2017-10-30 concepts

Servant leadership & resilience engineering

Hey all -

Some good feedback last time from Jordan (“not relevant enough to everyday life”), Aaron (“title feels exhausting”) and my dad (“scope still too broad”).

+ what I learned or rediscovered recently

* Servant leadership

Brian Gilham writes: “Servant leadership turns the traditional model of management on its head. Instead of employees serving their bosses, leaders help their people. They teach others and provide opportunities for growth. Everyone on the team gets a chance to learn and advance.”

Servant leadership inverts the corporate hierarchy: managers do not exercise “ownership” or “direction” over the team’s projects, but rather, individual team members manage and have final say on their own projects. It’s a radical idea - could you imagine a workplace where the manager is actually subordinate to the team members? At the same time, I love the idea of managers - not as top-down decision-makers - but instead as bottom-up facilitators.

I am the first to admit that this comes off as a feel-good managerial philosophy, but I don’t think it has to: if you empower your team to make good decisions, then trust them to actually implement those decisions, you (but really your team) are able to tackle a much broader problem space than any individual manager could do alone.

* Resilience engineering

“Site reliability engineering,” popularized by Google, is all the rage right now in tech. In broad strokes, it’s about keeping complex systems alive and running (ie. reliable), as opposed to dead and unusable. It originates from the more general term, “reliability engineering,” which concerns how to reduce the probability of failure in complex systems. Failure could be a bridge collapsing, an electrical outage in a hospital, or a financial market crash. In reliability engineering, we elevate process over people to reduce the risk that someone trips over a power cable, forgets to switch on the security system, or fat fingers a stock price.

Dr. Richard Cook (medical doctor, that is) explores the other side of the coin: what happens when things go wrong?

Cook distinguishes between “systems as designed” and “systems as found.” Systems as designed are designed in advance of being used - they are built on rules, structure, procedures and flow charts. They assume a static, predictable, deterministic world and - given this idealized world - provide a reliable system that should minimize the risk of catastrophic failure. On the other hand, what we actually see in the wild are systems as found. They are chock-full of “operations people” - all reacting, anticipating, learning and adapting to a dynamic and unpredictable world. This system is resilient - it behaves more like an organism than a machine. Reliable systems are designed not to break, while resilient systems adapt and survive when things inevitably do break.

The reality is that systems as designed cannot conform to the vagaries of the real world: they are misconfigured, utilized beyond capacity, used in ways for which they weren’t designed, or often simply ignored. We can design for reliable systems, but we must ultimately rely on resilient systems and people during times of crisis.

+ here’s something i wrote

Risk is a distribution

There are a lot of things that seem risky and scary, but actually aren’t, such as giving a presentation or talking to someone at a bar. I remember in college how nervous I would get simply at the thought of raising my hand to ask a question. Of course, when we actually reflect on the risk, we can tell pretty quickly that there’s not a huge downside for most things (e.g. we won’t end up homeless or dead). I think a great way to approach decisions and to be proactive is to simply ask “what could go wrong?” If it’s not awful, then I think it’s worth trying.

+ parting thoughts

Aaron suggested a title change may be a good idea, so here’s a shot. Unfortunately I probably made the title even worse (at least from preliminary feedback), but I really like the imagery of breaking glass. I see most things - concepts, mental models, theories - as lenses through which we understand the world. We have frameworks for everything: how people behave (psychology), how culture evolves (sociology) and how life functions (biology). While these lenses describe the world, it doesn’t mean they’re actually true - after all, they’re just lenses (sometimes distorted) of an underlying truth.[1]

Take the orthodox view of the cosmos before Copernicus: all celestial bodies orbit the Earth. This lens - epicycles and all - did a pretty good job of explaining planetary movement. But it wasn’t true. Enter Copernicus and the heliocentric model. In fact, Copernicus argued, the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Lens. Shattered.

Cue the Scientific Revolution and a better approximation of what is actually true. You could say that, over time, these lenses get better and better at approximating the truth. Thankfully we’ve moved past some pretty warped lenses, including the flat Earth theory, medical treatment predicated on the “four humors,” and phrenology. Even today, we still use some pretty bad lenses: see the replication crisis in psychology (“power poses,” anyone?). In every case, it took someone challenging the status quo and having us consider new and heretical ideas - an almost reverse-confirmation bias.

Of course, we need lenses to understand the world - that’s just what we humans do. But had we never ditched old lenses for newer ones, we’d still be dying of the plague. It’s easy to be confident that we’re right; far harder is it to accept that we may be wrong. Breaking glass is how we advance the frontier of human knowledge - as well as our own personal knowledge - to better understand the natural world.

Thanks for reading,


[1] Credit goes to Aaron for getting me to think about this more.