Episode 77 — December 1st, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/77
Contributors to this issue: Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh,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.
“And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation.’”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
😶🌫️🔬 Fuzzy planning is good, actually?
You might remember a science class where someone tried to communicate the difference between accuracy and precision. Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the true underlying value. Precision is how close measurements are to each other, which depends on how finely you can measure. Far from being limited to middle school pop quizzes, mixing up accuracy and precision can cause real problems. Especially when planning, we tend to assume that to be accurate plans need to be precise… and that precise plans are necessarily accurate.
As anyone who has ever been in an excessively long planning cycle can tell you, there’s often a temptation — or an outright pressure — to make plans more precise, in the hopes that it will increase accuracy. As those same survivors will confide, that’s generally not the case. Excess planning tends to give people a false sense of certainty while also making the plans more rigid. We can’t experiment and see what works because our precise plan says that we have to deliver exactly this by that date.
The pressure — which was probably unrealistic in the first place — blinds us to the flaws in our original plan and doesn’t give us space to explore better options. In the end, we ship something that’s late, less than planned, and mediocre to boot. Being overly precise decreases the likelihood that the organization making those plans will succeed.
This is not to say that we should avoid precision entirely. We do need to plan! Furthermore, we need to understand something about what we’re planning. However, what this generalized anecdote reminds us is that we have to be careful: it’s easy to zoom too far into the precision of a plan.
How do we solve this problem? Whole genres of books have been written about the topic. This problem, in fact, helped midwife the agile movement. Whatever methodology we use, a necessary but oft-forgotten prerequisite is a mindset shift: fuzzy planning is good, actually. When something is fuzzy, we see it accurately but not precisely — and that’s the point. Think of a microscope. When something is out of focus, it’s fuzzy. We might misinterpret what we see, but what we see is a true — albeit hard to interpret — representation of what is there.
This shift from precision to fuzzy accuracy can feel terrifying. A precise plan is comforting. It tells us what to expect and when. Others can build precise plans off of our precise plan. It’s so dependable! Except that it’s not. This precision is a false comfort that rarely bears fruit, especially in the face of uncertainty. Although it can feel scary to give up that precision and say, “we think we’re going this direction, but we don’t know exactly when we’ll get there or exactly what it will look like,” doing this tends to be at least as accurate as more precise plans and ends up in a better place to boot. We give ourselves the room to learn, adapt, and build something truly great.
This mindset shift doesn’t mean throwing off all guardrails. To work well, fuzzy plans need to be frequently evaluated against a ground truth. Whether that’s timeboxed development cycles, frequent user testing, replacing your SMART goals with FAST goals, or any of the many other mechanisms that people apply, frequent accuracy checks increase precision over time and are critical to delivering a good result in the end.
So next time it seems like your planning process is going off the rails, see if you can convince people to give up some precision in favor of getting comfortable with fuzzy planning. (Disclaimer: this is really hard, and we have failed in creating this mindset shift more often than we’ve succeeded. But we continue to believe that it’s worth the effort to try.)
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏👩🏻💻 There’s a 3-to-1 gap in remote job apps versus remote job postings
According to data from LinkedIn, a full 50% of job applications are for remote positions, while just 15% of job postings are offering remote options — a nearly 3-to-1 mismatch. As some analysts say, it’s not the office, it’s the commute; perhaps the gap in remote work demand wouldn’t have gotten so wide had cities cut down on commute times by building enough housing and transit near offices.
🚏🏛 The new leader of the House Democrats is the first ever born after World War 2
One piece of evidence for the oft-cited “gerontocracy” of the US Congress is that, until this year, the House Democrats had never had a leader born before the end of World War 2. The most recent leaders were 1940-born Nancy Pelosi, 1939-born Steny Hoyer, and 1940-born Jim Clyburn. With incoming House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (born 1970), the Democrats have finally broken that streak — over 75 years after the end of the war.
🚏🌐 Apple restricted AirDrop, but only in China — and during mass protests
In November, Apple quietly rolled out an update that only affected iPhones sold in mainland China: it would automatically turn off AirDrop’s “allow anyone to send me files” setting after 10 minutes, instead of letting it stay on indefinitely. AirDrop has been an effective tool for Chinese protestors and citizens to exchange messages in a peer-to-peer way, thus evading the Great Firewall. Apple says this restriction will become global next year, but some observers think this is more than just an early feature launch. Apple initially advertised this update as just some minor bug-fixes, and this China-only change coincided with a huge surge in anti-government protests. Plus, Apple has repeatedly removed protestors’ favorite apps from the App Store at the request of the Chinese government.
🚏🐮 Alternative meat companies are struggling after a multi-year boom
Despite years of double-digit growth, the plant-based meat industry has been struggling lately. Industry titan Beyond Meat has laid off 19% of its workforce and has seen its stock drop 83% in the last year; McDonald’s has apparently decided to not move forward with Beyond’s “McPlant” burger pilot either. It seems the industry has hit a ceiling and needs further evangelization and distribution to keep expanding.
🚏⚖️ Political parties are seeing asymmetric changes to follower counts in Musk’s Twitter
Ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter, Democratic Party politicians have seen notable drops in their follower counts, while Republican Party politicians have seen marked gains. It’s unclear what has caused this sharp divergence in fortunes; commentators debate whether Musk has been removing fingers from the scale or putting new fingers on the scale instead — or perhaps Twitter’s audience has just been shifting.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
When Survivorship Bias Meets Superstitious Learning (Ethan Mollick) — Argues that, in fields where the criteria for success are unclear and survivorship bias is high (such as entrepreneurship), observers tend to learn the wrong lessons about how to succeed. They often focus on emulating the “symbols of success,” like dropping out of college, rather than identifying the “systems and processes” that made the winners successful.
Mapping Out the Tribes of Climate (Nadia Asparouhova) — Argues that the space of people who work in the climate industry is extremely diverse, then divides these workers into seven “tribes,” each with its own mindsets and interests: energy maximalists, climate urbanists, climate technologists, eco-globalists, environmentalists, neo-pastoralists, and doomers.
The Riddle That Seems Impossible Even if You Know the Answer (Veritasium) — Explains the classic riddle of how 100 prisoners can each go into a room, look through 50 of 100 boxes, and find the one that contains their prisoner number. The optimal strategy — which transforms the puzzle into a math problem about loops — is about 10^30 (!) times more likely to succeed than random chance.
In Defense of Not-Invented-Here Syndrome (Joel Spolsky) — A 2001 essay that argues that reusing other people’s code isn’t always a good idea: you should write the code for your core competencies yourself, since otherwise you won’t have any differentiation. Of course, it’s still fine to outsource non-core software.
‘They Are Stealing Russia’: Adam Curtis on How Hyper-Capitalism Wrecked a Nation (The Guardian) — A documentarian discusses his BBC documentary that leads the viewer into unique footage of late-USSR and early-modern-Russian life, showing the chaos, rampant corruption, and national trauma which — three decades ago — sowed the seeds for Russia’s current violent path.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: technology innovation versus product innovation.
It is easy to imagine innovation as a monolithic process: in go the resources, out come shiny new products. But what happens in the middle? A helpful distinction might be to separate innovation into two related, yet distinct, activities: technology innovation and product innovation.
Technology innovation makes new things possible. Is it possible for a computer to turn a text prompt into a generated image? Until very recently, the answer was “no.” And then the answer changed, opening up a new space of generative media. This is what technology innovation typically does: it creates new possibilities, turning previously impossible ideas into reality. Many organizations pride themselves on technology innovation, producing impressive breakthroughs at a regular pace.
It might seem that this is all you need. However, as any seasoned product manager will tell you, technology innovation is just the beginning. Creating a possibility rarely translates directly into a working product in users’ hands, and it doesn’t always lead to profitable businesses either. Unlike technological innovation, product innovation is all about bridging that gap. It’s a process of engaging in careful negotiation with the product’s eventual audience.
If technological innovation is about opening a new space, then product innovation is about finding and understanding a viable niche within this space. While technology innovation can happen in a closed room, product innovation cannot happen without making contact with the user; you may even need to build a new kind of audience and build trust with them over time.
This might seem obvious, yet it’s surprising to see so many organizations excel at technological innovation and then presume that product innovation will happen automatically. This pattern gives rise to an interesting phenomenon where the organization that benefits from a technological breakthrough is different from the one that made it. The story of Bell Labs, PARC, and many others can serve as useful reminders. The delicate dance of finding that product niche can’t be forced or ignored. If you don’t learn how to do it, there are plenty of dancers who will eagerly take your place.
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Lovely quote from Dune - never heard it before, but I'll need to save that one!