🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 113
August 17th, 2023
Episode 113 — August 17th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/113
Contributors to this issue: Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ade Oshineye
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.
“A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.”
― C. S. Lewis
📣 🐘 Getting the elephant out of the room
Most mature organizations — and sometimes their younger counterparts as well — have their “elephants in the room.” These challenges or problems, whether they lie in cultural quirks, plainly false beliefs, or embarrassing project failures, are widely recognized but rarely discussed. They often become more or less permanent fixtures within the team.
Due to their size, elephants are massive and easy to spot from the outside. Newcomers, oblivious to the unspoken agreements, may inadvertently draw attention to the elephant, only to be silenced by more seasoned team members. They learn to never speak of the elephant(s) again.
Systemic problems are often hiding behind an elephant. If the issue were simple and straightforward, with a clear path to resolution, it wouldn’t have grown into that elephant. Over time, multiple conflicting forces, unwilling to yield, have settled into a dynamic equilibrium, leaving the organization stuck.
An example of an elephant in the room is when long-held beliefs about organizational success become relevant. An organization might believe it hires only the best experts, creating pressure on its members and leading to a disconnect between belief and reality. If we only hire the best people and the best people only do the best things… why aren’t we making the best products?
Something doesn’t add up.
This tension between belief and reality produces the conditions that can “grow” an elephant. Sometimes the path from action to outcome demands a change in belief. But when that belief is the bedrock of an organization, shifting it might seem untenable or, more concerningly, unthinkable.
How do we get our elephants out of the room? The solution is simple to state and hard to live: we learn to talk about them. Most elephants are rooted in collective discomfort. Overcoming our desire to avoid this discomfort is a significant part of the process. When an organization can talk about their elephants, while still accepting that they might be deeply embarrassing and seemingly permanent, it has already started moving the problematic pachyderms.
Getting to that point is extremely difficult. It takes nuance, patience, and a high degree of fearlessness to have a conversation that doesn’t spiral into shaming and angry rhetoric. After all, a conversation without shame or anger is as rare as a spontaneous elephant parade. In teams where fear reigns (perhaps for good reason in the past), those old habits die hard.
Sometimes, the path forward starts at the edges. Hold space for people to have conversations about complex topics and forces in tension. Encourage them (and yourself) to think in systems and to appreciate the complexity of human behavior and organizations. Invest in the skills that will enable you to have those elephant-moving conversations.
The more people are engaged in such space, the more the organization might just begin to see its elephants.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🎋 Invasive grasses have been blamed for making Hawaii’s wildfires worse
Experts say that invasive grasses (which cover a quarter of Hawaii’s land) exacerbated Maui’s recent devastating wildfires, which resulted in 106 deaths and the destruction of the historic town of Lahaina. These grasses have grown rampant on former sugarcane fields that’ve been left unmanaged since the 1990s; they provide a source of “combustible, rapidly burning fuels” that “need to be addressed,” according to a 2021 report on wildfire prevention in Maui. Experts are now urging more proactive land care, such as using grazing animals to keep grasses in check.
🚏🧧 Chinese apps are becoming popular among young Taiwanese, raising fears of “information war”
Taiwanese youths are increasingly using Chinese apps like Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and Xiaohongshu (a sort of Chinese Instagram), which has raised concerns among Taiwanese officials and experts who fear that Beijing is trying to “erase or minimize” Taiwanese identity and culture. One sociologist argued that, “thinking that China is the root of culture... will indeed loosen the foundation of Taiwan’s sense of community,” and it could lead to “blind worship and dependence on China.” Indeed, Beijing has described its strategy for influencing Taiwanese culture as “into the island, into the household, into the brain, into the heart.”
🚏🗂️ Illinois has made it possible to sue people for doxxing attacks
Illinois has passed an anti-doxxing law slated to take effect on January 1st, 2024; it’ll allow victims of doxxing to sue those who intentionally published their personal information with harmful intent. (The state-level move is significant because the US currently lacks a federal anti-doxxing law.) The new law has drawn support from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which is pushing for similar legislation at both the state and federal levels, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois opposed the law, citing concerns about potential infringements on free speech rights.
🚏🇲🇱 Mali is removing French as its official language
Malian voters recently approved a new constitution that demoted French from an official language to a mere “working” one; the government will now use the country’s 13 official languages, all of which are indigenous to the region. Analysts say it’s unclear how the government could juggle all 13 languages; if it prioritizes one, it risks alienating other ethnic groups. Regardless, scholars say the move may worry France, Mali’s former colonizer, since France is “very sensitive to these questions of prestige and soft power” in Africa.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
How Would Linguists Plan to Overcome the Language Barrier in First Contact? (Worldbuilding Stack Exchange) — A fascinating discussion of how two populations who don’t speak a common language (or even share a common biology) could learn to communicate. Introduces some useful computational linguistics terms, including zero-shot learning, word-vector spaces, and tokenized corpuses.
A Better Way to Divide the Pie (Yale Insights) — A management professor at Yale introduces a new negotiation framework that’s both fair and cognizant of power differentials between parties. The best move is to evenly split “the additional value created by reaching an agreement.” He nicely illustrates the principle with a tasty example of splitting a pizza.
Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy (Scientific American) — Argues that we often limit our creativity by fixating on adding things to a system rather than removing existing things. This bias toward addition over subtraction (or, complexity over simplicity) may be due to the greater mental ease of finding additive solutions, the sunk-cost fallacy, or the greater cultural prestige of building new things.
Mars Rover Finds Signs of Seasonal Floods (Ars Technica) — Describes how a strange pattern of hexagonal cracks in the Martian mud has led scientists to believe that some parts of Mars experienced seasonal floods in the distant past. These floods could have been essential for prebiotic chemistry, building up macromolecules that in turn could have been used by ancient life forms.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Load-bearing beliefs.
Consider the nearest building to you. What color is it? Discovering you’re wrong would be of little importance. Other beliefs, like those about project priorities or the product roadmap, are more impactful. If proven wrong, you’d have to reorient yourself (sometimes with significant changes to your life).
Then there are load-bearing beliefs. These beliefs are foundational, and changing them can have significant consequences. They might include convictions like what defines our mission or things that define our identity. These are beliefs that are so well connected in your overall web of beliefs that changing them is painful.
Organizational elephants often have a load-bearing belief at the heart of their tension. Other load-bearing beliefs can be those such as “what we are doing is good for humanity” or “he loves me.” Often, load-bearing beliefs are existential in nature, and once something is connected to existential concerns, it tends to cascade out into everything.
We all have load-bearing beliefs, and this is a good thing. Our load-bearing beliefs can keep us moving forward under strains that would break other beliefs. Organizational load-bearing beliefs, voiced positively, can become company values that are stronger than feel-good ones like “do good work.”
However, if we come to believe that a load-bearing belief is wrong, it can result in a crisis of faith. Our lives, our careers, and our missions are often built around load-bearing beliefs. Tearing them out requires tearing out a large network of beliefs connected to them. But it gets even harder.
Load-bearing beliefs are not just tied to what we believe. They are tied to what we do. In tearing out a load-bearing belief, an individual may need to change their relationships, change their job, change their whole way of life. An organization might have to forgo whole chunks of itself and dramatically update its business and product goals, sacrificing revenue or some other valuables in the process.
The magnitude of change required to tear out a load-bearing belief means that, in many cases, replacing them is nearly impossible. People may choose to live for years trying to reconcile the belief they speak with the belief they feel.
Nothing can make the collapse of a load-bearing belief easy or pleasant. However, if faced with such a crisis, we can enter the situation with a scalpel rather than a chainsaw. The loss of a load-bearing belief will lead us to question anything that seems related. Yet not every belief that touched the load-bearing belief is tainted by association. The fact that one partner was faking their feelings doesn’t mean that all relationships are hopeless. We can ask ourselves, “Was the changed belief load-bearing for this related belief? Or does this belief have its own merit?”
© 2023 The FLUX Collective. All rights reserved. Questions? Contact email@example.com.