#41: Surrendering control

It's good to be half-baked.

This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues hereMy first book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is about uncertainty, innovation, organizational design, and cutting-edge cuisine. You can get it here; you could also help me out by leaving a review somewhere after reading.

One of the not so secret purposes of this newsletter is self-therapy.

I resist putting writing out in public when the ideas aren’t completely developed. This is pathological in two ways. First, no idea is ever completely developed. Second, putting half-baked ideas out into the world improves them by exposing them to questions and criticisms from people who did not come up with the idea and are not blind to its flaws.

I finally admitted this pathology in the course of writing the book.

Last week’s issue probably did not make it clear that I produced almost nothing public connected to the book for nearly ten years. I got almost no external criticism on the ideas in the book until I wrote a draft of the whole manuscript and sent chapters to a large and diverse group of friends.

I accidentally forced myself to do this by emailing this group well before I wrote the draft, asking them to tell me which chapters they wanted to read. (You can see who they are in the acknowledgments, though I’m sure I’ve accidentally left people out 😬.) The public commitment was enough, just barely, to make me do it.

Their numerous comments and questions made me rewrite the draft manuscript almost entirely. That’s why structural edits took longer than writing the initial draft. I was fixing all sorts of boneheaded problems that only became visible because of outside readers’ comments. The book is much better because of this.

After the fact, I wished I’d shared the draft chapters even more widely and much earlier. In one specific instance, not sharing the draft chapters early also led directly to an enormous missed opportunity. Not sharing work in progress was extraordinarily dumb—and this is very clear to any rational, intelligent person.

The problem is that the root of the pathology is irrational: fear of making a mistake that results in public ridicule. There’s no way, through reasoning alone, to overcome the belief that going public with imperfectly formed ideas leads inevitably to disaster. So that email in which I committed to sending draft chapters out for comments was one of the most valuable accidental things I’ve ever done to myself.

In other words, the insights from the process of writing the book were:

  1. Presenting half-baked work publicly is extremely uncomfortable but really valuable—too valuable to continue avoiding.

  2. Willpower alone is not enough to make me do this.

  3. For that, a forcing function is needed too.

This newsletter is one of these forcing functions because I’m now committed publicly to writing and sending out a moderately lengthy piece of writing, often filled with half-baked ideas, every week. It is self-therapy because every issue that goes out makes it easier to send out a half-baked idea. (Though still not easy.)

In this spirit, what follows is an early version of something I’m writing for a Yak Collective project. It’s the beginning of the second half of a two-part contribution; you can see an early version of the first half here).

Surrendering control

Innovative ideas often bubble up from inside organizations, but leaders frequently kill them piecemeal. Sometimes they kill them without even realizing that they’re doing it. The cause is an unspoken—even unrecognized—fear that these innovative ideas will fail and tarnish the organization’s reputation. This gradual dilution of innovative work happens even when leaders know cognitively that failure is essential for organizations to survive and flourish.

It may be the same tendency as procrastinating about going to the dentist or the doctor, writ very large—and with consequences greater than getting a cavity. While the root of the problem is emotional, cognition may provide one solution to the problem. 

On his travels, Odysseus often uses cognition to defeat seemingly intractable situations created by non-cognitive forces. One episode of the Odyssey is particularly insightful. The ship he commands approaches the island of the Sirens, whose songs were known to be so seductive they would ineluctably draw sailors who heard them to row for the island and shipwreck on its shores. Odysseus wants to hear these songs but avoid shipwreck. He also recognizes that when he hears the Sirens’s song, he will be seduced like anyone else. In other words, his reason, in the absence of any cunning, will fail him. 

To solve the problem, he instructs his crew to first tie him to the mast, then to stop up their ears and row past the island. They are told to row just close enough to shore for him to hear the Sirens’s songs, and to ignore any subsequent orders from him until the island is out of earshot.

His solution directly addresses the problem by temporarily but irrevocably surrendering control to his crew within clearly parameterized boundaries: he has the crew bind him to the mast and gives the crew a meta-instruction to not deviate on any account from their instructions until a safe distance from the island is once more achieved. Odysseus uses cognition with cunning to solve a non-cognitive problem.

Leaders of more traditional organizations can take a leaf out of Odysseus’s strategy book to work around the problem of fear making them unwittingly dilute innovative work by their employees. 

The first step, which is the hardest, is to recognize and name the problem for what it is: fear causing leaders to not stay the course of doing innovative work. The second is to define the instructions that will free the crew to ignore the leader when s/he tries to intervene in their innovation work.

In an organization which has hired good people, the crew already knows what needs to be done. It often is just waiting for the leader to get out of the way. And so the third, but really the most important step, is for the leader to intentionally and irrevocably surrender control.

Midway through rewriting the draft manuscript, I realised that the seed of the idea was already in the book: self-imposed forcing functions to do something important that would otherwise be avoided. Part 6 is about how desperation by design forces teams and individuals to do arduous and uncertain innovation work. (Email me if you want to read Part 6 without buying the book.)

Green.

Photos: London (2020), Toronto (2017), Manhattan (2019), Bruton (2017).

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Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.