Discover more from 🌀🗞 The FLUX Review
🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 124
November 2nd, 2023
Episode 124 — November 2nd, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/124
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, MK, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, 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.
“History is infuriating in what it leaves out, what it tells us and doesn’t tell us. But sometimes these gaping holes are everything, are the crack where the light gets in. Sometimes the lacuna is what makes space for a new story.”
— Jo Walton, Or What You Will
🧠 🧰 When to Pick a Process (or not)
The default answer for scaling problem-solving, at least in organizational settings, is to create a process. When people need to solve a problem using a process, they follow the defined steps to achieve their goal. This can be great: hard-earned wisdom from past pain and experience, ready for you to mimic. But many chafe at this imposition.
Process often has a bad rap. Some view processes as needless bureaucracy, like filling out a mandatory form just to get a new pen. It’s often associated with suppressed creativity, where we have to stick to a certain narrative structure because that’s what is required by the assignment.
At the same time, processes clearly increase the effectiveness of procedures like surgeries by ensuring that the right actions are taken in the right order.
(A side note that’s a whole essay on its own: Both the chafing and the surgery example come from how processes usually grow by preventing mistakes, ignoring the cost of adding the extra steps. So when the costs of mistakes are very high, like surgery, process is great! When the costs of mistakes are low, the chafing sets in)
The Cynefin framework can enhance our problem-solving toolbox. This framework describes problems as clear (a.k.a. simple), complicated, complex, or chaotic. Each of these contexts adds a different tool to our toolbox.
For simple problems, a process feels like overhead. Getting paid can be a tedious process of recording and submitting hours, requesting pay, getting a physical check, and depositing it. For a frequent task like this, it can be valuable to add structure. Structure shifts the burden from people having to think about what to do to having it built into the environment. Take the paycheck process: replacing manual time entry with an automated "clock in/clock out" system and direct deposit streamlines what was once a labor-intensive process. This also highlights an asymmetry: not everyone perceives problems with the same level of challenge. Getting a paycheck should be simple. Managing payroll, on the other hand, is in the realm that’s coming up next.
As we move into the realm of complicated problems, we see processes at their best. A process can help people systematically go through the steps needed to solve the problem. For example, when an employee is hired, there’s a fairly standard procedure to follow, but there are often variations that make each employee’s onboarding unique: they need to start on an atypical day; they need special equipment; they are going on leave 2 weeks after their start date; and so on. A process helps people gather the needed data, analyze it systematically, and develop the right solution.
Complex problems make things harder. By their very nature, we can’t encode the right answer to a complex problem in a structure or a step-by-step process. We can’t even be sure that there is a right answer. The tool we can give people to solve a complex problem is context. They will need to navigate this unknown landscape independently, but we can tell them everything we know about it. For example, a product manager who needs to come up with a roadmap for a product whose growth is flattening needs to know about the current user base and why they use the product, potential user bases, things the company has tried in the past that did and did not work, and much more.
When things get chaotic, even context is not sufficient. What was true yesterday may have little bearing on what is true today. In chaotic situations, the best we can do is arm people with probing tools. These tools enable people to learn what is currently true in their environment. For example, in the midst of a contentious merger, we might advise people to spend less time on formal, structured presentations and instead have many small conversations to learn how different stakeholders are thinking about priorities.
A process is a great tool, sometimes.
When we find ourselves in a position where we need to enable others to solve problems, we must resist the instinct to define a process. Instead, we can ask ourselves about the nature of the challenge. Is this a problem we can solve by putting a simple structure in place, like a template or an automated process? Is it a creative or innovative challenge where we should provide context about the environment so they can explore effectively? Is this an evolving and dynamic (chaotic?) challenge where we should teach people how to be aware of the shifting sands? If so, then there are better solutions than process. However, when the challenge we are faced with is one of navigating through a space of varied but understood solutions, a process may be exactly what we need.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🛍️ Deepfake videos of influencers are streaming nonstop on Chinese e-commerce apps
Chinese e-commerce platforms like Taobao, Douyin, and Kuaishou are increasingly turning to AI-generated deepfakes of influencers to livestream nonstop on their platform, helping drive sales at all hours of the day. Chinese AI startups are now able to create these (mostly) realistic replicas of influencers with as little as $1000 and a few minutes of training videos, making them much more cost-effective than human hosts. The virtual avatars’ mouths and bodies move in sync with a provided script (which is often generated by an LLM). For added realism, the AI streamers tap into a database of nearly a hundred pre-recorded movements, like pointing upward when they encourage viewers to hit the “Follow” button.
🚏🚉 US work-from-home rates fell to their lowest point since the pandemic started
The number of Americans working remotely now stands at 26%, a sharp decline from its early-2021 peak of 37%, according to recent Census Bureau data. This is, interestingly, connected to a sharp increase in commuter rail ridership: urban workers fled to the suburbs during the pandemic, but as work-from-home rates have fallen, more and more workers are taking the trains downtown. For instance, ridership along the rail line that links suburban southwestern Connecticut to New York City is now seeing 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership, up from just 20% in early 2021.
🚏🏴☠️ An alliance of 40 countries is pledging to not pay for ransomware attacks
In an effort to cut off a major source of income for cybercriminals, forty countries in a US-led alliance are planning to sign a pledge saying that they’ll never pay up when hit with ransomware attacks. The countries will share information about the attackers’ accounts, including maintaining a joint “black list” of crypto wallets being used to accept and move ransomware payments.
🚏💊 Amazon is testing one-hour drone delivery of medications
Amazon’s drone delivery offering, dubbed Prime Air, has seen limited success over the last decade, suffering from regulatory setbacks, technical issues, and layoffs. But Amazon is broadening the program by launching prescription delivery in the city of College Station, Texas: customers will be able to get their meds delivered to their front doorstep within an hour of placing their order. (Amazon’s drones can only carry packages weighing up to five pounds, which makes lightweight but high-value medications a natural use case.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Are Our Lives an Unbroken Circle or a Straight Line? (The Garden of Forking Paths) — Examines the well-known distinction between the cyclical and linear views of time, but adds that there are more frameworks people use to make sense of time: the “hybrid spiral” with both cyclical and linear aspects, and the “time as chaos” model where time has no underlying structure or ultimate goal. Then, explores how different cultural perspectives on the shape of time affect individual behavior and societal development.
From T2 to Pebble: The Rise, Challenges, and Lessons of Building a Twitter Alternative (Gabor Cselle) — A postmortem of a failed attempt at building a Twitter clone, featuring clear-eyed reflections on the founders’ biggest mistakes and missed opportunities. A major conclusion was that the team couldn’t find a compelling differentiator other than being a “kinder and safer” Twitter (which didn’t speak to most people), and they didn’t pick a definite niche or audience they wanted to focus on.
Crisis Mindsets (Ribbonfarm) — Venkatesh Rao argues that “having to face a crisis alone, besides all the obvious practical downsides, has a corresponding subtle downside — wondering why you’re bothering fighting at all.” As the world turns and the default mindset seems to shift from flourishing to crisis, we are reminded to “retain a strong connection to the sublime.”
Claimeven — Connect 4 Strategy (2swap) — Explores the surprisingly deep math and strategy behind the popular game, introducing a “claimeven” strategy that leads to guaranteed wins for one player, but only if a specific set of criteria are met.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: extrusion.
In manufacturing, extrusion is the process of forming a desired shape out of a malleable material such as metal or plastic by pushing it through a die. The die looks like the inversion of the final product’s cross-section. If we want to extrude a rectangular bar, the die must have a rectangle-shaped hole.
This idea of a hole that defines the final shape of the product can serve as a metaphor for problem-solving.
When solving problems, a classic approach is to form a hypothesis of a solution and then see if the problem fits the solution. This approach works well when we have a good mental model of the problem and have high confidence that our hypothesis (or several of them) will land us pretty close to the perfect solution.
When we don’t have such confidence, our hypotheses are just shots in the dark. We need to take a different approach. We need some way to increase our luck.
This is where an extrusion-inspired approach comes in. Here, we imagine that our ideas and actions are like molten metal or polymer that is flowing toward the die that represents the shape of the solution. Our job is to simply apply pressure – exploratory efforts – and let the die of the problem inform us of the shape of the solution. We need to hold loose our preconceptions of what the final outcome might be until the die starts extruding the solution. It’s on us to sense the pressure of the die around the outline of the solution, be fluid, and react accordingly.
At first, it might look like just starting to build and sensing what’s hard and what’s easy. In software engineering, we might start writing code to make something work and then iteratively explore what’s possible until the final algorithm of the solution we sought starts to emerge. In product management, it might be applying a keen eye to the reactions we get from our users and looking for what resonates and what seems to fall flat.
Solving problems by extrusion requires a particular skill. In this process, we must stay nimble and let go of the idea that we have the answers. Instead, we need to let our environment teach us these answers. We must be okay with pushing our work through the shape we find ourselves in, not with any specific end goal in mind. We are often more like clay than diamond, and pushing ourselves or our work through the constraints around us is how harmonious shapes arise. We need to let the extrusion take place.
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