Well Executed Failure

I’d like to talk about how strategic is different from tactical. Before you go calling me Tactico-Strategicus, be warned that I differ in perspective with the tyrant in an important way. If you remember, the tyrant views tactical and strategic as a balance between near and long term plans. I’d rather distinguish strategic and tactical as occupying two different realms of thought.

The realm of strategic thought is known by it’s compelling need to understand a problem. Such a compulsion prioritizes decision options, evaluating outcomes, and anticipating consequences. The realm of tactical thought is known by it’s preoccupation with solving a problem. Such preoccupation values methods, techniques, and application of tools.

Tactical thought is advantageous in circumstances when action is at a premium and a clear target has already been set. Strategic thought enables you to move beyond the problem as it was provided, to gain deeper insight into the real problem. Remember, no matter how elegant, a solution that misunderstands the problem is a well executed failure.

An Ego Justly Won

The window view is of traffic and a park a little further off.  This tenth floor window peers out of a modest conference room where a group of successful men and women are mulling ideas of progress and transformation.  The group of a dozen or so has segmented into two groups, one on each side.  Both sides have circled up to throw around their dreams and weigh them on the scales of opinion.  Collaboration on a superfluous level comes easy but true collaboration is fleeting.  With success comes a well won ego.

The ego is Homeric in flavor, as the Greeks believed that the strong deserved to be the proud.  That an ego wasn’t hubris as long as it was supported by a record of success or a true ability.  Now these managers lack the pantheon of gods telling them it is fine to continue as they are, but they seem to have overcome this issue by the monetary rewards or professional titles they have received. The observer however may have difficulty with this.  How do people know that these egos are just?

The world proposes a simple test.  Listen to the ideas, listen to the words.  No epics or ballads exist to tell of heroes, men are left to search for themselves.  In a conference room, on the tenth floor of a simple office complex this test was in motion.  Testing their thoughts against each other these men and women were writing their own modern day epics.  Epics written in strategies and progress.  Having an idea accepted and acted on would cement one’s right to an ego.  This ego justly won would be attested to by the future they had set in motion with their own words and ideas.

The Frame Creates the Content

Years ago I had a seminar on “Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebra“.  While that topic may not fan the cockles of the average heart, I found it to be a fascinating study in how ontology (theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence) can shape our scientific tools.

To cut right to where I am going with this, consider the case of a child growing up right now.  Whereas technology used to be the domain of wealthy adults, now it has become much more available to children and the middle class.  Consider  children growing up with a digital device such as an iPhone, tablet, books on the computer or digital learning games.  It will be fascinating to see how their minds are shaped by these experiences approaching the problems of tomorrow.  Issues such as virtual reality, digital privacy, and access to internet as a right rather than a privilege, are all potential situations where generations may have a different way to conceptualize truth simply due to the way their minds were exposed to technology while growing up.  I am fascinated as to whether an ontological shift will occur over the coming centuries as the digital and physical continue to track towards each other in the future.  I am not nearly informed enough as to whether we will see a collision between the two or if they will act as an asymptote drawing ever closer but forever distinct.

I would never declare any of what I have said unassailable truth, but I am continually ruminating on the idea that how we conceive of our world will allow us different glimpses of the truth that may underpin human understanding.  Its an exciting and sobering idea that there may be ideas of which I could not conceive because the understanding of the world formed in me from my youth could be completely different from someone a mere twenty years younger than me.

Ask a Damn Question

Early philosophers made a big deal of separating “true belief” from “knowledge”.  The spiritual father of this distinction would have to be Socrates as a character in the Dialogues of Plato.  He constantly harps on about how knowing a good deed is different from knowing why it is good.  He believes strongly in the value of knowledge, mostly because it has been tested through inquiry.  Knowledge gives one a standard by which to judge other actions.  Socrates might even tell us that those with true belief are lucky, while those with a knowledge of good are truly virtuous.  Another way to understand Socrates would be thinking about the difference between people who are intuitive versus people who have researched a topic.  The intuitive thinker may get the right answer, but Socrates fears that without research he may not completely understand the core of the topic.

Philosophical inquiry is not the only field in which this distinction makes an appearance.  Imagine you are collaborating with a coworker, Drake.  We have had several stories of “Drake” and his foibles in the office setting.  In this case Drake is working with you on implementing a solution to a Customer Experience issue in a retail setting.  Drake previously worked in retail and is ready and willing to throw all else to the side and dredge up his considerable experience.  Here Drake runs into an issue, he has had success with specific approaches in the past and refuses to investigate our topic any further.  He has confidence that he knows what the issues are, because he has had success solving problems before.

Now when you believe you know something you do not have to ask others about it.  You do not conduct interviews, nor do you examine the core of the issue at hand.  Drake quickly deploys tactics he has used before.  He fails spectacularly.  Drake is a failure because he does not understand the difference between “true belief” and “knowledge”.  Socrates would righteously chastise Drake for failing to ask the right questions.  Drake did not test his belief to see if he had knowledge.

The take away is simple.  Ask a damn question.  All inquiry begins and grows by asking questions.  If Drake had gotten of his high horse and asked questions of those who he was professing to help he may have realized that he didn’t actually “know” what was going on.  He merely had beliefs informed by previous success.  You cannot be sure of knowledge unless you have tested it, all else is equivalent to belief.  Who would rather act on belief over actually knowledge when given the choice?

Ode to a Tyrant: Superfluum Opus

Woe to thee who has cast thy lot with this tyrant.  The breaker of workweeks and crusher of work/life balance, this tyrant stands lofty upon the prow. Superfluum Opus helms every project as though it were a galley, and the oars should never be silent.

Superfluum Opus will often look good when the job is done.  This tyrant has a very long shelf life and often has upwards career trajectory.  How is this the case?  The tyrant’s problem is not that they cannot assign meaningful work, it is that they cannot distinguish meaningful from meaningless work.  They will simultaneously assign someone to think about the core of their project and also adjust a single slide in a presentation that will never see the light of day.  They will command research into things that are non-sequitur to the scope of their work and they will ask everyone to duplicate tasks.

Task duplication is the key stratagem of Superfluum Opus, as it can quickly hide this meaningless duplication of labor under the thin veil of “collaboration.”  Those who may complain about repeat work will simply not be team players because they do not wish to collaborate on a project with their coworkers.  This is the end of Superfluum Opus, where labor masquerades as progress.