Discover more from 🌀🗞 The FLUX Review
🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 102
June 1st, 2023
Episode 102 — June 1st, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/102
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Justin Quimby, a.r. Routh, Dimitri Glazkov, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
We’re a ragtag band of systems thinkers who have been dedicating our early mornings to finding new lenses to help you make sense of the complex world we live in. This newsletter is a collection of patterns we’ve noticed in recent weeks.
“Respect for complexity, lack of knowledge, the small number of researchers and modest budgets at PARC led to a finessing style of design. Instead of trying to build the complex artifacts from scratch — like trying to build living things cell by cell — many of the most important projects built a kernel that could grow the artifact as new knowledge was gained — that is: get one cell’s DNA in good shape and let it grow the whole system.”
— Alan Kay, The Power of the Context
🐝🌴 To spread or not to spread
How does the spread of ideas influence the culture of organizations? To help us reason about this question, we at FLUX came up with the below 2x2. The horizontal axis indicates whether the idea that’s moving across our collective minds is productive or not, and the vertical axis reflects the pace of this movement.
A Culture Virus is an idea that rapidly spreads unproductive habits and mindsets from person to person in an organization. Each instance of the behavior drives more people to adopt it, leading to runaway spread. For example, not enforcing accountability leads to others acting on the assumption that they will not be held accountable. Culture Viruses are one of the biggest dangers to an organization’s culture. Once they start to spread, they tend to change cultures in ways that are hard to recover from.
The opposite of a Culture Virus is what we call Cultural Pollination. This is the same phenomenon, mechanically: some behavior spreads and, in spreading, makes itself more likely to spread more. Norms of open communication and collaboration can spread easily because, when people have been given more information, they will have more information to share with others. Unlike Culture Viruses, Cultural Pollination spreads behavior and values that reinforce our desired culture. But similarly to Culture Viruses, once an idea spreads, it takes on staying power and is hard to dislodge. (This time, of course, that staying power is a good thing.)
In both of these cases, the cultural change in question is spreading. What about when it isn’t spreading?
Let’s start with the positive case. When a positive cultural change isn’t spreading, it’s a Values Oasis. A Values Oasis may seem like a neutral or even positive thing. Good practices are good, right? It’s a pity that they’re not spreading, but better to have them somewhere than for them to not exist at all. Maybe they will spread later?
But as this article from Lethain observes, a Values Oasis is actually a negative thing. It’s not as straightforwardly bad as a Culture Virus, but a Values Oasis leaves those in the oasis at risk of failure should it dry up. The example given in the article is that, if part of an organization values community-building work and the broader organization does not, then people who had been rated well on performance relative to the old norms may find themselves being judged negatively for “wasting” time on that work should the supportive leaders leave. As the article notes, if part of an organization has different values because there is ambiguity in the broader organization, it can work out okay. When a Values Oasis comes from clear-cut disagreement with the broader organization, then it can be a dangerous place to be.
When negative behavior is not spreading, things are working as intended. We call this the Negativity Quarantine. Oftentimes, the Negativity Quarantine occurs naturally because the negative behavior is not seen as beneficial to anyone. People tend to not want to work with rude jerks. However, people are strange creatures. If someone is a successful jerk, then others might start to conflate their success with their negative behavior. In such cases, if it’s not possible to get rid of the negative person, it can be useful to create an intentional Negativity Quarantine. In this example, this might look like making the ‘jerk’ an individual contributor on a self-contained project rather than making them a lead on a highly collaborative project.
When looking at an organization’s ever-evolving culture, it’s important to be honest with ourselves about where we are. We might think that our awesome updated values statement is the start of some Cultural Pollination, yet miss the fact that our ideas aren’t actually spreading.
Or we might think we have quarantined a negative fixation on performance reviews with a process change, but what we’ve actually done is moved understanding of performance standards to the realm of gossip and myth. When people don’t complain about changes in front of leadership, then leadership may not realize that a Culture Virus is spreading.
Finally, we might think that our values are aligned with the organization around us, but we may not realize that we are actually in a Values Oasis that may collapse suddenly the next time a ground-truthing event occurs.
By paying attention to and at least getting a sense of how our ideas spread, we can better understand their impact on our organization’s culture, and perhaps even learn to influence our culture to be more productive.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🧑💼 One lawyer cited fake legal cases that ChatGPT made up
A lawyer writing a legal filing asked ChatGPT for examples of past cases that supported his argument. ChatGPT responded with case names like “Varghese v. China Southern Airline Co” and “Shaboon v. Egyptair,” which the lawyer dutifully included in his filing. The problem was that ChatGPT had completely fabricated the cases — it even wrote the full text of the spurious cases. (The lawyer later asked ChatGPT to confirm if the bogus cases were real, and the chatbot said yes.)
🚏🌴 The CEO of the biggest carbon credit certifier is stepping down amidst pressure
The CEO of Verra, an American nonprofit that sells verified carbon credits to companies that want to go “carbon neutral,” recently announced his departure amid a storm of criticism from the media and the public. The organization has been under fire ever since an exposé revealed that the “rainforest credits” purchased by major companies were basically worthless: they were “often based on stopping the destruction of rainforests that were not threatened.”
🚏🕯 The US is giving away lighthouses for free to anyone who’ll maintain them
While lighthouses were vital navigational tools in the past, modern GPS technology has rendered them far less important. But lighthouses remain popular tourist attractions and beloved local landmarks, so the US’s General Services Administration is giving away six lighthouses to any government agencies, nonprofits, educational organizations, or “other entities” that are “willing to maintain and preserve them” and “make them publicly available for educational, recreational or cultural purposes.” An additional four lighthouses will be sold at auction; these can be used as private residences or attractions.
🚏🧯 A major home insurer is pulling out of California, citing wildfire risks
The insurance firm State Farm recently announced that it will stop selling new home insurance policies in California; the company said it made this decision based on increasing wildfire risks and “historic increases in construction costs.” State Farm stressed that existing customers won’t be affected, but not all Californians have been so lucky: last year, multiple home insurers said they’d no longer be renewing Californians’ policies.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Why Big Companies Keep Failing: The Stack Fallacy (TechCrunch) — Explains how many people “mistakenly believe that it is trivial to build the layer above yours” but very difficult to improve the layer below. Examples include hardware manufacturers who ridicule operating system developers and pure mathematicians who deride physicists as merely applied mathematicians. In truth, it’s often easier to innovate down the stack because you’re already a customer of those lower levels; you know what needs to be built there.
What Does “Polarity” Mean in International Relations? (Paul Poast) — An IR professor argues that there’s more to geopolitics than just the number of major powers on the world stage (“polarities”); power concentration (i.e. the relative strength of each major actor) is also important. He argues that we can thus model the modern world as an “unequal multipolarity.”
Data, Prices, and Central Planning (The Diff) — Marvels at how prices are “high-bandwidth” tools for compressing a multi-dimensional economy into a single, one-dimensional summary. Then observes that some miniature command economies (such as Amazon’s internal supply chains) have benefited from introducing market signals.
The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans? Part IV: The Color of Purple (A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry) — Challenges the popular conception (supported, intentionally or not, by many media productions) that the Roman empire was ethnically homogeneous. In reality, Rome was highly diverse from even its earliest days, and the empire’s core strength was in “successfully integrating those many diverse peoples into itself, in allowing them to become Roman.” Plus, ancient Romans cared much less about skin color and “race” than about language, religion, and citizenship.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais (2019, 274 pages).
With an introduction that cites influences such as Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, W. Edwards Deming and systems thinking, and Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s Cynefin framework, this book sets itself up from the start to be well-aligned with ideas that have influenced this newsletter.
The authors’ primary goal is to reframe how we design team structures. Conway’s law is inescapable: “organizations design systems that mirror their own communication structure.” Team Topologies encourages organizations to use the inverse Conway maneuver to embrace this law and design their org structure around the value they want to deliver. Teams should be the fundamental unit of delivery.
The authors contend that teams are socio-technical structures that, like individuals, have a maximum cognitive load they can handle. This leads to the key principle of the book: teams should own business-aligned value streams of work. However, since no one team can own everything, work should be split so as to minimize cognitive load.
This leads to several unintuitive recommendations, one of which is that organizational design should aim to minimize communication between teams. It’s not that communication is bad. Rather, if communication is too frequent, that implies that the boundary between teams is not aligned with their ability to deliver value. In other words, well-aligned team boundaries allow teams to be autonomous.
The focus on cognitive load also helps to put some structure around the often-challenging decision of when to split teams. For instance, instead of focusing on skill sets, a team should be divided based on partitioning the cognitive load. This might be a platform team that owns a separable system only accessible through APIs. It could also be a complex subsystem that is still part of the main value stream but has its own technical challenges. It might even be an enabling team that teaches other teams best practices. Using this framework, the authors discuss how these types of teams relate to each other, as well as some pitfalls to look out for when dividing teams like this.
Full of concrete ideas and practical advice, this book is a valuable read for anyone who influences (or aspires to influence!) team structures.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a possible future that could result from the systemic forces changing our world.
// On May 2nd, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) labor union, which represents 11,500 writers, declared a labor strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The last time the members of the WGA put down their pens and picked up picket signs, a period that spanned 100 days from 2007 to 2008, it caused serious disruptions in planned TV show arcs.
// What might happen if the 2023 Writer’s strike lasts longer than 2007’s?
// Mid-September, 2023. An office in LA. An almost comical caricature of a studio executive sits at a desk, chomping on a cigar.
“I don’t care. We’re not bending the knee to these writers. We can use AI and any other tools we want to make shows.
“Here’s a list I came up with this weekend. Find some non-union people, hire some of those programmers laid off by Silicon Valley, and get me some concepts! We need product!!”
The barely legible scribbles on a yellow pad of paper read as follows:
“A dating show where one contestant is being fed lines from GenAI on what they should say next
Scavenger hunt show where goals are created by AI, based on the biographies of the contestants
Dating game where AI matches people based on what will generate the most drama — which we then film
Live-form D&D game where the game master is AI
Physical challenge show where AI comes up with the challenge, like ‘will they blend’ with a person-sized blender
AI matches martial arts fighters in a weekly contest
AI comes up with new TikTok challenges, then a panel of influencers watch the results
People wanting to lose weight have to follow an AI-designed workout and diet
AI summarizes the latest trends in the past week on social media
Demolition derby where half the vehicles are driven by AI
AI takes movies, characters, and novels in the public domain and reinterprets them, inserting digital versions of people willing to cross the picket line
AI makes short-form video games, similar to WarioWare, and we film people trying to play them
A game show where people submit their own AIs to compete in a series of challenges, judged by our own AI”
A note on the side reads: “When we need people, focus on the unknowns looking for their break. When they start getting big, cut them loose. The Internet gives ‘em too much power once they get a following.”
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