🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 94
April 6th, 2023
Episode 94 — April 6th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/94
Contributors to this issue: Ade Oshineye, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Scott Schaffter, Neel Mehta, Justin Quimby, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, 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.
“If you want to do something novel, don’t ask the experts. If you need something that already exists, then by all means ask the experts!”
— Heinz von Foerster
🌉⚠️ Bridging from illusion to reality
One compelling idea that is mostly right is that good leaders make people feel safe. When people feel safe they can focus on high-quality creative work. People in danger commit their attention to survival. When you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, you can’t keep your eye on the ball. Insofar as leaders have a disproportionate amount of influence over team safety, leaders should default to making people feel safe.
However, this can be a trap when there is real danger outside of our control. In the face of danger, a leader’s job is to help people absorb the reality of the situation and match perceptions with reality. It is better to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is aware that doom is always around the corner, than it is to be Taleb’s Turkey, who lives in ignorance of its doom.
The leader’s challenge is to figure out how we can help people transition from the illusion of safety to an awareness of the danger. We want to urge focus without inducing panic. An extreme example of this is to imagine you are camping and see a bear coming for your campfire. You need to warn the other campers. Some methods of warning will cause pandemonium; others can help them face the risk courageously.
The Bridges Transition Model can help us strike the right balance (it’s also the subject of Episode 63’s Book for Your Shelf). To recap, effective leaders help people through a transition by recognizing that they must first go through “the end” and let go of what was. Then they inevitably go through a “neutral zone,” where they feel lost but are also creating the new normal. Finally, the transition ends with a “new beginning” where people are ready to make a commitment to a new direction. What might this look like for transitioning to a clear-headed sense of danger?
First, consider the ending. We have to disrupt the sense of safety. We could do this in a way that is antagonistic, like Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross. A threat from within to emphasize the threat from without can be motivating, but it may not result in the motivation we want. Better to take a page from Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
Yet, know that inspiring speeches do not allow us to shortcut through the end. Moving from a sense of safety to a sense of danger is a loss. People need space to process and heal. This creates space for some to rise and become more. If you give them a chance to voluntarily face the danger, they may avidly go once more unto the breach.
Next, the neutral zone. Are we done? No. As the Bridges model tells, the end is only the beginning. Facing danger requires us to rethink what we thought we knew. We must take a hard and honest look at what we can actually control. We might have thought our profit center was surrounded by a safe moat when, in reality, new entrants were draining that moat. We need to acknowledge what still has value (“we still have a strong brand and a broad customer base”), and we need to acknowledge where we fall short (“after years in the lead, our technology is no longer the frontrunner”). This assessment can be painful, showing that an organization’s most deeply held beliefs are woefully out of date (or perhaps were never true at all).
Finally, the beginning. If we succeed in those first two steps, we make it to the beginning. This is when we need to have a concrete and realistic plan to face the danger. People — at least the ones who stuck through the transition — will want to know what they, personally, should be doing to help move forward. We need to be ready to give them meaningful work they can do to contribute. We need to give them the chance to voluntarily choose the challenge. This is necessary to help them close off the psychological transition, but more importantly, getting to this point is the whole purpose of raising the alarm in the first place. The value of knowing we are in danger is that it gives us a chance to survive. Once we gain that awareness, we must act.
As leaders, we may hope to always be in situations where making people feel safe is the right choice. Most of the time, it probably will be. However, when it is not, when the danger is real and outside of our control, then we must face the danger head on and help others do the same.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🍔 McDonald’s sent employees home so it could do layoffs remotely
McDonald’s abruptly shut down its headquarters from Monday to Wednesday of this week, telling employees to “cancel all in-person meetings and plan to work from home.” The reason? McDonald’s planned to do layoffs this week. The fast-food giant said that this would give workers “comfort and privacy”; HR firms added that remote layoffs can be more time-efficient. Critics disagreed with the new tactic, saying that “isolation and silence” is the worst way to get laid off, and remote layoffs don’t give employees space for closure or time to bond with others.
🚏🇫🇮 With Finland, NATO’s border with Russia has doubled in length
Finland officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Tuesday. In addition to being a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin (who has long sought to restrain NATO’s expansion), this move adds 830 more miles to NATO’s collective land border with Russia — a big step up from the previous total of 755 miles. This also puts a US ally right on the doorstep of Saint Petersburg, which is just a few hundred miles from the Finnish border.
🚏📨 The number of social engineering emails has more than doubled this year
Researchers have seen a 135% increase in “novel social engineering attack emails” since the start of 2023 — an uptick that matches the surging popularity of ChatGPT. Modern attack emails use more “sophisticated linguistic techniques” than before, with better grammar and longer messages — perhaps a sign that large language models are helping churn out emails. (Interestingly, the number of attack emails with attachments or links has decreased over this period.)
🚏🌳 “Liquid trees” are showing up in Serbian cities
Serbian researchers have developed what they call “liquid trees”: tanks of water and algae that can sit on the sidewalk and cleanse the air. This algae can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere 10 to 50 times faster than trees, and it can survive in highly-polluted cities (like Belgrade) where trees would suffer. The researchers emphasized that these algae tanks aren’t meant to replace trees (which offer unique features like shade and reducing erosion); rather, they can be added in spots where trees aren’t feasible.
🚏🗳️ After its proposal was voted down, one DAO spent millions of dollars anyway
The company behind Arbitrum, a popular blockchain, airdropped a billion governance tokens ($ARB) to its users and announced the formation of ArbitrumDAO, an organization where token holders can vote on policies. The very first proposal requested permission to give 750 million ARB (worth $1 billion) to an “Administrative Budget Wallet” to use as it saw fit; opponents said this was a blatant cash grab by the owners, and the community roundly rejected the proposal. The problem was that Arbitrum had already begun spending millions of coins. One employee “clarified” that the proposal was not really a vote, but rather a “ratification” of something that was happening anyway.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Why Deception Is Probably the Single Most Important Leadership Skill (Fortune) — Argues that “faking it till you make it,” rather than candor, is a key quality in leadership because of reinforcing feedback loops: convincingly displaying confidence can attract the support that makes the confident posture become true, and similarly, projecting high expectations of employees leads to them performing better.
My Kids and I Just Played D&D With ChatGPT4 as the DM (Obie Fernandez) — An epic tale of how ChatGPT acted as the dungeon master for the author’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign. ChatGPT was able to invent a rich fantasy world, prompt the players for dice rolls and combat tactics (an essential part of D&D), and add plenty of interactivity and story branching. The game seems to have gone on for hours.
The Class Politics of Instagram Face (Tablet Magazine) — Argues that the ubiquity of “Instagram Face” (a homogenizing look of overfilled lips, high brows, and chiseled noses) may be undermining its own popularity: much of fashion consists of looking different from the masses, and if the masses are getting plastic surgery to look like Instagram celebs, a new type of look may start coming into vogue.
How to Understand California (Tomas Pueyo) — An informative explanation of how geography and history led to the rise of California’s big cities. Sacramento was at the perfect spot to ship gold to the coast, San Francisco was a great port for sending gold abroad (and had an existing settlement when the gold rush hit), and Los Angeles sits in the biggest coastal plain on the West Coast.
The Status Trap (No Small Plans) — Warns about the “status spiral”: “when we compare ourselves with those we perceive as higher status, we feel insecure and doubt our self-worth. This in turn leads us to chase status as a way to try to feel better about ourselves.” The author mentions three pitfalls that could lead us into this spiral (including C.S. Lewis’s Quest of the Inner Ring) and describes actions we can take to escape the struggle and focus on things we really care about. “If you weren’t so busy trying to prove your worth through status games, what would you want your life to be in service of?”
🔍🤠 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: organizational misalignment breeding Texas sharpshooters.
A clever Texan who wants to demonstrate their marksmanship might take a bunch of shots at the side of the barn and only afterward paint a target around the densest cluster of bullet holes. This is the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. We engage in this fallacy when we ignore the differences in data and instead overemphasize the similarities. The would-be sharpshooter does science in reverse by constructing hypotheses from the experimental data that was intended to test them.
We see this fallacy regularly in organizational dynamics. A team might adjust their goals to match the results they obtained rather than the results they originally set out to obtain. A group might claim credit for value created in a space adjacent to their scope. A person going for promotion might claim that they played a large role in realizing the impact that they only partially enabled.
In itself, this pattern may seem fairly innocuous. However, as an organizational habit, this leads to perverse incentives. When claiming wins is easier than creating them, the rewards flow to the wrong places. Misaligned incentives produce teams that don’t take on legible goals. Consciously or not, teams and individuals know that they’ll get less credit for hitting realistic targets than for claiming credit for something big and shiny nearby. In the end, everyone is claiming credit for the holes, but it is nearly impossible to tell whether the organization is actually doing anything.
A good indicator of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy in an organization is when every person and team appears to be doing immensely impactful things, but the organization is barely moving forward. In those situations, keep an eye out for the misaligned incentives that let individual/team success diverge from organizational success.
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