Monthly Reading, November 2023
Res Extensa #47 :: Against efficiency, the Cynefin framework, the inertia of good habits, and inside the Santa Fe Institute
For example, an early employee of a successful, high-growth B2B SaaS startup leaves to start a company. The "new" problem they want to solve is actually a subset of the problems faced by customers of the first startup. Inherently then, the TAM they want to chase is smaller than the TAM they were previously tackling.
In this example, choosing to focus on a smaller TAM could be interpreted one of two ways: like a smart "wedge" to enter the same or an even larger competitive market, or like a deliberately smaller TAM business (one that the founder expects to have a higher chance of success). It's hard to nail down which.
An interesting idea. I've long thought that investors and founders overindex on "TAM" — investors usually because they're looking for a rapid, single-metric validator for a product idea, and founders because they're ambitious and queueing off of what their backers are asking them for. My friendis fond of saying that great founders and great products "create their own TAM", meaning they have the ability to continually identify and bridge into adjacent customer problems. Then five years on their product is solving problems customers didn't even know they had until someone helped them solve ‘em. If you have ambition and high agency, you can turn a small idea into a big deal. I wrote more about this in On Markets, TAMs, and Agency (RE #23) last year.
I'm not huge on frameworks these days. Probably jaded by how many of them morph over time into Proper Noun-based doctrinal systems full of buzzwords, shibboleths, and consultants (eww).
But I ran across the Cynefin framework, which oddly enough comes from an IBM guy during the late 90s. I know nothing about it other than what's on the Wikipedia page, but I like the general principles. It proposes a simple 2x2 for categorizing problems, which could help diagnose why your team is struggling to progress on a problem — you may be misunderstanding where your problem sits on the spectrum. Each category has a succinct description of the nature of its problems, with a recommended set of steps in order to dealing with a problem of that type. Check out my post on it for examples.
Farnam Street reviewed Tom DeMarco's book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, one with an idea I can get behind. This pull quote gives you a sense of its thesis:
"It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change."
Efficiency is looked upon in the modern workplace too positively for its own sake. Have a project you want to work on? Make your case around how it'll "make things more efficient" and you'll already have sympathetic ears. It's like an invincible argument for too many people.
What's forgotten is that efficiency has little to do with whether what's being done so efficiently is even worth it, or if it's even the right thing. There's a contrast between efficiency and effectiveness, which doesn't mean they're always in tension, but there tends to be a zero-sum contest for attention between the two sides.
DeMarco's point in the book is that driving out all inefficiencies leads to a sterile organization that perhaps is only doing uninteresting things, but doing them really efficiently! I wrote a while back pushing for folks to bias toward effectiveness first:
The traditional definition of efficiency refers to achieving maximum output with the minimum required effort. When you’re still in search of the right solution, the effort:output ratio barely matters. It only matters insofar as you have the required runway to test enough iterations to get something useful before you run out of money, get beat by others, or the environment changes underneath you. But there’s no benefit to getting 100 miles/gallon if you’re driving the wrong way.
I've only read the first quarter or so of Consider Phlebas, book 1 in Iain Banks's legendary Culture series. Just check out the description of the Culture's world-building — it definitely piqued my interest:
The stories center on The Culture, a utopian, post-scarcity space society of humanoid aliens, and advanced superintelligent artificial intelligences living in artificial habitats spread across the Milky Way galaxy. The main themes of the series are the dilemmas that an idealistic, more-advanced civilization faces in dealing with smaller, less-advanced civilizations that do not share its ideals, and whose behaviour it sometimes finds barbaric.
This article goes deep on what makes Culture so special (with some spoilers). If you're a sci-fi fan like me, you'll probably add it to your list, too.
Looking back at when I was most productive, I realize that when I was in a writing mindset I was constantly thinking about what to talk about next; I was observing the world around me and writing thoughts down: quotes from books I was reading, interesting articles, meaningful conversations… When I’m in “writing mode” everything I experience is a thread that can be woven into a future post. But when I’m not in this mode, my thoughts are fleeting. Even if I do write things down I find that my mind fools itself into “big post mode” – a mode where I’m accumulating ideas but mostly daydreaming for a future gap in my schedule that will let me fully capture what I’ve been thinking and write a post that will perfectly explain a “big idea." This perfect time, however, never comes.
Fully agree. Since I rebooted the weekly cadence for this newsletter back around the end of August, I feel exactly the same. My thinking regularly goes to ideas and about how to manipulate them into topics. I'm constantly jamming thoughts together looking for interesting relationships.
🏫 A Playground for Geniuses: Inside the Santa Fe Institute
This new video series fromFoster (host of my favorite podcast, The Fifth Column) has him globetrotting in search of the mysteries of the universe, like a modern reincarnation of Sagan's Cosmos. In this third episode he visits the Santa Fe Institute, home to a fascinating approach to academic research, and the preeminent thinkers in complexity science.
Thanks for checking out this month’s links. If you run across anything interesting or that fits the Res Extensa milieu, please send it my way! I’d love to include more reader feedback into the newsletter. If you like what I’m doing here, please forward onto your friends, family, or colleagues you feel would enjoy it as well.
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