Tempo: timing, tactics and strategy in narrative-driven decision-making

For years I have been an avid reader of Venkatesh Rao’s blog Ribbon Farm.  In 2011 Venkatesh released a  book called, Tempo: timing, tactics and strategy in narrative-driven decision-making. I consider this book to rank with Nassim Taleb’s books as required reading for multidisciplinary thinkers and strategists.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

“Tempo is a modern treatment of decision-making that weaves together concepts and principles from the mathematical decision sciences, cognitive psychology, philosophy and theories of narrative and metaphor. Drawing on examples from familiar domains such as the kitchen and the office, the author, Venkatesh Rao, illustrates the subtleties underlying everyday behavior, and explains how you can strengthen the foundations of your decision-making skills.”

First, let’s start with some context; most decision makers have been taught to think of decision making by focusing on understanding “what, why, and how” (what can be called “calculative rationality). The author turns this assertion on its head emphasizing the importance of thinking about “when, where, and who”  when making decisions.

“Information work also elevates the roles of when, where and who above the roles of what, why and how in decision-making. Most of what has been written about decision-making, both popular and scholarly, has focused on the latter triad. What gives you the study of options. Why gives you the study of causation, motivation, reward and punishment. How leads you to the classic problems of means-ends reasoning, such as planning and scheduling.”

“Risk, learning and information are central to calculative rationality. By contrast, in narrative rationality, mortality is the central concern.relationship among risk, learning and information seems deceptively simple: every decision is based on what you know (information), and risk assessments associated with what you don’t know. Learning helps you increase usable information and lower risk.”

“Calculative rationality focuses on risks (specifically, risks that can be modeled a priori), learning and information primarily because you can bring a great deal of very sophisticated mathematics to bear models to accommodate phenomena that we haven’t encountered before. The open world is a world that includes what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns” and Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “black swans” (rare, highly consequential events). This necessarily requires accommodation of periods of high entropy in mental models, while fundamentally new and unexpected information is being incorporated.

“Mortality is the central fact about them. Decision-makers can die in two ways: accidentally, through the impact of unknown-unknowns, or through the accumulation of entropy, as the open world catches up with them. Thinkers such as Taleb have eloquently and elegantly considered the former, but for us, it is the second kind of mortality that is interesting.three laws of thermodynamics are:  You cannot win.  You cannot break even. You cannot quit the game. Some people add a zeroth law: you must play the game.”

So, in my view the book is about becoming a better decision maker  by understanding “tempo” which according to the author results in boosting your narrative rationality. By “tempo” the author means;

“I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.”

“Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion and energy.”

Emotion results when you force yourself, or some part of the environment, to operate at a faster or slower tempo than it likes. To change a tempo you must add or remove energy by applying a force.

“The collection of behaviors involved in managing tempo is what people mean by the phrase sense of timing, and there is a lot going on beneath the sublime moments in comedy or stock trading that they have in mind when they use the phrase.”

By “Narrative Rationality” the author is referring to;

“Narrative rationality is an approach to decision-making that starts with an observation that is at once trivial and profound: all our choices are among life stories that end with our individual deaths… there is no such thing as non-narrative thought, free of possible worlds and ongoing enactments. There are always multiple narratives at work, framing our perceptions, memories, active thoughts, decisions and actions.”

“By relative rationality, I mean that there is no privileged, narrative-independent model of decision-making that can be labeled absolutely rational. Models of rationality lie inside the mental”

“Narrative rationality is the ability to think, make decisions, and act in ways that make sense with respect to the most compelling and elegant story that you can improvise about a developing enactment.”

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“Work is simply whatever we must do to get from one decision to the next.”

“….not to let the unpleasantness of tasks mislead you into overestimating their magnitude.”

“Your calendar is not an empty container. It is a landscape of invisible energy and emotion associated with all the things that are going on in your life.”

“Well-designed decision-making contexts are full of reasonably rational embedded systems and processes, which chug along, making vast numbers of default decisions for you, or cueing you at appropriate times, for decisions that cannot be automated.”

“Desires evolve in similar ways: a preference can turn into an aversion; new tastes can be acquired. New desires can change the order of preference among old ones.Each is a special kind of possible world, made up of a history and an expectation. A history is a possible world that you claim might be true, while an expectation is a possible world that might become a history, in part as a consequence of your actions.”

“Procrastination occurs when we delay a context switch by adding more momentum to our current mental model, thereby making it harder to displace.Procrastination usually takes the form of displacement, which allows us a safe outlet for the emotions we are trying to avoid.”

“Your most stable beliefs, the ones that actually modulate your behavior, aren’t about life purposes; they are about momentum management. You are more likely to switch religions than to switch from an impatient to a patient temperament.”

“Mental models are made of beliefs, desires, and intentions”

“Beliefs create or constrain possibilities, desires lead to preferences among them, and intentions represent commitments to specific courses of action.”

“As we age, we become more doctrinaire and less capable of open-world learning. Narrative-rational decision-makers necessarily age over time.”

“In most situations, you can learn a lot faster by doing than by watching, but unfortunately, action also exposes you to more near-term risk than watching. This is because most environments, even dangerously unstable ones, are relatively quiescent unless disturbed. They do not reveal much under normal circumstances. You typically have to do something in order to provoke a reaction from the environment. Such provocation reveals useful information that can drive an enactment forward.”

“Note two features of natural exploratory behaviors: they are fundamentally iterative (the actions are designed to produce feedback, which triggers further actions), and they involve a certain amount of anxiety, which implies stress. Exploratory behaviors are naturally correlated with high-energy defensive behaviors (fight-or-flight) as a high-probability follow-on, and therefore involve anticipatory stress.”

“A conceptual metaphor is a systematic structuring of meaning in one domain in terms of our understanding of another domain.”

“Strategy is about the big picture/long-term; tactics are about the details/short-term.”

“Strategy is about what you want to do; tactics are about how you do it.”

“Strategy is about winning the war; tactics about winning individual battles.”

“Tactics is about what to do; strategy is about why you should do it.”

“Amateurs worry about strategy and tactics while professionals worry about operations.”

“You could therefore describe normal human thought as a balancing act between sensing realistically, and seeing through simplified platonic abstractions.”

“When we create, our work usually reveals a bias towards one side or the other. The more we desire control and comprehension, the greater the extent to which the realities we see are simplified by the platonic categories of our mind, before emerging as creations at the other end.”

“Many people fail when they attempt to get organized because they make the mistake of striving for legibility and meaningfulness to an external eye, by imposing conventional or received social meanings onto personal realities. They may strive for external legibility consciously: I want my boss to see how organized I am.” This means they focus on the peripheral (filing, labeling, stacking things geometrically). These aspects of organization are secondary and subservient to meaning. They may even be counter-productive when they don’t align with the meanings in the significant mental models. The externalizations of your mental models only have to be legible and meaningful to others to the extent that you must share meaning with them.”

“System-process thinking is a specific kind of authoritarian high modernism usually known as Taylorism, after the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He was a neurotic genius, management pioneer and author of the seminal 1919 book, The Principle of Scientific Management. Taylor’s influence led to some of the worst authoritarian high-modernist debacles of the twentieth century, and as a result his ideas are commonly demonized today.”

“Shared mental models must include organizational self-archetypes and doctrines, just as individual mental models must include individual-level self-archetypes and doctrines.”

“Where complex realities are to be grown rather than constructed, the role of the individual orchestrator is limited to catalyzing the emergence of the right shared mental models in the early stages. This includes planting the seed of an organizational self-archetype and doctrine that is appropriate to the raison d’etre of the organization. Once the process is underway, the orchestrators can do little: the organization dances itself into existence and self-awareness.”

“Of the many conceits with which we humans burden ourselves, perhaps none is deeper than the conceit that our lives, unlike those of other animals, must be meaningful.so we conclude that the unexamined life is not worth living. Equally, most of us conclude, the unlived life is not worth examining. If there is an overarching theme to this book, it is ultimately this tension between action and contemplation.”

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book on Amazon

About Miguel Barbosa

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13. March 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology, Risk & Uncertainty, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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