runners is getting smaller, so at some point this distance would approach a fraction of infinity, and any number over infinity is equal to zero. The solution to Achilles and the tortoise paradox seemed obvious, although not everyone thought so.
Even though we are social beings and we did evolve together, as a species, any development of order (as previously described here) begins with a single human having a coherent thought. Coherence is a product of sensemaking, which is a cognitive process allowing us to identify causality and verbalize a coherent thought. I am aware of existing descriptions of sensemaking, and I do agree with statements describing it as the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences(2), or the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing(3), or the process by which the circumstances are turned into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard to action(4), or the negotiation and creation of meaning, or understanding, or the construction of a coherent account of the world(5), but all these statement can be distilled simply into — being aware of causality. Any statement about meaning is implicitly a statement about causality. Understanding causality allows us to understand the nature of the relationship between phenomena, their sequence and the feedback loops.
Coherence doesn’t necessarily have to impel immediate action or it doesn’t even have to be actionable, but it should decrease the uncertainty about any aspect of the world by enabling us to connect-the-dots and have an answer to why? I hope it was coherence that ultimately drove me to write this article. Coherence can bring forth more coherence, like a work of art that by definition doesn’t have any utility, but it can inspire and serve as a foundation for building beliefs and knowledge, which as mentioned earlier, have an effect on our behavior. Coherence is subjective, so if one human connects-the-dots, that doesn’t necessarily mean much for the others. In this sense, the ability to verbalize a coherent thought does not automatically imply order.
Organizations and communication
Several years ago, while working in a fast growing startup, I had the opportunity to talk with bioinformatics scientists about the issues they were facing in everyday work. It turned out that accessing datasets has been a real pain for scientists — medical data in the US and EU is protected by different legislations, so there was no central authority to administer access, oversee data usage or formalize data standards, amongst other issues. It seemed obvious that solving this problem could facilitate medical research and advance human well being, but after some debate, the key people in the startup were not convinced, and they decided to focus on a different, unrelated problem. Ultimately, the problem I identified was solved by the National Institute of Health, when they created the Genomic Data Commons platform(6). So the problem was valid and important all along, but I failed to explain why.
It has been demonstrated throughout our history that an organized group of people can be more than the sum of its parts and can achieve more than a single human. It was an organization of humans that sent a man on the Moon.
Nikola Tesla, the famous loner, did create the AC motor, but it was with the support of George Westinghouse that Tesla’s invention found application in the real world(7). If later in his life, Tesla had been part of an effective organization, could he have succeeded in creating wireless energy transmission, or other amazing things?
Georges Lemaitre approached Albert Einstein in 1927 with a theory that the universe was created in the Big Bang and that it’s currently expanding. Einstein dismissed him with, vos calculs sont corrects, mais votre physique est abominable (your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable)(8). Einstein did eventually recant his position, but only after Edwin Hubble’s publication.
If coherence, belief or knowledge is not shared or understood by other humans, does it even exist? Social systems (such as organizations) are autopoietic systems of communication(9). Communication is not one-sided — it’s not enough to declare coherence, shout beliefs from the rooftop or throw data into someone’s face. Recruiting and onboarding peers involves verbalizing thoughts into a narrative they can understand and relate to, then further interacting with them to address any questions, help them internalize the narrative in a way that is aligned with our intent, so that we minimize possibility of misinterpretation. The social and cultural relativism, as well as subjective interpretation of any statement, require a shift from a passive attitude and behavior of a spokesperson or a leader, where a statement is just presented, and the expectation is on the interlocutor (stakeholders, teams, peers, employees, citizens…) to fend for themself and understand the statement in a way that is intended by the spokesperson, as if such statement has some universal, context free meaning. Knowledge is not intuitive(10), so we need to invest energy to help everyone reach the common ground of understanding. To achieve this we use the language they speak, the vocabulary they have a solid grasp of, and the analogies they can relate to.
The Texas Department of Transportation knows well how even one word can change understanding and influence the behavior. In the late 1980s they were spending $20 million annually on trash pick-up. Trash was littering the highways and the ongoing anti-littering campaign was not producing desired effects. Then an advertising agency realized that Texans don’t talk about litter in their daily lives, but they do say mess. The Don’t mess with Texas campaign was born and the following year showed a 29 percent reduction in litter on the road(11).
Organizations and fallacies
Around the same time when I was working in a growing startup, an acquaintance of mine had a great idea to combine esports and blockchain in an effort to decentralize the gaming industry. His timing was perfect since everyone was jumping on the blockchain bandwagon, and his pitch deck was grand and shiny. It came as no surprise to anyone when he effortlessly got the funding and assembled the development team. They managed to create a proof of concept in a few months, and spent about fourteen more months working on their platform, but ultimately they produced nothing, ran out of money and failed. Turns out — gamers didn’t care about decentralization, gaming companies didn’t care, payment processors didn’t care, and blockchain as a technology was too slow and unreliable at the time.
Coherence is not the only product of sensemaking. It’s not easy to tell if a thought is really coherent, if it’s built on a cognitive bias, or if it just feels good because it’s satisfying a specific psychological need. While writing this article I remembered Zeno’s paradox (mentioned earlier) and realized how it might have never been about a solution. It was just supposed to make me think, yet I converged on limits and integrals without thinking. I’m now wondering if the paradox could’ve been a metaphor for organizations — if you constantly move forward, others can’t catch up, there cannot be a shared understanding…
The brain of an average adult human represents about 2% of the body weight yet accounts for approximately 20% of the energy consumed(12). It’s not a surprise that cognitive biases have persisted throughout evolution, as they allow us to preserve valuable energy by bypassing substantial cognitive processing, and jump to a conclusion that could possibly be statistically significant. Unfortunately, this could also lead to us seeing only what we expect to see(13), finding it difficult to concentrate on more than one task at a time(14), or having our perception and thinking swayed by the context(15), among other things. Knowing that our ideas can be imperfect, or plain wrong, we should accept that changing, updating, or even completely dismissing an idea is not a sign of weakness, but a legitimate and rational thing to do. Consistency is not necessarily a virtue when dealing with complexity (ask me why).
The foundation of order is epistemic, and as such, sometimes it’s just a mirage. So, we might believe that we’re building order, but in actuality we’re just digging ourselves into a hole. It’s too easy to get stuck into cognitive-behavioral patterns because they are energy efficient, convenient or familiar. Our consciousness does not imply self-awareness, and it is exactly self-awareness that has an influence on impulsive behavior(16).
In the context of product development, the lack of self-awareness is the reason why you never ask your customer what to do? People don’t know what they want until you show it to them(17). They are preoccupied with their own lives, problems, experiences, mortgage payment, vacation plans, etc. they just don’t have relevant knowledge, time and energy to dedicate to a second-order observation of self in a context. Quite frankly, this is fine, it’s the reason why I have a job. All I do is perform task analysis of a specific activity, by a specific person, in a specific context, and try to come up with a better, more effective way on how to complete that task. If a customer is confused by my solution or doesn’t know how to use the product, I’m not going to point the finger at them and declare that the customer is dumb.
In the context of organizational design, the finger pointing is often a sad reality. It’s employees’ fault if they can’t relate to the organizational purpose, or don’t know how to complete a task but comply with procedures at the same time. My approach to such misadventures has been the exaptation of product management practices. Start treating any statement (purpose, strategy, process, idea, user story, business goal…) as a product — the employees would be the customers, and the pain point this product is trying to alleviate is the lack of shared understanding. Since there is no final product, the statement would have to be optimized regularly, and evolve according to customers’ needs and feedback, while delicately balancing the business goals.
The post-Cartesian paradigm helped us overcome the belief in substance dualism and realize that most people are not inherently good or bad, honest or lying, hardworking or lazy. However, they are good, honest and hardworking in a specific context(18). It’s about time we also realize the implications of subjectivism on organizational design. If employees are failing at being a part of an organization, if they’re failing at what they do, the first thing we have to ask is — did they get an opportunity to understand what they need to do, why they need to do it, and how to do it? Did they get an opportunity to be good, honest, hardworking?
- Aristotle. Physics, Book 9, Part 9.
- Weick, K., Sutcliffe, K. M., Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking, Organization Science, Volume 16, Issue 4. 409
- Taylor, J., Van Every, E. (2000). The Emergent Organization Communication As Its Site and Surface, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. 40
- Carlson, B. (2013). Tesla Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press.
- Deprit, A. (1984). The Big Bang and Georges Lemaitre, Reidel Publishing Company. 370
- Luhmann, N. (1982). The World Society As A Social System, International Journal of General Systems, Volume 8, Issue 3. 131
- Foucault, M. (1974). Truth and Juridical Forms, Social Identities, Volume 2, Issue 3. 8
- Buzsaki, G., Kaila, K., Raichle, M. (2007). Inhibition and Brain Work, Neuron, Volume 56, Issue 5. 771–783
- Nickerson, R. (1998), Confirmation Bias A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises, Review of General Psychology, Volume 2, Issue 2. 175–220
- Cater, K., Chalmers, A., Ledda, P. (2002). Selective Quality Rendering by Exploiting Human Inattentional Blindness Looking but Not Seeing, VRST 02 Proceedings of the ACM symposium on Virtual reality software and technology. 17–24
- Weingarten, E., Chen, Q., McAdams, M., Yi, J., Hepler, J,. Albarracín, D. (2005). From primed concepts to action a meta-analysis of the behavioral effects of incidentally presented words, Psychological Bulletin, Volume 142, Issue 5. 472–497
- Diener, E., Wallbom, M. (1976). Effects of Self-awareness on Antinormative Behavior, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 10, Issue 1. 107–111
- Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster. 179