Embracing your Inner Performance v-Meme for New Years

Steak Florentine Mercato

On to becoming Steak Florentine, the Mercato, Firenze, Italy

I don’t much like to write solely about personal empathetic development.  The reason is simple — I’m a systems guy, and writing about how one person can move up the Spiral seems to be counterproductive.  There are lots of self-help books out there.  On top of that, I also personally feel that one of the largest problems with SD is that it easily lends itself as a tool for hierarchicalization — my v-Meme’s better than your v-Meme — with higher being necessarily ‘better.’  You go to work on yourself, you evolve, maybe — but the larger structure just doesn’t change.

That said, we NEED more evolved people.  And yes — it’s been a universal problem forever.  Various cultures and religions have been working on this for thousands of years, using different aspects of empathy.  My favorite example has to be Tibetan Buddhism, which places all its money on an enlightened, Global Holistic v-Meme leader (the Dalai Lama), magical thinking, and mirroring behavior.  Realizing that there’s no way the resources exist to pop everyone out of the magical v-Meme, where so many poor Asians reside, they formed a system where everyone looks up (and copies) the head honcho, whom a select elite makes sure grows up to be one of the coolest dudes on the planet.  Add to that a pipeline through which many young men and women pass through (many young people become monks for a couple of years, then go back to more normal lives) that teach meditation and self-reflection — pretty unbelievable.

In that spirit, there’s nothing wrong with a little thinking, especially with the approaching New Year, on how the various v-Memes actually work, knowledge-structure-wise.  Most of us would like to improve our Performance-based behavior.  Performance-based behavior is the first v-Meme where real New School Design Thinking becomes emergent.  So it’s worth a little time pondering over the holidays.

Let’s start with a little deconstruction from our basic empathetic social/relational structure background, and see if we can’t reason through this together.

Here are some principles that govern all of the v-Memes:

  1.  As we evolve, our temporal, spatial and energetic scales necessarily increase.
  2. We increase our agency (capacity for independent action) and responsibility toward ourselves and others.
  3. As we increase our agency, we increase our awareness of timescales, and our ability to affect them.
  4. We transition more and more toward data-driven thinking.
  5. As our empathy increases, we also increase our receptivity toward grounding our thoughts in larger and larger circles.

The transition from Legalistic/Absolutistic thinking to Performance-Based thinking is one of the most important of the transitions. When we make the transition, we are now opening ourselves up to independently generated, trust-based relationships — meaning that we will evaluate/perceive people not just on WHAT they are, but WHO they are.

The line that divides this portion of the Spiral is what I call the Trust Boundary, and starts a very important transition from primarily belief-based thinking to rational, data-driven analysis.  At this point, it’s important to remember the nested, emergent nature of the Spiral — we don’t just throw away all our lower modes of thinking — beliefs still matter — but we incorporate them into new modes.

For Performance-based v-Meme development, here are some good vectors.

  1.  Develop authentic mastery of a given area.  Authentic mastery develops the empathetic relationship to self — if you want to have  independent, data-driven relationships with other folks, you first have to have one with yourself.  Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, insists in his book that he never felt comfortable hiring someone who couldn’t do real work with their hands — an implicit endorsement of this authenticity principle.
  2. Reflect on your level of mastery and expertise — use data and examples to accurately assess where you are on your journey toward expertise.  Looking at what others have done gives you metacognition — making you aware of what you don’t know, and how much further the journey will take you.  For example, I am a woodworker, and participate in Internet groups that have lots of other work displayed.  This lets me see how far I’ve come, as well as how far I have to go — and also gives me people whom I can ask for advice and consent while seeing the real results they’ve produced.
  3. Be aware of your own impulsive thought — slow down your timescales and pause before making decisions.  One of the books I’ve discussed, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, exhaustively catalogs the benefits of slow thinking.
  4. Practice engaging in multi-solution thinking, preferably with a partner that you respect and trust.  Brainstorm multiple solutions to a given problem, and then list the reasons why or why not you think the solutions might be good (or not so good) ideas.  A fun book that shows this (especially if you like the Beatles) is Powers of Two by Joshua Schenk.  He details the paired interactions of some of the most creative people in the world.
  5. If you’re given a problem, assemble multiple paths that could be followed to arrive at a solution.  Write down what you’re trying to optimize, and then judge those paths based on your criteria.  Think of this as being similar to finding your way across town during heavy construction.  There are many roads that you can travel — but which one you’re interested in is the one that suits your temperament.
  6. Iterate, iterate, iterate!  — This word was a gift from a new friend, and is the key toward becoming a Performance-based thinker.  Iterating naturally puts different timescales in your process, and starts you on the path of decoupling your emotions from your process, and focusing on getting results.  Modify the path, and perhaps, modify the goal as new data becomes available.  Make fewer parts of your final state set in stone, and adopt a fluidity of mindset.
  7. Ask someone (or work with someone) outside your normal group cohort for their opinion, and then actively work on incorporating that person’s ideas into a synthesis of your work and their ideas.  Nothing beats a diverse workforce, or a strong customer ethic, for growing this part of your brain and empathetic profile.
  8. Understand your own path as a heuristic — a series of assembled steps that you control, that have inherent potential for good outcomes as well as bad.  Estimate the risk in each step, and in your overall path.
  9. Understand that there will always be factors you can’t control — the other side of metacognition — while at the same time, work towards defining these and exploring them so they become more and more concrete.

That’s a start.  And maybe one more.  Practice saying ‘I don’t know’ if you really don’t know.  Change this from “I don’t know, and so therefore I must be stupid” to “I don’t know, and now that I know I don’t know, I’m going to find out!”  It’s the sign of real expertise.

Takeaways:  Here’s a Powerpoint Slide I use to describe Performance-based thinking and data structures.  Worth a read!



What does Star Wars – The Force Awakens Tell us about Ourselves?

Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame

©Lucasfilm 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

NOTE:  I Tried Hard Not to do it, but Potential Meta-Spoilers Contained Within!!

As I start writing this, I want to tell readers of this blog that I grew up on Star Wars.  It seems hard to believe, but for a boy in the ’60s and ’70s, even watching Star Wars‘ sci-fi predecessor, Star Trek, we were blown away by the clumsy-in-retrospect special effects, leading us to dream about life aboard a starship.  2001 — A Space Odyssey, with its peaceful depictions of deep space travel, was out in 1968, but out of reach to a six-year-old boy with modestly conservative, alienated parents.  And VHS technology hadn’t come along yet, so there was no way to play back most movies once they had left the big screen.

We had the space program — astronauts were headed to the moon! — but nothing could compare when the original Star Wars visuals were released in 1977.  It’s my personal belief that nothing hurt NASA more than Star Wars.  It took astronauts crammed in a small capsule three days just to reach the moon.  But the characters in Star Wars could explore exotic planets, taking off and landing, in the span of two hours of movie time.  In no time, the national imagination changed.  Give us Single Stage To Orbit or bust.  And damn the technological hurdles.

The original Star Wars trilogy fit neatly into a 14-17 year old’s mind.  I had an extremely difficult childhood, and the whole idea of the original six movies was really a father saved by his children — a theme that was profoundly resonant to a young man with an alcoholic father.

Now, as my own view has grown, though, the movies amuse not-so-much.  You’d think a guy into the power of empathy would be enthralled by The Force.  Yet, for the most part, the Global Holistic (or beyond!) v-Meme aspects, aside from a couple of scenes with Yoda, are profoundly neglected.  The Force is mostly used for choking people, magic green fire, or throwing things around, with a couple of nods to manipulation of the weak-minded.  Not surprisingly, it’s almost always for the ‘good’ — as believed by the egocentric perspective of whatever character happens to be doing the choking.

Why?  Because Star Wars is firmly mired in the Magical-Authoritarian v-Meme pair, with a variety of genetically pre-ordained Space Wizards using their considerable talents mostly for reasons of power and control.  We get a little Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme behavior from the Jedi in the Jedi Temple.  But there’s really not much development.  The only standard rule seems to be “don’t go over to the Dark Side.”  And the direction given for NOT going over to the Dark Side is to listen to your betters, even if it goes against your own judgment.  You don’t gain agency in the Jedi Order — remember that these are the Good Guys — until you’re at the top of their particular Authoritarian v-Meme heap.  Young Obi-Wan didn’t want to train young Anakin in the ways of the Force, but did so because Qui-Gon Jinn, his master, said he had no choice.  It was Jedi filial piety that got the whole series rolling.

From a relational perspective, Star Wars is internally consistent.  As good Authoritarians, they’re primarily concerned about blood relations, and there’s a particular gene pool that egocentrically thinks the galaxy belongs to them.  And the way you get to be a Space Wizard is through good breeding as well.  Those midi-chlorians in high concentration are a genetic anomaly.  So it’s no surprise that we end up with kings, queens, princesses and empires, regardless of species.  No real Performance-based v-Memes and personal development show up.  It’s all pre-ordained, as well as the various responsibilities one might have in the universe.

The Principle of Reinforcement, the idea that societies values and the individuals form a self-reinforcing cycle, runs deep in the Star Wars universe as well.  The battles are classically Manichaen — good vs. evil, with (not surprisingly) the good guys wearing white, and the bad guys all in black.  No surprises here.  What’s fascinating, though, is how higher v-Meme multi-solution design thinkers and negotiators, like Han Solo, are portrayed.  They’re slimy, until off-screen coupling initiates them into the space wizard blood clan.

Not surprisingly, this lack of independently generated relationships in anyone’s upbringing produces messed-up kids, that end up in various stages of rebellion.  Childhood trauma (various orphaning, slavery and such icks — bad things happen to Chosen People/Space Lizards too!) produces kids with a tendency toward empathy disorders.  Not good when you control things like planet-destroying machines.  What’s killing a couple billion people when you’ve got daddy (or mommy) issues?

For those readers of this blog, naturally, the technology defies belief.  Huge, integrated structures, like the Death Star, or in the The Force Awakens, the Death Planet (or whatever its called) are designed by Authoritarian societies — not the highly-connected Global Systemic societies that would actually be required, a la Conway’s Law, to build them.  Can you imagine the wiring errors in that thing?  At least the one thing that the v-Memes did get right is that the Empire, or in the case of The Force Awakens, The First Order (the new bad guys), does tend to concentrate power in a few large artifacts.  No different than today’s nuclear power stations or weapons. And even though this strategy has been shown to not work so well in two prior movies.  When one learns about the existence of such a tool, there’s a certain thrilling fatalism that has to appear in the audience.  We know what’s going to happen to THAT.

I don’t know if it’s particularly disappointing .  The Star Wars universe was never very open-ended, v-Meme wise.  And The Force Awakens uses all the same tools in the toolbox to construct its fable.  Or rather, a more accurate descriptor would be that The Force Awakens uses its particular set of Lego pieces to make its story.  It’s true that the Baddies are bigger, and badder, and the tech is even more powerful — no question that we’ve got Kardashev Type III leanings!  It’s like J.J. Abrams went to McDonalds, crammed everything into the back kitchen, and super-sized it all.

But in the same way that Legos are limited — fragmented blocks with limited attachment points — so goes this story.  There are only a certain set of pieces that can be used, and J.J. Abrams and the writers got to choose whether they were positioned up or down.  Like the binary, self-centered mind the Authoritarian v-Meme generates, the plot places characters constantly in conflict, where it’s always the case that the conflict is resolved through destroying the other party, getting destroyed, or running away.  Just like my empathy theory predicts.

Even the young Stormtrooper convert, Finn, isn’t given a complexity break.  We do get a My Lai massacre to start the ball rolling.  But Finn’s no battle-rattled vet.  In his very first battle, he doesn’t want to kill people. No blood on his hands — because if there were, he couldn’t follow the arc of the story laid out that the good guys are fundamentally always good, and the bad guys — well you know, they may get a chance at a deathbed epiphany.

There may be some feminists who might find succor in The Force Awakens .  The female character, Rey, is portrayed as a rugged individual, extremely tech. savvy, and relatively fearless.  Much is made out of her refusal to take Finn’s hand in one scene — multiple times.  Methinks they protest too much. And Princess Leia gets a prominent new role. But Leia’s role really isn’t that much different from the last one where she was calling the shots.  As a princess, she’s always been high up on the social order, and the fact that she’s a general should surprise no one.  There are even women commanders in The First Order’s Star Destroyers.

But I’ll bet the more evolved feminists have to be rolling their eyes.  Women are running the show, and they’re still doing this stupid ‘planet-blowing-up’ shit?  Doesn’t anyone ever want to talk anything out?  Can’t we step outside, loosen up a little, and have a cigarette?  Though there’s a couple of nods to various character’s cultural femininity, Death Star Christmas cookies are nowhere to be seen.  And there are no signs of day care on a Star Destroyer.  This is the best a hyper-advanced civilization can do? Someone needs to send Snoke, the new Super-Bad-Guy a little primer on Attachment Theorist John Bowlby.

As I mentioned above, the whole Force concept — so amenable to higher empathetic development, as well as plot development — really takes a v-Meme beating.  If there’s any proof to my various theories on how empathy deficits in Magical/Authoritarian social structures work, it’s got to be in The Force Awakens.  The embodiment of global empathy, the Force gets used on a variety of characters, by a variety of characters, to choke people, and manipulate others. As the plot evolves, it becomes a sign of spiritual development in the various characters’ abilities to prevent themselves from being choked.  Or maybe pick something up.  Never do we proceed to rational place-taking or a point of understanding.  Does that sound like your boss’s interpretation of empathy?  Run fast.

And the movie scaffolds along this line to make reconciliation on a large scale impossible.  The First Order folks pull pages from the Nazis and the Nuremberg rallies, even though they’re from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away.  It’s a oddly fawning authoritarianism, too.  The First Order is extremely well-organized and efficient, with everyone neatly arranged in rows.  No classic signs of the real, historically documented Authoritarian v-Meme –cronyism, corruption and concubines — here.  Just ruthless efficiency and a fascination with very large, concentrated weaponry — deep re-creations of nuclear weapons and the Maginot Line.  Even the name — The First Order — has mathematical linkages to the meta-linear nature inherent in the v-Meme.  How weird is that?

Critics have raved about the various plot twists in the new film.  But I’ll warn you.  There really aren’t any.  There are binary moments in all the various scenes that come out of the limited Lego pieces in the canon.  In any given scene, you get to guess if the plot is going to go right or left.  From a metacognitive standpoint, (knowing what you don’t know) I couldn’t find a more profound reinforcement that Authoritarian social structures destroy metacognitive development.  There are simply no real unknowns.  You know, in every scene where there’s a bifurcation point, which way things could go.  A selected subset of outcomes are pre-ordained.  Certainly one or the other will make you feel something different.  But there’s basically no point of ambiguity that makes you think.

As a result, the film feels trivial.  You’re not going to walk away from this one the least bit changed.  It’s not a whole lot more sophisticated than the Teletubbies.  The Teletubbies were designed for the 3 year old mind — when Tinky Winky pops up behind the flower with his handbag, the infantile mind waits until Tinky Winky does it again.  That’s what gives it satisfaction.  It’s really about the same for The Force Awakens.

And judging from the reviews, most viewers will find comfort in that.  They didn’t go into the movie looking for an epiphany.  So they don’t have to worry that they might get one.

But at some level, I find the whole spectacle extremely worrisome.  If we have any moment of national unity, in our national conflict-driven dichotomous dialectic, infused with both Ferguson and Donald Trump, it’s around the release of this film. It forces our imagination along the line that our biggest problems are some kind of structured, lawful evil a la terrorists are organized by masterminds of the Caliphate, or something.

Yet our real problems are rooted deeply in the chaos, and inherent unpredictability from responding to world events with such dichotomous, black-and-white thinking.  Our problems in the Middle East come directly from decisions based on destroying controlling authority, under the aegis and reasoning of wiping out their Death Star Equivalent — their nuclear weapons capability.  It’s no coincidence that the two countries we’ve most recently destroyed the leadership in — Iraq and Libya — were potentially seeking nuclear weapons.  And that the third country we’re seeking regime change in — Syria — has its leader, Bashir Assad, accused of using chemical weapons of mass destruction.  The chaos that’s being generated is creating its own darker form of resistance in ISIS.

The Force Awakens, like all Star Wars movies, has no refugees from wars.  Planets simply get blown up.  There’s never any show of long-term suffering.  And though the crashed Star Destroyers on the surface of Jakku allude to conflict long ago, every fight in the current moment leads to short term oblivion in the Star Wars universe.  Wars there map to wars here in our national perception — clean, instantaneous things.  There are no X-Wing fighter pilots that need extensive rehab, or treatment for PTSD.  In space, you get to hear them scream once.  And then, well, their parts are scattered across deep space — or inside a burnt-out Star Destroyer.

In writing this, I don’t want to be non-sympathetic, or non-empathetic, to the national mood.  But the Principle of Reinforcement holds for us, too.  And we could use a little more humility, messiness, and metacognition in our national parables — especially if we really want the Force to be with us.

Further thinking:  I don’t want to get into this in this piece, but that J.J. Abrams — he’s kinda wrecked Star Trek in the same way.  We might have been headed that way anyway — but at least Star Trek was calling to those higher metacognitive values — going where no one has gone before and all that.  Real higher-level empathetic development.  Now, even the bridge crew yells at each other.  Sheesh.


Combining Servant Leadership 2.0, Empathy, and Design Heuristics in High Performance Teams


Brahms’ favorite view from his summer hotel toward the Trisselwand — Altaussee, Styria, Austria

It’s time to put some of the big concepts together and understand how they combine to make high-performance design teams.  So here goes!

Ideally, a design team will have an individual who embodies Servant Leader 2.0 — not just a compelling vision and integral drive toward success, along with an understanding of what makes his or her company money (the ‘Inner Hedgehog’ idea), but also a profound self-awareness that allows them to negotiate effectively with the world outside the design group. Such an individual also understands their personal long-term motivators.  Servant Leader 2.0 makes a commitment toward facilitating the creation of relationships both inside and outside the group that can help both the performance of the design team, as well as the larger community interconnectedness.  He or she models appropriate responsibility-taking (I know how to do that, and I’ll take the lead!) as well as ego suppression. That’s likely as good as it gets.

Add in a design team with members that have the appropriate expertise in the area, a clearly defined design goal, and the tools necessary to understand and capture the physics the group will be dealing with, and you’re halfway there.  Next, create an environment where people can move, unrestricted, in search of knowledge that they need, with the blessings of the leader to create appropriate relationships, and we’re getting closer.  Finish up with a larger group purpose, as well as the time, for individuals in the group to understand that they must also be receptive to helping people seeking knowledge from them — it’s not just about their goals and assignments.

Finally, put both elements together in a design process that has enough flexibility for the creativity required, and enough customer interaction so that there is grounding of the design concepts created by the group.  Make sure everyone in the design team can understand what the goals, and what the process is.

Examining this from an empathetic perspective, Servant Leader 2.0 knows him or herself well enough that they are at the same time, clearly separated from the individual team members, yet connected to all of them with rational empathy.  The Servant Leader 2.0 also starts the process of creating the high performance team by connecting to each individual, and at the same time, starting the process of creating the web of relationships between other individuals on the team.  Some of this is explicit — introductions, shared work tasks and such.  But some is also implicit and opportunistic — making events where people can select partners on their own.  This person also has the sense of inner purpose to not be threatened by strong empathetic relationships being formed within the team, through that independent agency of team members.

Finally, through the assistance of Servant Leader 2.0, everyone on the team takes the long, holistic view — that everyone is here for a purpose, that they can make a difference, yet at the same time all of them will evolve and change.  And the community that is created will persist long after the design goal is reached — for reasons that no one can quite predict.

Takeaways:  Building High Performance design teams takes time.  And it almost always takes someone who serves as the kernel where things grow.  It involves creating appropriate scaffolding, as well as surrendering some level of control.  But the results can be tremendous. 

What does Empathetic Criticism/Feedback Look Like?

Braden Lucca

Braden in the old Coliseum, now converted to apartments and shops — Lucca, Italy

One of the standard misinterpretations surrounding empathetic thinking, or the term in general, is the idea that in a world where empathy is prioritized, everything will always just be OK, and there will be no criticism.  Just acceptance of whatever anyone says.

That’s really wrong.  The idea behind higher connection is greater coherence — meaning that there is deeper understanding of another’s position, but a shared goal toward seeking a larger truth.  Ideally, that would promote positive emotional characteristics, such as kindness.  And I believe that it does.  But that’s really not the point.  “I’m OK, You’re OK” is a kind of relativism that can stagnate organizations, cultures, and societies.

That means there must be modes of criticism that not just promote empathy — but utilize it.  What might that look like?

First off, there needs to be an addressing of the limbic state of the person who is receiving the criticism.  That means the person on the receiving end needs to not be locked down In The Grip — basically a depressed state where any advice or correction is processed in a deeply emotional, egocentric fashion.  The short version is ‘you tell someone they suck, and then they stop listening to you.’  Hello, emotional empathy!

Secondly, there needs to be confirmation that the person receiving the criticism understands on a deeper level the perspective of the person giving the criticism.  Obviously, this requires  a slower, rational empathetic connection.

Finally, both parties need to share the same protocol, and be aware of this.  This influences both people in the immediate scene — solid mirroring behavior.

My good friend and co-researcher, Steve Beyerlein, Chair of the ME department at the University of Idaho, introduced me to the concept of SII feedback — a way of hopefully circumventing The Grip, and increasing the effectiveness of an exchange.  SII stands for Strengths, Improvements and Insights — a procession of information designed to make sure the receiver knows what works, what can change, what is valuable, and some feedback from the deliverer that indicates a deeper understanding of the circumstance that the receiver is in.

I’ve modified this a bit with what I call Empathetic SII.  The idea behind Empathetic SII is that it is actually an algorithm for dialogue between two parties that results in much greater coherence than just a simple active listening.  Active listening as a protocol looks pretty good on the surface.  But because it fundamentally IS a protocol, there is the potential for misuse.  You can repeat stuff back to someone that they just said and never have deeper processing.

That’s much harder with Empathetic SII.  See the figure below:


Empathetic SII works as follows.  The person giving the criticism starts with a Strength, which is fine.  But the receiver then must place-take, and give Insight on why the giver said what they said, and attempt to understand the position of the giver.  This allows establishment of positions in a very clear fashion.  Basic SII attempts primarily to avoid the Grip — which is great.  Empathetic SII, through empowering both parties, establishes a much higher baseline for true coherence.

The sequence followed might be as follows:

  1.  The giver delivers a Strength.  The receiver responds with an Insight on why the giver thinks that is a Strength.
  2. The giver then gives an Improvement.  The receiver then discusses the Improvement and their understanding.
  3. The giver then gives an Insight.  The receiver responds with a Strength of the feedback offered.

Remember — all protocols are only ladders to higher heuristics.  Anything that establishes a foothold in understanding and connection is good.  Empathetic protocols such as Empathetic SII are meant to be modified, as long as the goal of higher connection is maintained.

Takeaway:  keeping people out of emotional lockdown, so they can rationally process the information being given to them is the fundamental point of SII.  Making SII into an empathetic protocol strengthens the connection and coherence of both players, and sets the stage in a positive fashion for future interactions.

McDonalds and Another Major Paradigm — Reliability vs. Validity


Starship Rock, White Sand Lake, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

In Roger Martin’s great book, The Design of Businessan excellent quick read, an influence on this blog as well as a great complement, he talks about the evolution of business as moving from mystery -> heuristic -> algorithm along a knowledge funnel.  One of the examples he uses to illustrate this is the formation of McDonalds.  McDonalds started with a paradigm shift.  Without getting too far into the weeds of ‘who came up with what first’ — there are excellent histories of fast food you can dig up — the founder of McDonalds, the McDonald brothers, started their restaurant with the idea (the mystery) that people would rather walk into a restaurant and quickly order from a limited menu, than be serviced by car hops on skates while sitting in their car and ordering off an extensive menu.  As the company evolved, heuristics were placed in the expanded franchise model, pioneered and influenced by Ray Croc, which then led to more algorithmic thinking (how to refine the temperature of the inside of a hamburger, how to guarantee freshness of buns, etc.)  All this has made a McDonalds hamburger (or Big Mac) one of the most reliable experiences one can have on the planet.  You go into McDonalds, you order a Big Mac, and you pretty much know what you’re going to taste.

But as organizations evolve (actually, develop Scaffolding, or potentially devolve) to provide reliability, they can lose their validity — the reason an organization was created in the first place.  Validity is characterized by the Guiding Principle for the organization in the first place.  In McDonalds’ situation, the larger question, as the firm continues its decline is this:  what do you do when people don’t want to eat hamburgers any more?

The answer is “it depends.”

There are some interesting things to note in the above example, as it gives plenty of clues to the evolution of social structure in the context of McDonalds.  At the beginning of McDonalds’ existence, we see variable, and unpredictable time scales.  As heuristics were developed, we start to see the emergent beginnings of the various silos necessary for more optimal performance.  As reliability became more and more of a focus at McDonalds, we can also see that smaller and smaller spatial and temporal scales become more important.  The ‘time to cook’, the precision of temperature, the freshness of buns, the latency of time for fries in the warmer — all must be controlled in order to assure uniformity.

And as an organization becomes more and more driven by these types of things, and more accountants are hired, and MBAs, we can also see that the response of the organization to prompted change will be more and more additive.  Instead of making large changes in how one cooks a hamburger, the organization is much more likely to trend toward process refinement, and incremental improvement.  The appearance of single discipline experts, who can reliably, for example, program cooking strategies, becomes more prevalent.  Unless these experts are involved empathetically with other parts of the supply chain/production process, they are likely to become more and more isolated in their communication chains.  I really have no intrinsic knowledge of McDonalds’ organizational chart — but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were various ‘Czars’ around the organization, in charge of a variety of the elemental tasks of hamburger preparation.

And in the franchise model, the end user of the technology is necessarily isolated from the top — you sign up for a franchise, you sign up for doing things the McDonalds way.  McDonalds even has a Hamburger University — its primary training facility in Illinois — to reinforce its social/relational structure.

What does all this mean from a v-Meme perspective?  Though not exactly the first, the McDonald brothers had a visionary, empathetic epiphany regarding people and the acceleration of society.  It’s hard to say whether this was from a larger, emergent/intuitive Communitarian v-Meme perspective (probably!) or a true, self-aware Global Holistic breakthrough. Regardless, spinning out the rest of the v-Meme story was basically developing the appropriate v-Meme Scaffolding for the idea.  Heuristics were developed as far as sizing, decor, etc.  And then increased traffic led to the need for developed algorithms for production of consistent product.

But along the way, the bottom scaffolding started taking over the top.  Instead of preserving a spirit of innovation, and worker development, McDonalds made a choice to mechanize and disempower the bottom of their organization.  Fast food workers, regardless of the truth of the imagery, are associated with the very bottom of the labor hierarchy.  Insulting comments regarding English majors and ‘would you like fries with that?’ are the gold standard for the ostensible worthlessness of a liberal arts degree.  And with any fundamentally Authoritarian v-Meme organization, where status, power and control are the marquee behaviors, you have the potential for corruption.

What does the death of empathy inside a company mean?  In a world where nothing changes, the Authoritarian/Legalist v-Meme conflation can take you a long way.  But in a rapidly changing landscape, screwing over the bottom of the food chain (no pun intended) is a very bad idea indeed.  You can create conditions that produce the same hamburger every time.  But you’ll never produce anything else.  You absolutely have to have information flow both vertically and horizontally.  And you can’t get that without appropriate empathetic development.

Where is this leading?  The natural dichotomous perspective would lead one to think that there is a trade-off between reliability and validity.  But at this point, it is important to remember the emergent dynamic principles of evolutionary, empathetic thinking.  Validity, being more a function of higher empathetic modes (Performance/Goal-based v-Memes and above) can contain the structures of reliability inside it.  But in order to do this, leadership — or those that have the ability to influence organizational structure and develop organizational culture — must be self-aware to the trade-offs present when making developmental decisions.  Sometimes you need to hire an expert in internal hamburger temperature control, and everyone has to listen to them — after all, you don’t want people coming down with E coli while eating your product.  But one should be aware of the integration requirements of keeping that person in the loop with everyone else in the organization, and establishing the duplex communication channels necessary to assure consistent evolution.

Takeaways:  If nothing changes in your world, you can set up an organization that dumps empathy and repeats the same process over and over, and if you’re making money at the beginning, you’ll be making money at the end.  But that’s not the real world.  Empathetic development, if scaffolded correctly, can drive both reliability and validity — which combined, create resilience.

The Beer Game, the Power of Empathetic Thinking, and the 787

Anneliese Anneliese, at the Garden House in the 13th District of Vienna.  Viennese know how to really play the Beer Game!

One of the interesting examples at the beginning of Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, that’s intended to demonstrate the power of systems thinking, is a game called the Beer Game.  Invented at MIT in the ’60s, Senge uses this in his classes to teach supply chain dynamics.

The basic outline goes like this: In the game, there are three parties ostensibly working together to sell beer:  a retailer, a wholesaler, and a marketing director for a brewery.  The beer in question, ‘Lover’s Beer’ is distributed throughout a network of convenience stores, and the primary mode of communication is a check-mark sheet of how many cases a retailer wants to order on a weekly basis.  Every week, a truck driver brings beer to the retailer, and every week, the retailer hands the order sheet to the truck driver.  The truck driver then aggregates those sheets through the wholesaler, which then goes back to the brewery.

Simple. An exception is inserted into the game that increases demand.  Turns out, a music video is released by a young rock band, and demand starts to climb.  The cascade of circumstances with retailers starting to order more beer, and wholesalers demanding more leads to consternation and increased production at the brewery.  The end game is that because there is a lag in the actual production of beer — it takes two weeks, at least, to brew, there is overshoot.  The effect of the video wears off, and demand levels off back at the standard, pre-video level.  All three players end up with extra stock that they can’t get rid of, and everyone is unhappy.

Senge makes very clear in his book that everyone playing is NOT allowed to talk to each other — they have an externally defined relationship with each other, and that’s that.  No one has time for anything else — classic power structure/hierarchical behavior.  The only communication that comes is simplex-type information sheets that show aggregate beer orders in one direction (from customer to brewery/wholesaler), and then, of course, the actual beer in another (from brewery/wholesaler to the customer.)  Senge, though likely not an Authoritarian himself,  is no stranger to Authoritarian v-Meme systems — he prescribes no conversation, overwork, and the vast availability inside a given convenience store as part of the game.  Fragmentation, fragmentation, fragmentation.

But what becomes fascinating is how he ends the game, which at some level is a plea for changing what engineers would know as an open-loop system (no corrective feedback possible) to a closed loop feedback system — a very algorithmic approach, where some control signal is ‘fed back’ either upstream or downstream to modulate the oversupply production.  He has the retailer and the marketing manager at the brewery sit down and have a conversation — right before, in the story, the marketing manager resigns for the overproduction of beer.

What’s even more fascinating is that Senge’s role-play of the marketing manager has the marketing manager quit to save his reputation — a status-based, lower v-Meme behavior if there ever was one.  Instead of arguing that this marketing manager has been through this boom-and-bust cycle once now (he was hired at the start of the game!) and now is Wise After the Event, the guy is canned.  What he’s doing, of course, is expressing how Senge views the world — he, like all of us, can never escape the dominant v-Memes that we have inside of our head — in this case, like the book, a plea for a combination of Legalistic v-Meme thinking coupled with a Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme evolution.

And then Senge gives us the answer, which is, not surprisingly, systems thinking.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that, at least on a superficial level.  If all three parties understood the interrelationships algorithmically in their supply chain, then these things wouldn’t happen.  We can plunk down modified versions of these forms, or set up some model for understanding slow-down and expansion of system boundaries, and we can eliminate these types of problems.  Senge alludes strongly to communication.  But don’t they already have communication?  The forms with check boxes?  Senge in his own solutions, is v-Meme limited.  And without a larger self-awareness, he can’t see where he might go.

Looking at things from a more global v-Meme perspective, Senge is arguing — rightfully so, in a limited way — that if we had just a little movement from pure, arbitrary, impulsive authoritarianism, to a generalized understanding of the algorithmic laws that govern system behavior, we could dramatically improve system performance.  We would start to see the development of the idea of consequential thought among the actors.  And with increasingly sophisticated understandings of system dynamics, we could develop an increasingly sophisticated predictive model of how to buffer what systems modelers call perturbations to the stability of the system.

But let’s reframe this debate, inserting the empathetic development of independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationships into the mix.  Instead of title-driven relationships, where we have a retailer, we have Sue, the owner of the convenience store.  Instead of a truck driver, we have Mike.  And instead of a marketing director, we have Pierre. Mike is dropping off beer at Sue’s store.  It’s a small store, and anyone rolling in is immediately noticed — especially someone unloading beer.

“What’s up, Mike?” Sue asks.  “Anyone around selling more beer than usual?  Any promotions, or specials from the head shack?” “Nothing this week, Sue,” he replies.  “Anything unusual on your end?” “Well, I’ve been selling out quicker from this beer — Lover’s Beer.  Kinda weird — it’s not that good,” Sue replies. “I don’t like it,” Mike says.  “But kids nowadays…I’ll see if I can get some more of that.” “Sounds good,” Sue says. Mike goes back to the distributor, and passes the information on about things he’s seen on the route.  A couple of weeks pass, with the same pattern of beer lag that is seen in the original game.  Mike returns to Sue’s store. Sue says “Mike!  I’m selling out of that beer!  Gotta have some more of it, and you’re not bringing any more.  Here’s another order!” And then Mike demonstrates the power of empathetic connection, and the elevation of responsibility that comes when people are connected.  “You know, Sue, I know you want some more.  Seems like they’re backed up at the brewery.  But I’ve been driving a beer truck for a long time, and the last thing I want to do is show up with 40 cases of that crummy stuff and you not be able to sell it.  I’m gonna sit on your order until we can at least fill your backlog.”

One can easily imagine the ripple effects that come with similar dialogues between the truck driver, his other customers, his boss, and Pierre, the marketing manager.  Pierre’s job is to pay attention to who’s out in front of his product placement efforts.  He’s likely seen the video, or heard about it, especially if he’s developed empathetic relationships himself across his network.  If everyone is a sensor on his network, and engaged in duplex, empathetic communication, the aggregate intelligence regarding the extent of the perturbation is quickly known.  The system itself — profoundly dependent on empathy and empathetic relationships — doesn’t have to fix itself to some arbitrary time constant in the system — like the week between ordering, or the two weeks necessary to brew more beer.

Independent relationships can transcend these externalities, and with that changing time scale, adjust themselves to deal appropriately with the effect of the release of a music video.  The entire knowledge structure becomes much more rich, with a much better definition of metacognitive unknowns, like “we just don’t understand much about young kids today!” This is, of course, what I believe Senge, had he had the concept of the dichotomy of relationships, would say.  What is created with just a little empathetic, duplex communication, and a good dollop of independent relational generation, is a far greater, more sophisticated and robust learning organization than one that just learns algorithmic modes of prediction.

Ordinary folks might just call it friendships, or common sense.  But one can see that those labels are misleading.  The actual sophistication embedded in the system, and emergent in times of change, with rapidly changing time scales, is actually a mechanism for maintaining information coherence across all affected parties.  And I’d argue is a much happier solution to the Beer Game than just a fragmented network of titles.

If you think that this example only applies to small-scale situations like beer at a brewery, the whole Boeing 787 supply integration chain is filled with similar stories.  Back in 2004, when Boeing was gearing up to design and manufacture their first composite airliner, the top management staked out Boeing’s new role as solely a systems integrator of parts around the world.  Boeing would sit in the middle, the airplane would be a virtual one first, with an entire digital model sitting out in cyberspace.  Companies from all over the world would be able to bid on whatever parts they thought they could manufacture, and then those parts would converge on the Everett, WA plant, and the new facility in Charleston, SC.

It all SOUNDS good (high status, accepted mental model), and system-y, until one starts to really unpack the reality of the scenario.  And then one starts to realize how deeply flawed and arbitrary the whole idea is. To start, the 787 Dreamliner has around 2.3 million parts.  With an Authoritarian v-Meme set, once the design is made, then parts must be right.  But anyone with just a lick of skepticism would realize that getting 2.3 million parts correctly designed and up on the web for bid is nigh on impossible.  There is no way, in an open loop format, that you could drive the error rate low enough that the plane could fly.  When you add on the issue then of a manufacturer making the parts, and having them all be correct, you can quickly see that the whole airplane would, sooner or later, run into a complexity crisis.

And it did.  From rivet availability to deburring the backs of rivet holes, errors that ended up having to be fixed far downstream in the process from where they originated kept cropping up and delaying first flight — for three years.  Even now, with the relocation of 787 construction to a non-unionized workforce in South Carolina (no Legalistic v-Meme scaffolding!) 787s are rolling off late and losing money — about $10M an airplane. Clearly, higher-level, empathetic emergent dynamics are necessary to create contemporary, high tech products.

In closing, I’ll tell you I was recently at a large American Society of Mechanical Engineers meeting in Montreal, Quebec.  Speaking were several industry leaders, who were, in various ways, addressing this complexity crisis.  When asked what was the source of most of their pressing problems, all said the same thing — “social”. It’s not just about beer.

What is the Sixth Discipline? Looking Back at Senge and Systems Thinking


Fish Creek at high water, Lochsa River tributary, Idaho


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

By far, one of the best management books to appear out of the late ’90s is the text ‘The Fifth Discipline — the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization’ by Peter Senge, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-faculty at the Complex Systems Institute.  Senge, if not the inventor of the concept of ‘systems thinking’ was certainly one of the first authors to attempt to mainstream the idea into modern world business culture.

What is systems thinking?  In short, it is the process of realizing that things and outcomes are hooked to each other, and that only by understanding and considering more complex patterns of cause-and-effect, can we develop a more profound understanding of our current situation, as well as future outcomes.  Intrinsic in this is the practice of drawing system boundaries.  Though it may be true that everything in the world is hooked to everything else, determining effective action relies on accurately sizing and including the components of the system one can have effect on.

The book has much to like — in certain ways, Senge has written the management version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or Russell’s Principia Mathematica — attempts at a completeness of categorization of ways of thoughts, though to be fair, Senge declares multiple times no such aspirations as did Wittgenstein and Russell.

It is an extremely useful read.  Senge lays out many Authoritarian v-Meme modes of thought in contemporary business, and then proposes more complex, algorithmic Legalistic v-Meme patterns in kind of a mix-and-match style throughout the book.  But there are contradictory modes.  Senge, while talking about the organization, spends virtually the whole book talking about teaching the individual.  There is not a single mention of empathy in the whole book, though he alludes to lots of empathetic concepts.  With many of his examples, he compacts and conflates lots of synergistic higher v-Meme behavior, and even alludes quite often to spirituality — which sounds good.  But what does any of it really mean?  There is no real pattern except the selection based on his authority.  And there is precious little attempt to apply systems thinking to systems thinking — a meta-level version of understanding why we do what we do.

That said, understanding his perspective is extremely useful for moving past his ideas and developing more complex, synergistic paradigms.  In many ways, The Fifth Discipline stretches the paradigm of the individual and algorithmic thinking as far as it can likely go.  No one has described a Legalistic v-Meme version of Flatland better.  There is talk of evolution, of course, as well as structure.  And lots of talk about how imposed structure will change organizations.  In a very important way, The Fifth Discipline prepares one for the next step — toward realizing the unending progression of enlightenment proposed through understanding empathetic development and Integral Theory.

What’s at least as interesting is how Senge himself demonstrates how his own social structures limit his own writing.  Senge, as a Senior Lecturer at MIT, is inside his own modestly rigid hierarchy.  The people he largely uses for his business examples are high-status, aspirational and enlightened authoritarians from contemporary business practice in large organizations.  His own thought patterns, also aspirational toward higher connection and empathetic development, must be placed inside the Legalistic/Algorithmic box.  Heuristics, combined heuristics, and Guiding Principle v-Meme thinking are arbitrarily mashed down into the mix, but there is little discrimination or understanding between the separation.  Senge talks a lot about intuition, but intuition without appropriate scaffolding leads to more impulsive thought.  How one gets to profound, intuitive thought is explored somewhat through analogies, and to be fair, he understands clearly the value of experience and goal-based thinking in organizations.

Senge talks quite a bit about  spirituality, and as a personal thing, I am not a big fan.  We do not need the Divine as a way of progressing our organizations and their empathetic development.  It’s not that I am a cold-blooded, chronic rationalist.  It’s just that one of the keys to accepting that one is on some path to higher enlightenment is that our understanding and embrace of metacognition has to be constant.  There will always be information and ways of knowing that we just don’t know — yet.    It was Buddha himself, when asked the famous question “Is there a Buddha higher than Buddha?” that he answered, “well, maybe.  But it’s not me!”

The quote by Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning of this post is particularly insightful.  Whenever we try to perceive things too far above our own developmental v-Meme level, it’s going to appear as magic, or whatever more acceptable term we’d like to apply.  The key is to understand that it is not.  What is required is an embrace of the fundamental humility that we simply have not arrived — and never will.