Strategic obscurity

David Weinberger is an American philosopher who has spent decades studying how the internet transforms human relationships, knowledge, and society. Weinberger is regarded as a referent on this subject since 1999 when he wrote with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, and Doc Searls the celebrated Cluetrain Manifesto, in which they proclaimed “the end of business as usual.” Based on their thesis that “markets are conversations,” the authors argued that the internet would radically transform companies’ business practices since it allowed more direct communications between consumers and companies. Another of their theses was that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy,” meaning that thanks to the larger communication capacity and access to information the internet provided people with, the internet also became an alternative to hierarchies and the formal communication channels of organizations that, in this way, lost much of their value …

Twenty years later, in the spring of 2019, Weinberger published a new book.

In this new work, entitled Everyday Chaos, Weinberger explains how, thanks to technology, we not only have access to more information, we are more connected, and we can talk to our clients and organize our work differently. These advances also improve our ability to predict what is going to happen in the future, though, paradoxically, they also force us to recognize how incomprehensible and unpredictable the world in which we live is. For instance, the latest developments in artificial intelligence (more specifically in the field of deep learning) that allow us to make better weather forecasts and better medical diagnoses, even when we do not understand how algorithms come to those conclusions.

Discovering that the inexplicability of deep learning models is just a reflection of the complexity of the world and that the complexity of the world far exceeds the models we design to explain it, can also be liberating

Understandably, the opacity of these systems makes many people feel uncomfortable, and for this reason, many of them require algorithms to explain the reasons behind their conclusions. However, discovering that the inexplicability of deep learning models is just a reflection of the complexity of the world and that the complexity of the world far exceeds the models we design to explain it, can also be liberating, since it takes out the requirement that we need to understand how the world works to predict what will happen next, and therefore allows us to take advantage of the immense amount of data we capture today without needing to understand how the multiple variables behind many of the situations we face relate to each other.

In this scenario, the best strategy no longer involves anticipating what will happen in the future but creating possibilities that give us degrees of freedom to change course when necessary

Furthermore, in this scenario, the best strategy no longer involves anticipating what will happen in the future but creating possibilities that give us degrees of freedom to change course when necessary (which Weinberger distills in the imperative “Do. More. Future.”). In other words, instead of trying to reduce the world to a size that we can predict, control, and feel comfortable with, we need to develop strategies that take into account the real complexity of the world. In short: strategies that avoid or minimize the cost of making decisions. It is about replacing “anticipate and prepare” with “unanticipate and learn” and opening, and leaving open, as many paths as possible. Hence the popularity of methods that avoid anticipating the future entirely such as A / B testing, minimum viable products, etc.

But still, to take advantage of these possibilities, companies must be permanently attentive to the changes that are happening around them just as they need organizational structures and cultures that allow them to abandon a strategy and adopt a new one whenever is necessary. And for that, they need skilled, committed, empowered, curious and creative people. People who move fast, but who also keep their eyes wide open for the changes happening around them and think what those changes mean. And even better if they think together. In this way, they will be able to imagine more “possibilities,” more paths to open and leave open, for what may happen in the future, and to determine when it is time to change course.

The problem is that this need contrasts with the leaders of many companies that still behave as if the world were understandable and predictable, and all challenges they face were caused by one or a few causes, identifiable with more or less effort, but ultimately identifiable. Managers for whom it is difficult to admit that the world is changing much faster than in the past, and it is more complex, as everything is increasingly connected. Managers that still need to accept that they can no longer have everything under control, nor have solutions for everything, nor knowing what to do at each moment, and much less predicting what will happen in the future.

Regarding this topic, a case Weinberger explains in his book is very inspiring. It is about Ren Zhengfei, president and founder of Huawei, who has the habit of regularly sharing with all the workers of the company, chéngyǔs, Chinese idioms that transmit ideas and moral principles. They do it in a very compact way, using only four characters, so many of them are not easy to understand if they do not come with an additional explanation about the myth, history, or historical event where they originate. Some examples are 乱七八糟 (absolutely messy,) 知足常乐 (happy with what you have,) or 知行合一 (union of knowledge and action.)

Two aspects of this practice to highlight: On the one hand, Ren tends to share chéngyǔs the meaning of which is not evident. On the other hand, he invites all company employees, at all levels, to participate in a study group to discuss and make sense of the four characters that make up the chéngyǔ, each of which is rich in meaning on its own.

Let me clarify that the purpose of this practice is not for workers to discover a secret message from their boss. The chéngyǔs Ren shares do not have one correct and unique meaning. If so, he would probably choose other means to get the message across to his employees. What Ren is looking for is for employees to contribute their experiences and perspectives to group discussions, to develop shared ideas and values, and to discover new purposes and new ways of understanding what they do together and looking into the future. Hence why Ren chooses chéngyǔs with a non-obvious meaning: because they provide employees with good food for thought.

Because good thoughts are what many companies lose when they place excessive emphasis on their leaders being explicit, clear, and precise in their communications in contexts that are anything but clear. And please, do not get me wrong. I do not mean that clear and direct communications have no value. Conversely, clear, and accurate communication is invaluable when it comes to directing a team or organization toward a fixed goal, speed and efficiency are paramount, and the steps to achieving that goal are clear. Or when it comes to repairing a machine, it does not matter how complicated that machine is.

The problem is that today leaders face more often complex scenarios where it is difficult to determine why things happen and to predict what will happen next. And the risk is that overly explicit, clear, and accurate communications from their leaders can make employees lose sight of the traps hidden in the complexity of those situations. So, they think less right at the moment when we need them to use their brains more than ever before.

References

Weinberger, D., Locke, C., Levine, R., & McKee, J. (1999). The Cluetrain Manifesto: The end of business as usual.

Weinberger, D. (2019). Everyday chaos: Technology, complexity, and how we’re thriving in a new world of possibility. Harvard Business Press.

An article by
Santi Garcia