Believing and Acting Beings

I updated the sketch from last week’s post so that it now looks like the sketch on the right (click on it to make it larger).

Decision Cycle, Rev. 2
Decision Cycle, Rev. 2

Here are the changes…

  • I replaced physics with reality in an attempt to be a little less obtuse.
  • I also added “(Expectations)” to Beliefs. They are essentially the same things. This also gives me a place to hang The Stress Equation when combined with Reality/Physics.
  • I changed the line from Facts to “modify”. Facts modify Reality/Physics. This seemed to be a bit richer way of thinking about how facts relate to reality.
  • I added “(Issues)” to Opportunities in order to cover all the circumstantial reasons for decision. the distinction between the two is worth some deeper exploration at some point. In the meantime, read The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.
  • Finally, I fixed the directions of the feedback loop arrows so they point in the right directions1.

This sketch is only the barest outline of a framework for thinking, but there are some interesting observations that can be made. For example, the Natural Systems Loop is the universe without Thinking and Acting Beings. Note that I changed the title of this post to “Believing and Acting Beings”. Thinking is the process of forming beliefs. Beliefs are exposed by adaptive reactions to facts. All higher animals at least exhibit learning. Learning is an adaptive reaction to facts. This leads to the conclusion that all higher animals have beliefs. From this, I’ve formed the belief that while human belief systems are certainly extremely complex, at our core we’re no different than any other animal that learns.

Your milage may vary. If so, I’d love to hear about it.


Thinking and Acting Beings

I’ve pondering the following sketch today…

The boxes are nouns, the lines are verbs. There are three feedback loops. The “natural systems” loop is the only one that would exist if there were no sentient beings capable of affecting the universe. Decisions anchor the role of rational and sentient beings via the perceptual and behavioral loops. A good way to misread this sketch is to believe that it shows how perception and behaviour are outside of nature when they are actually just more detail. There are a lot of more detailed systems in the natural loop. There’s probably a better way to capture this relationship.

Decisions are what couple perceptions and behavior. Decisions require both an opportunity and a set of beliefs before they can enable an action. Beliefs are formed by exposure to facts. Here you think about facts in a fairly strict sense. It may be a fact that someone told you something that they asserted is a fact. The fact that they asserted may not have actually been a fact, but the person asserting that it is a fact is a fact. (Sigh, language is so hard.) You end up with a notion of directly experienced facts, e.g. what I heard someone say, and reported facts, e.g. what they said. There’s an 80/20 possibility here where 80 percent of your belief system is based on reported facts and 20 percent is based on direct experience. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

A future ponder many be to examine the process (verb) of how facts inform beliefs.


Thinking Fast and Slow

It turns out that I’m in better company than I might have guessed. One of my favorite books is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I’ve recommended this book to at least a dozen people. I was listening to an interview with Timothy Ferriss today where he mentioned that Barak Obama had recommended this book to him. If you haven’t read it then add it to your list. It will change the way you think about how people make decisions.


The Battle for God

I read this introduction to the book The Battle for God, By Karen Armstrong, and thought it was very insightful. It appears to be taking a balanced historical view of the causes of religious fundamentalism. What I thought was particularly interesting was the tension between Mythos, those things that give life meaning and Logos, those things that help us to understand our world. Over the years I’ve been occasionally concerned that our ability to understand and manipulate the world around us is getting far ahead of our ability to cope with these capabilities. It doesn’t mean those capabilities are bad, but it might mean that we’re out of balance.

The more recent systems, typically religious systems, that provided us with meaning and purpose aren’t working for us anymore. When the foundations that support these belief systems diverge sufficiently from what we have learned to a point that denial is necessary to maintain them, we get pretty stressed. This can make us angry, which can lead to violent behavior ranging from nasty comments on Facebook to racism, bigotry and beheadings. We apparently went through this during the agricultural revolution as well eventually adapting our belief systems to our new found technological circumstances 2015.02-Wales-0578with its resulting wealth and relative leisure. All of the gods that were required to make everything work and each needing to be appeased in some way were replaced by a more simplified and easier to manage monotheistic approach (at least in the west). We still had a god as the explanation of last resort and someone we could claim to be accountable to in order to justify our actions. This turned out to be much more successful than the old polytheistic approach and those who didn’t get it were marginalized, persecuted, and eventually became novelties and oddities or died out completely. The struggle, of course, took several generations with a lot of intermediate belief systems being developed in the process and a lot of violent disagreement between those with different points of view.

We’re at a point now where the god notion isn’t helpful at all as an explanation. St. Mary's University Church MartyrsThere are no little men and women inside making things go as in the pre-agricultural days nor is there a need for a puppet master with his fingers in everything to make things work. What we’re able to observe and extrapolate from those observations seems to be a sufficient explanation for why things do what they do. It doesn’t mean that that those prior systems were bad, they were quite useful, it just means that we’ve found better ways to explain things1. But this isn’t enough. It’s only half of the value provided by these beliefs. It answers “how” questions very well, but doesn’t answer “why” questions well at all unless you’re satisfied with “because that’s the way it is”. In the system we’re evolving from “why” was answered by “because it’s God’s plan”. That worked for a long time. It made us feel comfortable. It helped us understand our role. It made life easier because there were a lot of things that we didn’t have to expend energy thinking about. We could just be soldiers and let the general do all the heavy lifting. It’s a good life.

It turns out that there may not be a plan or a general. We now find ourselves in a situation where we may have to take more responsibility for our lives and actions than we thought we did. ColossusOh no! Now what? We’re now accountable directly to each other and directly to the only world and universe that we’re aware of. No pushing the blame and responsibility to someone else. This is terrifying for a lot of people. It’s why they resort to violence in order to try to go back to the days when they didn’t have to be responsible. There’s no going back and wishing or anger or denial won’t help, on either side. The discussions about how to be accountable to each other will continue. The debate around how to treat our LGBT friends is an example of this. The discussions about how to be accountable to the world we live in will continue. The debate around climate change is an example of this. As with all changes, we’ll either figure it out or die trying. It will be a struggle and there will be a lot of casualties, but I’m hoping we get there. What alternative do we have?


Influence and Decision Making

Fork in the Road

I’ve been fascinated by the topic of influence and decision making for most of my life. It began to form some sort of cohesive structure when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as a teenager. It was also heavily influenced by pondering the religious beliefs of my relatives and its impacts on the communities that formed around them. In the 80s I read the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Trout and Ries, which provided a little more insight. Then, more recently, the books The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell and especially Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman have really brought it together for me.

Humans are strange creatures. We are so unaware of our limitations that we often believe we have none. This is expressed by notions like freedom, liberty, democracy, and free markets. When examined closely in the light of our behaviors and limitations these ideas may not be what you think they are. They only describe some aspect of the very rough and rugged landscape of choices in which we make decisions. There are many barriers that we will not cross and which most of us are largely unaware of. It’s VERY interesting. A favorite hobby of mine, when sitting in a boring meeting, is to count “blind spots”. Conversation paths that people won’t follow due to the frame in which they’re thinking. It’s very entertaining.

The books above have a wealth of named concepts that describe this space. Everything from Asimov’s psychohistory to Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. I’m hoping to capture several of these in a kind of reference for my own use and satisfaction. I’m happy to share, though. If you’d like to follow this collection as it grows then check out the Reference page on this blog and click on Psychology. Each relevant post should be available there. Also, please comment if you have the desire. There is a lot we can all learn from each other.

Now to incorporate Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality into all of this. Sadly, I think my brain just melted.


Large Organization Skills

Areas of Emphasis Chart

I work in a giant corporation that’s nominally organized in the usual military model hierarchy. Yes, there are lots of subtleties, variations, and experiments (matrix management – gag, two in a box, self managed teams, etc.), but this has been the dominant model for as long as I’ve been there. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to sort through what I should be expecting from whom in each layer of management and I think I’ve finally come up with a model that works for me. I’d like to share it with you.

This is my “Areas of Emphasis” model and it describes where you put, or should be putting, most of your attention depending on where you’re at in an organizational hierarchy.

Areas of Emphasis Chart
Where each layer in a large organization’s hierarchy puts most of their attention.

The model crosses seven layers of management with seven areas of emphasis. An area of emphasis is where a person at that level spends most of their time, focus and energy. There are a few general principles embodied in the model. These include…

  • Advancement – After doing the job that you’re supposed to be doing, you spend the most amount of the rest of your energy learning how to do the job at the next layer up in the hierarchy.
  • Don’t look back – As you move up the hierarchy, you hire people to do the job you just left. As a result your attention to these matters drops sharply and is primarily composed of oversight and guidance. The alternative is micromanagement.
  • Appreciation – No matter where you’re at in the hierarchy you must maintain enough knowledge and understanding of the other areas of emphasis to relate effectively to those who focus on those areas.

Individual Contributors primarily focus on Technical Skills – This group refers to what’s often referred to as the “rank and file” (again another military allusion). These are not staff positions, which make different kinds of contributions depending on the level of the manager that you’re working for. Individual contributors spend the bulk of their time focusing on delivering the technical skills that are required to make the organization effective. “Technical” in this sense is defined broadly and can range from the ability to lift heavy things to modifying the genetic structure of arcane viruses. To cite too many metaphors, this is where “the rubber meets the road”. It’s the organization’s contact point with the physical and economical world. Without these folks the organization would be an abstract entity and fairly pointless. Beyond the contributions of their technical skill they will also spend a lot of time on team building and a fair amount on process.

First Level Managers primarily focus on Team Building – It’s often observed that the best first level managers have a strong working appreciation of the skills of those who work for them. It’s also true that the definition of a knowledge working is someone who knows more than their boss (I think it was Peter Druker who said something like this). A first level manager’s emphasis moves away from technical skills and focuses on team building. Insuring that the team has the right arrangement of skills and that the team produces effectively together and works well within the larger system.

Second Level Managers primarily focus on Process – Second level management is the first layer where managers manage other managers. It begins the process of abstracting away individuals in favor of a self sustaining organization. This is primarily accomplished through the creation and management of processes. These are behavioral structures that are independent of the individuals performing them. As individuals come and go and teams come and go the processes live on and begin to give the organization a life of its own.

Third Level Managers, Directors, focus on Delegation – Third level management is the first layer that provides the organization with meaning. The primary emphasis of their position is to clearly define and to clearly delegate the objectives that the organization can be applied to. A key element is crafting the vision of what the organization is to become and to be known for. This vision is decomposed into tasks that can be accomplished by the processes and individuals in the organization whatever the purpose of the moment happens to be.

Vice Presidents focus on Deal Making – Vice presidents create opportunities that the organization can act on. They have the authority and responsibility to seek out these opportunities and to make the deals that provide the organization with purpose. Their contribution to the vision is to describe how the world will be changed because the organization exists and chooses to act and less about what the organization will be.

Senior Vice Presidents focus on Portfolio Management – Senior vice presidents spend their time trading off the opportunities that the vice presidents bring to the table with the purpose of optimizing investments and portfolio value. They tend to have less influence on any particular vision and more focus on the key measured outcomes of the larger organization as a whole.

CEOs and Executive Vice Presidents manage Small Economies – A very large organization has many, hopefully complementary, moving parts. Each of these parts tends to be a portfolio of initiatives and objectives. For the larger organization to be successful these parts need to operate synergistically. The knobs at this level tend to be belief systems, reward systems, redistribution of investments, establishing key organization wide metrics and other mechanisms often attributed to governments and their management of larger economies. It is very much a social engineering activity.

In my position, a member of staff for a director, I can find myself interacting with people in each of these layers at any given moment. This model helps me to understand what they’re likely to be caring about. It also helps me to evaluate what’s working and what’s dysfunctional in various parts of the organization. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it just makes me frustrated.