Interaction Effects

We often talk about the world being made up of discrete entities or concepts. This is a helpful construct, but it’s also the case that interesting happens at the interfaces between them. Some examples that come to mind:

  • Nature vs Nurture (I). Epigenetics shows how the environment can change which genes are expressed.
  • Personality and Income. Some great research by Dr. Rong Su at Purdue University provides evidence that being a highly extroverted man hurts income potential when he comes from a low socioeconomic background but helpswhen he comes from a high socioeconomic background.
  • Nature vs Nurture (II) The latest evidence I’ve seen suggests that intelligence and personality show a high degree of heritability. Not at surprise to me. However, even much of what would we would call “environmental” factors are often themselves influenced by genetics. For example, the parents inclination to have books in the house or read to the child – or the child’s interest hanging out with certain kinds of people – is itself highly heritable.
  • The Myth of A-Players. There is often a belief that a person who has been successful in one environment will be an A-player in all. But the data and anecdotes don’t support that. Context matters. (Another reason why I think a lot about how to assemble teams and establish a culture.)

Most of this comes down to the fact that, in any complex system, everything is connected. We think of bees and flowers as separate things. But how long would either last without the other? My view? There is no bee or flower. There is only the bee-flower system. And so on.

We as humans are not particularly good at understanding the relationships between things that are separated by time and space. But just because we can’t intuit them easily doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Breaking down the system into parts may help us organize our thinking, but sometimes those conceptual distinctions can bias or limit our understanding.

The Disney Synergy Map

Those of you who know me well know I love maps, diagrams, and systems. I also love when people combine “left-brain” and “right-brain” thinking. This is one of the reasons I love architecture: it’s engineering and art combined.

Walt Disney was a genius at this. He is obviously known for his masterful animation, storytelling, and his vision for Disneyland. But what many not appreciate is the incredible number of technical advances that he and his team pioneered to enable such art to be created. (If you haven’t seen it and are interested, the American Experience documentary on his life is fascinating).

Given this, imagine my delight when I first found this diagram that Walt created in 1957 to lay out Disney’s strategy. It was known as the “Synergy Map”:

There are so many reasons why I love this. The scope of the vision. The understanding of how the pieces fit into the whole. The brilliance of the feedback loops. And – in pure Disney Magic – the characters running around the map.

I’ve had this saved on my computer for several years now and recently had a copy printed and framed on my wall. It inspires me every time I look at it.

Attention as the Constraint

Every system only has one to a few constraints that keep it from performing better. Sometimes this is due to an outdated or incorrect policy. Sometimes it’s due to a limited resource. Identifying and addressing the constraint in a system is the only way to meaningfully improve its performance.

Several years ago I had the (not unique, I’m sure) realization that human attention is often the constraint in many systems. Evidence for this being true is the fact that many of the most valuable businesses in the world today – Facebook, Google, Netflix, just to name a few – are valuable precisely because they’ve become highly effective in capturing, directing, and monetizing people’s attention.

Within an organization, often times the constraint is management attention: from the CEO, the executive team, the board, etc. How the CEO in particular manages her attention is one of the biggest – though far from the only – determinants of success.

I read somewhere recently that “the biggest barrier to scale at a startup isn’t capital, it’s the time & attention to design and run experiments testing the core tenets of the business.” I don’t know if I’d necessarily word it exactly like that, but I think it’s close.