Reliability, Validity, and Metacognition — Why Young People Don’t Know what Kodachrome Is


Wild land fire, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Clearwater NF, Idaho

Sometimes, when I read my own prose, I find myself victim to the same Dunning-Kruger effects I discuss.  Seems like I did this in the last post, so let me expand.

One of the interesting concepts that come out of Roger Martin’s book, The Design of Businesswhere he presents the system model for business evolution going from mystery -> heuristic -> algorithm.  In this previous post, I document how this also relates to a regression in social/relational structure, and in a related fashion, empathetic development.  Martin does a good job of contrasting this to what he calls the reliability/validity trade-off.  As a company ages, if it is not careful, it will follow a decay path where Legalistic/Algorithmic v-Meme hierarchies will slowly subsume the organization, and creativity will die.  The only person who gets to be creative is the person with Creative in their title.

This should not come as a surprise to readers of this blog.  If one understands rational empathy, and the creative energy it releases through unpredictable, nonlinear interactions between independent actors as a primary driver, then when you give everyone a job with a title, and tell them with whom they get to talk to, it’s  no surprise that you get in to a ‘New Idea Rut’.  Everyone’s saying the same old, same old, to the same old.  Barring a personal crisis in someone’s life, there’s just nothing new under the sun.

But hierarchies (and to some extent, power structures) are good at some level of incremental, algorithmic improvement.  If we’re trying to grow our company with ‘solid growth’ — 4%/year — it might be prudent to just keep on with incremental product improvements.  But as anyone with a high school math background might remember, even 4% a year turns into exponential growth — something we count on for compound interest, our kids’ college savings account, and our retirement.  And companies, sooner or later, will reach size thresholds, or business/innovation events will happen that will demand restructuring and re-thinking.

So why do people cling to past ways, especially in Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme environments? This gets back to the core principles that we’ve discussed regarding Reliability and Validity, and the way we form relationships.  It’s a good guess that if we want an authority on engineering, we’d go talk to a Licensed Professional Engineer, or an engineering professor.  But if we wanted someone to tell us how to hang-glide — a profoundly aerodynamic venture, but something a little more off the beaten path– we’re as likely to have a Valid discussion with an amateur hobbyist as an engineering prof in my department whose specialty is micro-fluidics.

Going back to the business world — an Authoritarian company is likely to seek the usual outlets for product refinement, which might seem like it makes sense.  But over time, their metacognitive reach is going to naturally shrink and shrink.  The knowledge that they may have  becomes more reliable, in that it is tried-and-true.  But as circumstances change, that lack of metacognition prevents proactive solutions.  The product or the game can only change after a failure.  There’s no better example than Kodak’s demise.  The largest film photo company in the world utterly failed to understand the power of the digital revolution.  And now they’re pretty much gone.

What’s so interesting about this insight is now we can understand the roots of how someone thinks when they say things like ‘you learn more from your failures than your successes.’  If there ever was an Authoritarian v-Meme statement, it’s that one.  Because of the lack of metacognitive sweep — actively confronting unknowns without fear — there’s just no learning.  Except when things fall apart.  And then it’s a surprise.

Contrast that to a Performance v-Meme.  If we want to improve, we design Process for Practice, and adapt strategy to find out what we don’t know, before it fails.  When confronted with the question, “do you learn more from your successes than failures?” folks might say that they learned more from failure, but that’s just the lower v-Memes talking.  In the class I teach, the Industrial Design Clinic, I teach successful practice, with an emphasis on Design Thinking and an exploration of multiple options.  Because there is no engineering company in this world that will accept a graduate who constantly, chronically fails after shipping product.  Even if they’re learning.

Takeaways:  Understanding how demands from the different v-Memes reinforce Reliability and Validity is key in not falling into the trap of only incremental product performance.  I’m sure the folks at Kodak thought film was going to last forever.

Further reading:  Complacency, Reliability?  Poe-tay-toe, Poe-tah-to.  Read here for a quickie piece on Kodak’s downfall.  Published in Forbes, no less.

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