#2: Degrees of freedom

Buffering uncertainty; the workmanship of risk; disaster and responsiveness

I’m Vaughn TanThe Uncertainty Mindset is a weekly newsletter in which I noodle on unknown futures and how they affect thinking and acting. Ideas are likely to be half-baked.


A restaurant kitchen is a factory. During service, orders stream in from the dining room. A table of four orders, say, fourteen different dishes between snacks, first courses, mains, and desserts. Their dishes are split up and sent to kitchen’s various stations—salad, fish/meat, pastry, that kind of thing—each preparing a different set of dishes according to the equipment installed. Every station focuses on its own stream of orders. Each dish must be made and timed correctly so that the different dishes ordered can be recombined to go back out into the dining room and land on the table at the same time.

If only it were as simple as it sounds.

All cooking is unpredictable to some degree. Unpredictability results from accidents and malfunctions. Discovering during service that someone has accidentally thrown out the spare tray of prepared garnishes, or that the steam oven no longer steams, or that the dishwasher waste pipe is clogged. Unpredictability is also guests and their peccadilloes. The guest does not eat anchovies (or raw things, or things that grow underground, or nightshades, or anything that once had eyes). Or an entire table’s order has to be held at the pass because the guest must get up to make a phone call that Simply Cannot Wait. The more complex the food is and the more carefully polished the service intends to be, the more unpredictable cooking becomes.

With training and advance planning, a good kitchen team can absorb and buffer much unpredictability. A guest stands up just as the dishes for her table have been plated? What a delight it will be to re-fire all those dishes anew when she returns from her 10-minute phone call. Can’t find the spare prep? It’s a snap to brunoise carrots while keeping an eye on 54 tickets open tickets. No anchovies? It’s our pleasure to make a totally different dressing for this salad in between all the other stuff we have to do.

If the kitchen is working well—if the people in it are individually and collectively in the zone—the guest’s experience can feel almost magically untouched even through considerable disruption. If. Matt Orlando, who owns Amass Restaurant in Copenhagen, once told me, “there’s nothing better than when the kitchen is in the zone. The freestyling feeling is amazing—but it also means everything is this close to going completely to shit.”

Absorbing the impact of a thousand unanticipated events, big and small, is why every ambitious restaurant kitchen feels the same during service. Everything is happening a little too quickly, everyone is intensely focused on the work at hand. There is a palpable tension in the space. The kitchen constantly skates along the edge of disaster and, if it is lucky, avoids going over it.


Who doesn’t want to build an adaptable and responsive team that can absorb unpredictability and uncertainty?

One way to understand how to do this is by considering something which at first seems quite distant. David Pye, a furniture-maker and for a time professor of design at the Royal College of Art, introduces the concept of the workmanship of risk in his book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (back in print and well worth owning):

“If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship,” Pye says, “I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The workmanship of risk’ ... With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation. In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single salable thing is made” (p20 of the 2008 Herbert Press reprint edition).

Important: “risk” here doesn’t mean “an unknown future where potential outcomes and their probabilities are known.” For Pye, risk has a meaning closer to “susceptible to destruction and spoliation.” He illustrates with the contrasting examples of mechanized printing in which the layout of the page is determined before printing begins (certainty) and handwriting where the layout of the overall product depends on the attention taken as each character is written (risk).

Like ambitious restaurant cooking, sophisticated calligraphic work requires intense focus. The movement of the pen or brush is only minimally controlled by external agency. There is much scope for spontaneity and hence for error and accident. The brush, too heavily loaded as it travels from inkstone to paper, leaves a trail of ink where none had been planned for. One part of the sheet of handmade paper is slightly more absorbent, causing the ink to unexpectedly spread and cloud.

The sophisticated calligrapher plans in advance (as a football or basketball team drills for weeks) to be spontaneous and responsive in the moment to such an eventuality. The plan evolves in real-time, changing so the ink trail becomes an ornament, the cloud of ink a part of the overall design. Moment by moment during the work, the calligrapher changes the plan to accommodate the unplanned and the emergent.

In the workmanship of risk, you cannot simply set it and forget it.


“There is something about the workmanship of risk, or its results; or something associated with it; which has been long and widely valued … The workmanship of risk has no exclusive prerogative of quality. What it has exclusively is an immensely various range of qualities, without which at its command the art of design becomes arid and impoverished” (p20-23).

Pye could have gone much further in considering the source of value in the workmanship of risk. What produces real value in the workmanship of risk is freedom to act. To be executed well, the workmanship of risk requires the operator to be in the moment, because of the many degrees of freedom available (here, the phrase carries a different implication from its most common usage in statistics). By intention, the workmanship of certainty removes as much freedom in action as possible—the operator of the printing press can only minimally affect what gets printed. In contrast, again by design, the workmanship of risk does not aim to minimize freedom to act—the calligrapher may be able to decide everything about how the text on the page is laid out and each character produced.

The workmanship of risk has higher variance in outcomes because the operator has more freedom to act—and thus more ways for disaster to strike. The other side of the coin is where value arises: this includes the freedom to take unplanned actions in response to unanticipated problems and developments. Losing focus means potential disaster; staying focused creates the potential for responsiveness, and adaptability. The one cannot be separated from the other.

In highlighting the two-sided nature of freedom to act, the workmanship of risk becomes relevant to teams and organizations facing uncertainty.


When designing a team and the work it does, you have a choice in how much freedom you build in. It’s tempting to try and parameterize work as fully as possible—to eliminate as much uncertainty from discretion as you can, to minimize the ways in which the organization can mess up.

The amount of freedom designed into teams and the work they do is directly connected to how responsive and adaptable those teams can be. Designing organizations to incorporate a large number of degrees of freedom comes with a tradeoff which is essential to make but hard to accept: the potential for adaptability and responsiveness comes with the potential for unanticipated disaster. The flip side is that a highly constrained organization may work well when things go according to plan, but may crumble when things do not.

The essential insights here are:

  1. Responsiveness and adaptation to external uncertainty requires freedom to act.

  2. Freedom to act creates potential for internal uncertainty.

  3. An organization’s ability to respond to external uncertainty is created by embracing internal uncertainty.


Not unrelated miscellany

  • Here’s a video of the calligrapher Tan Swie Hian talking about making of one of his pieces, including a commentary on responding to the inevitability of error and accident.

  • The British Library’s permanent gallery of treasures holds many hand-written books in which evidence of calligraphic responsiveness can be seen. You can see parts of the collection online here.

  • When a problem to be solved is emergent and incompletely parameterized, having a reflective conversation with the situation may be helpful (from Donald Schön’s book, The Reflective Practitioner).

  • Being free to act can be a choice, and when people choose to be free to act, they respond differently to situations they face. James Krenov, who taught furniture-making at the College of the Redwoods, began from an unusual perspective on material: “… there are people for whom wood and working with wood is not simply a profession but a very intimate thing: the relationship between the person and the material, and how they are doing it. I mean how they are doing it in the most intimate detailed sense; the relationship between wood and the tools that they use, between their feelings, their intuitions, and their dreams. Wood, considered that way, is to me alive” (from A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook). This broader perspective on wood influenced his approach to furniture design and making, which is planned but nonetheless responsive to emerging discovery of material affordance.

  • German has a specific word for ultra-high-dimensional awareness and situational responsiveness: Fingerspitzengefühl.

  • Michel de Certeau writes that acting tactically means always being “on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing’, [and being able to] constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities’ ... the intellectual synthesis of these given elements takes the form, however, not of a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is ‘seized’” (The Practice of Everyday Life, xix). The ideal is to be able to combine tactics (action in response to the situation as it presents itself in the moment) with strategy (advance planning). Organizations (and people) designed around extensive freedom to act have the potential to fuse strategy with tactics—the ideal union for responding to uncertain environments.


Currently on loop


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