Non-Violent Communication and Its Nietzschean Foundation

I truly love Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication — not because of its apparent but delusive, hippy “seek-for-compassion-and-love-everyone” -tone, but because of its solid nietzschean foundation.

Yes, for the techniques and practices of Non-Violent Communication the core is in compassion and empathy. Nietzsche doesn’t emphasize compassion and empathy, quite the contrary. Then again, the philosophy behind the praxis is similar: Rosenberg underlines the same underlying principles that are essential for Nietzsche as well: (i) intellectual honesty, (ii) complete but not blind affirmation of your needs and urges, and (iii) vitalistic emphasis on positive, life-affirmative thinking over negative, afterlife-centric thinking.

Non-Violent Communication (NVC) in nutshell

To condense, the core idea of Non-Violent Communication is to reflect a bit longer than normally what for you see, feel and need as you do before responding anything:

The ordinary way to think and communicate bases on a fast loop: The synthesis of observations and needs composes a feeling or feelings and the feelings trigger immediate reaction. A feeling emerges from a situation, but we do not know exactly how and why. Therefore our ability to emotional control is not only impaired but also arbitrary and random.

For instance, a teammate says something wrong to you and suddenly you feel angry and react immediately accordingly. Oftentimes you even don’t identify that you actually feel angry before you say “f*** you!” or do something similar. The loop from impression to reaction is often incredibly fast. “F*** you!” is a reaction to an impression that our teammate said something wrong. It is not reaction to what actually happened or what the other person actually intended to do.

According to NVC, it’s by default unclear “what my feelings are”, “what my needs are”, and “what is the actual situation I’m a part of”. They all are inseparable and uncontrollable part of the impression of a situation. Sometimes we instinctively reflect the situation, see things clearly and control ourselves; sometime we just lose our temper. The chain of thoughts behind this is usually ill seen. Thus, our behavior is more or less random.

NVC makes a small change to this mechanism: Just like above, the observed situation produces to feeling(s) as a part of an impression and the impression relates subconsciously to my needs. After this I should reflect how needs, feelings and observations are related: What I actually feel apart from the impression (in image 1, NVC 1)? Why I feel the way I feel and how the feelings are produced from my needs (in image 1, NVC 3)? How the observed situation activates the needs behind the feelings (in image 1, NVC 2)? This kind of reflection will extend and change the impression by making the related observations, needs and feelings more clear, honest and separate.

The key question in NVC is “do I control the impact the other’s messages and reactions causes in me?” (See image 2 below). Unlike in rationalism, the control here does not mean devaluation of emotions and suspension from them. Rather the control means emotional honesty (i.e. what I truly feel and need?) and emotional clarity (i.e. what really happened and what parts of my impression are colored by the lenses of my needs and personality?). NVC does not propose emotional control in that sense that the rational mind should control the emotions! In NVC the point is that the emotional mind should not bang its head to concrete wall but rather use doors and evade obstacles – not because it’s rational but because banging your head to concrete wall is prima facie stupid and actually, the rational mind is needed to make such a headache desirable.

Nietzsche and NVC

It’s ironical, that Nietzsche’s philosophy of power seems to be rather far from Rosenberg’s thinking as the philosophical roots seems more or less the same.

I have a theory: the delusive difference is caused by the fact, that Rosenberg focuses on feelings and Nietzsche focuses on the values. On the time of Nietzsche, feeling were seen as second class citizens compared to the values. On the time of postmodern pluralism, the situation is almost opposite. The values are often considered just opinions while the feelings, needs and observations are real neurophysiological facts. However, if you put NVC and Nietzsche’s ideas to the same puzzle, the pieces fit together seamlessly. Nonetheless, they both clearly discuss on healthy and honest relation between consciousness, world around and my needs:

Example: Blame

The connection between NVC and Nietzsche become obvious as Rosenberg underlines (i) in the chapter five the importance to accept own feelings and take responsibility for them and as he emphasize (ii) in chapter six the importance of clarity and clearness of thoughts.

When someone gives a negative message we have four options: (1) blame ourselves, (2) blame others, (3) sense our own feelings and needs and (4) sense other’s feelings and needs. Nietzsche uses different terms for blaming ourselves. On one hand “blaming ourselves” is bad consciousness and on the other hand it is life aversive asceticism. Blaming others is resentment. Instead of an attempt to face another person resentment re-frame the other as an evil or otherwise bad person. For Nietzsche, options 3 and 4 are something that happens behind good and evil and are examples of what Nietzsche calls evaluation of all values.

While Rosenberg’s claims that “vague use language contributes to internal confusion” Nietzsche seems to say the exactly same of the values: vague transcendental, higher values (like good, evil, wrong, justice, truthfulness, freedom, etc.) contributes internal confusion.

On the later part of Rosenberg’s book, the connection gets stronger and stronger. On chapter nine Rosenberg criticizes self-judgment: “These speakers [that condemns themselves by statements like ‘That was dumb!’, ‘How could you do such a stupid things?’, ‘That was selfish!’, etc.] had been though to judge themselves in ways that imply that they did wrong or bad; their self-admonishment implicitly assumes that they deserve to suffer for what they’ve done. It is tragic that so many of us get enmeshed in self-hatred rather than benefit from our mistakes, which show us our limitations and guide us toward growth.”

Wow! That was exactly the Nietzsche’s point: don’t hate yourselves because of the values you’ve been given as a poisonous dowry. Rather face everything as an opportunity to live the worthiest possible life.

Sum up

For sake of brevity I won’t justify my claim more extensively. Instead, I recommend that you should read “On the Genealogy of Morals” from Nietzsche or Giles Deleuze’s excellent Nietzsche interpretation “Nietzsche and Philosophy” in order to deeply understand the (incidentally) radical philosophical foundation of NVC.

Nietzsche writes on from eagle’s perspective while Rosenberg’s perspective is alike a lion. They both are lonely, noble beasts rather than evangelists of consensus: honorable, open confrontation is more worthy than fearful aversion of conflicts and resentmental submission. They both underlines intellectual honesty and life-affirmative vitalism. The only real difference is that Nietzsche is more likely to leave the conflicts unresolved while Rosenberg is more likely to leave the values beyond needs unarticulated.

120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators

This is the third part of the series “Busyness, Productivity and Creativity”. The series consists following parts:

  1. Being creative and productive despise of the insane working pace
  2. Two organization anti-patterns: Urgency as Thread and Busyness as Heroism
  3. The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics for Cadence
  4. 120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators

In the second part, I claimed that there are four types of urgency and busyness: (1) urgency/busyness as a mechanism of manipulation, (2) urgency/busyness as a necessary part of the system, (3) urgency/busyness as a heuristic indicator, (4) urgency/busyness as a motivator. In the second entry I introduced the first two and in the previous one the third. In this entry I’m going to the last type. I’m not saying that experienced busyness or urgency per se motivates. It does not, the proximity of busyness might motivate.

“Urgency as a goal” is an anti-pattern

Years ago one of my colleagues was leading an important project in another company. The project didn’t proceed as planned and the original deadline looked impossible. His manager got a great idea: Seemingly developers don’t have enough motivation to deliver in time, so let motivate them a bit. He ordered my colleague to tell his team that if the software is not ready until day X they all will be fired.

My colleague did so and the team, indeed, delivered in time. Absolutely great management if you don’t take into account few minor complications: the solution was practically worth of nothing and almost unmaintainable, and the team was pissed off and fatigued. The team dropped off the most good practices – including testing – in order to deliver in time. As a consequence, the result was crap and they used next half a year or so to just to fix bad code and bugs.

That’s how it works. If you force people to do things within unrealistic time schedule, they often invent a way to get things done within that time – by cheating
and by compromising the real goals. Following diagram clarifies what probably happened:

Click to see bigger image(Click the image to see bigger version)

The pattern is actually exactly the same than in an anecdote from Soviet Union: The central authority specified that a nail factory must deliver, say, 120 000 nails per day. That was far over the factory’s capacity. However, cleaver Russian engineers invented a way to do it. They made nails very thin. As a result they went much over the goal. Great – except no-one had use for such a thin nails. As a consequence the central authority corrected the goal. Now the factory’s goal was defined in tons. The goal wasn’t more realistic, nonetheless. Again, clever Russian engineers invented a way to achieve the goal: they made the nails ridiculously big. Again they easily achieved the goal. And again the result was tons of waste. No-one had use for such big nails. (I’ve seen many versions of this anecdote. This one probably isn’t historically the most accurate one. The illustrative story is more important that strict historical correctness.)

Click to see bigger image(Click the image to see bigger version)

Fight or Flight – reactions to urgency

“Deliver this-and-that solution before day X, or else I shall fire you.” That sounds a bad deal. No-one want to choose between two bad things. Instead of that, the people will seek for the third option and minimize the loss. In this case, the third option was non-working software in time.

Manager’s intuition probably was that now people want to “beat the challenge”. He probably thought that the tight time frame is just a problem among other and now, the team is more eager to solve the problem. That’s what we do for living on this industry: we solve problems – technical problems, communication problems, all kind of problems.

Here we come to the context omission fallacy. Consider the diagram below:

(Click the image to see bigger version)

The manager was not panicked and threatened, and he had the organization’s support. For him, the deadline he set seemed to be and also was just challenging problem solving and hard work. Within this context he would have rather beat the challenge than avoided it. Indeed, there is nothing inherently bad and painful in the hard deadline per se – or in urgency. You can see it just as a problem to solve and an interesting challenge. The manager assumed that the team would think similarly.

However, the natural reaction in this kind of situations greatly depends on the support you think you have and the feeling of safeness. If you are alone, you are less likely to take any risks. You also have tendency to see the all problems and challenges as risks. If you can fail to solve them, you will get punished because of that – directly or indirectly. The team was more or less alone: if they fought and failed, they would be fired. So, there was neither rational nor emotional reasons to take the challenge rather than avoid it. Therefore, for the team, there was just one real problem: how to minimize pain and loss?

Nearby and not quite here-and-now

I said this already in the previous entry and now I say this again: The busyness is a great thing as long as it is nearby and not quite here-and-now.

The same logic is true for excitement in general. In horror movies terrible events are exciting just because they are only nearby and not quite here-and-now. In competitive games, the anxiety caused by the uncertainty and the artificial conflict is just fine, because it is only nearby and not quite here-and-now. You can stop playing or watching the movie at any time and get rid of anxiety. They are in control. And so forth.

If I make myself busy, I’ve a lot of things to do. That’s fine. If you make me busy, you mess up my day. A significant difference. The person who is or will be busy, must have the control over his busyness. If you make a person busy, he won’t be motivated by the busyness. He doesn’t have time for that.

Sometimes urgency nearby is highly motivating. E.g. a site is being bombarded by unceasing denial of service attacks. The urgency in this situation can be motivating, because it allows a developer to signify and glorify his own work without necessity to enter into the maelstrom of busyness. Actually, it’s his choice how he face the urgency and if he switch to busywork mode.

A manager or a customer can easily ruin the motivation by taking the control over urgency and busyness from the person. Probably the easiest way to poison the source of motivation is blame: “This is your code. Why didn’t you take this into account…? Now, fix it!” The blame can also be implicit like in repetition: “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” The later one is a blame, since it presuppose that the developer doesn’t already try to write a fix as soon as possible.

Honest and understandable busyness

If urgency and busyness is used as a motivator, they must be honest and psychologically understandable. This is often a problem when the investors’ expectations are used as an excuse for busyness and busywork.

“If this project is not ready till day X, we cannot attain its profitability targets.”

“So what? Those obscure objectives belongs to your game, not ours…”

There are only small number of persons for whom profitability target is an honest and understandable motivation. The most people want to have good products and good projects. The profit is a side-effect of them. Setting a side-effect as the main goal is not quite honest and psychologically understandable for the most.

I’m not saying that the profit is unimportant but that the way it motivates does not fit in my everyday life very well. I cannot use it efficiently to signify my work. Therefore, I’m not going to be busy because of profit, and I’m not going to do overwork just because of the profitability of a project or a company. It’s far easier to get motivation for overwork for instance, if you want to show something damn cool next week (and not later), and you won’t get it done in time otherwise.

“I want to be respected by others” is honest and psychologically understandable goal. If it means busyness, I’m oftentimes completely okay with that. Compare it to “I really-really want to do some more profit for the company and investors!” That is neither honest nor understandable for the most people, because the most of us are not brainless servants of venture capitalists – or alternatively paralyzed by decent amount of modern embarrassment killer, money.

Busyness as addiction

There is a significant different between “Gosh, they really need my effort as I’m all the time so busy” and “Oh dear, there’s so much to do… Fortunately, my work has a purpose”.

The busyness can be highly addictive. The busyness become addictive once excessive demand of your effort substitutes the need to do purposeful work. Notice the category difference: busyness override a need. Thinking of SCARF model and the needs our brains have, it’s easy to understand this addiction. Excessive demand of your effort makes you feel more important (need of status) and then, it delusively makes you feel more related to others (need of relatedness).

In a way, heroin addiction motivates the junkie to get more heroin. Yet, I’d like to distinct addiction from motivation. A busyness junkie – a workaholic – is not motivated by urgency and busyness, he is addicted to it.

Referred and used literacy

Apello, J. (2011). Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders.

Cohn, M. (2009). Succeeding with Agile.

DeMarco, T. & Lister, T. (1999). PeopleWare – Productive Projects and Teams. 2nd Edition.

DeMarco, T. (2002). Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency.

Kennaley, M. (2010). SDLC 3.0: Beyond a Tacit Understanding of Agile.

Leffingwell, D. (2011). Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise.

Poppendieck, M. & Poppendieck, T. (2006). Implementing Lean Software Development.

Reinertsen, D. G. (1997). Managing the Design Factory.

Reinertsen, D. G. (2009). The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development.

Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work.

Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. (referred 14.8.2013)

Rother, M. (2009). Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results.

Sheddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control: A Better Way to Make the Work Work.

The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics for Cadence

This is the third part of the series “Busyness, productivity and creativity”. The series consists following parts:

  1. Being creative and productive despise of the insane working pace
  2. Two organization anti-patterns: Urgency as Thread and Busyness as Heroism
  3. The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics of Cadence
  4. 120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators

In the previous part, I claimed that there are four types of urgency and busyness. (1) urgency/busyness as a mechanism of manipulation, (2) urgency/busyness as a necessary part of the system, (3) urgency/busyness as a heuristic indicator, (4) urgency/busyness as a motivator. In the previous entry I introduces the first two. In this entry I discuss urgency and busyness as a heuristic indicator. I have now explaining the two most common ways why urgency is devastating and wasteful. Now I’m going to have a look at why and how urgency and busyness can also be a good thing.

The Significance of Cadence

In “Succeeding with Agile” Mike Cohn discuss why Scrum initially recommended four week sprints rather than six week sprints or even longer. They had experimented six week sprints and found out that they usually got nothing done during the first weeks because the deadline was so far away. Four week cadence worked better. I presume that nowadays the cadence in Scrum-projects is often even shorter, two or three weeks. Cohn is not the only one who had found out that relatively short iterations work best. For instance, Kanban (and the lean software development methodologies in general) recommends to minimize the cycle time, even if the increasing urgency forces you to do big changes to specification, quality assurance and deployment practices. In the lean methodology, ideally, it should be possible to go live at any day.

The reason why short iterations and cycle time works is not urgency per se, but cadence related to it. The mathematical queue theory explains nicely why short cadence works from one perspective – and partially. I’m not going to discuss that now. Rather, I discuss why relatively fast cadence works from phenomenological and psychological perspective. I argue that from phenomenological point of view, the cadence of work and cadence of music or dance (etc.) are very similar: very slow rhythm is approximately as hard to maintain as very fast one, while a relatively fast but not too fast cadence is the easiest to manage.

If the cadence is too slow, it is hard to keep the rhythm instinctively. Usually you need to start counting: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-bang-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-bang. Etc. This is true in software projects also. If the deadlines are too far away or the cadence is otherwise too slow, you cannot just trust your memory, instincts and gut feelings but you necessarily need Excels and other helpers to keep on track. You may even need a role whose only responsibility is to ensure the cadence; ensure the milestones and keep track of the tasks. This kind of role is needed especially if there is no proper cadence. 1-2-3-bang-1-bang-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-bang and so on. The lack of proper cadence is waste of people potential and a recipe to poorly performing team: it’s hard to dance well, if there is no proper rhythm and it’s even harder to enjoy the dance – even the silence is better.

On the other hand, if the rhythm is too fast, you start missing beats and eventually the music turn into cacophony. Again the analogy to software projects is straightforward: if the cadence is too fast, you start missing deadlines and forgetting things. This is a well-known psychological fact (see e.g. David Rock, “Your Brain at Work). For some reason, this is not obvious in the project management. “The more challenging deadline, the harder and faster you need to work”, we tend to think. Eventually, a project becomes a big ball of mud.

If you want to do things faster, you have first learn to do things fast, and that requires a lot of practice. You have to start slowly and with small steps. The more complex is the choreography, the more repletion you need until you can manage the movement when the cadence is fast. If you try to do things faster than you really can, you will mess up everything. If someone whispers your ears “faster, faster” all the time, you probably will, indeed, screw up faster. This is very true also in projects and software industry. Actually, this is obvious in almost everywhere else where the cadence is crucial – music, dance, martial arts, and so forth – but not in software industry.

Busyness as a heuristic indicator

“Hey, wait. You said, that you are going explain, in what sense urgency and busyness is a good thing.” Yes and still going to.

Busyness and urgency are good as a heuristic of the optimal performance and as a warning sign of shoals. I’m saying that busyness is a great thing as long as it is nearby but not quite here-and-now. The best cadence for work is much closer to urgency and busyness than boredom and idleness. The optimum performance and productivity is achieved by working nearby the capacity of the organization.

I slow down a bit and start from the systems in which the cadence is paid no attention at all. Both (2) too fast and (3) too slow working pace lead not only to suboptimal performance but are the root cause for other kind of problems.

(Click the image to see bigger version)

There are studies that states that after two weeks of overwork the net results are lower than they was before the overwork. E.g. before overwork you completed 10 units of work per week, after two weeks of overwork you are able to complete only 9. The benefit of overwork is negative (see e.g. Mike Cohn, Succeeding in agile and Lister & DeMarco, PeopleWare). This Fatigue (1a) is devastating because it lower productivity per time unit, and also because it leads to the high level of defects and technical debt (=the solution become hard to change and maintain; 1b & 1c). Because of fatigue, lower quality and technical debt the net effort fluctuate strongly (4).

The too slow pace is less harmful than too fast. In addition to the fact, that you obviously get less things done (as you work under the optimum capacity), the organization’s ability to learn is severed. The reason is to this is twofold: (i) the feedback loop is longer and (ii) people easily become more passive if the natural activity is artificially pushed down (for sake of the process). In addition, maintaining the overly slow cadence usually requires quite a much management overhead.

Actually, in the overly slow organizations and processes, there’s a lot of similar with butoh dance. I’m simply amazed by the control of body and mind that the grotesque and often unnaturally slow movement must require.

Mark Kennaley suggests in “SDLC 3.0 – Beyond a Tacit Understanding of Agile” that maximally efficient organization can learn quickly its capacity via experimenting (1) by experiment. Once the optimum is found it just need to adjust the amount of work to it (2). According to Kennaley this is the optimal performance an organization can achieve in the ideal situation:

(Click the image to see bigger version)

I partly disagree. Kennaley underestimates the potential of learning and of the improvements in the system. I believe that the optimum performance is achieved by keeping the amount of work slightly under the capacity of organization. In this sense, urgency and busyness are a heuristic for the optimum, natural cadence and performance: first work so hard that you feel a bit busy or – even better – almost busy, then slow down immediately and reflect how to avoid that shoal of busyness you just faced.

(Click the image to see bigger version)

I’m not saying that people will learn to do the same thing faster. That would be naïve. People do learn to do things slightly faster, but that improvement is not important at all. I argue that the capacity of an organization can raise if (and only if) people are able to do more the correct value-adding things and they need to do less the unnecessary or wasteful things. Obviously, doing all the time better and faster anything, won’t necessarily add value at all, and thus it does not make the organization more efficient.

In short, slack is needed for reflection of those things the sufficient amount of urgency and busyness reveals and that would make us busy if we don’t change the system. Without urgency and busyness you won’t see what you should do more efficiently – instead you do random things better.


Next, “120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators“.

Two common leadership anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism

This is the second part of the series “Busyness, productivity and creativity”. The series consists following parts:

  1. Being creative and productive despise of the insane working pace
  2. Two organization anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism
  3. The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics for Cadence
  4. 120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators

On part one I pointed out that an organization may perform well and be creative despise of rush. Yet, usually rush reduces creativity and performance. In the second part of the series I discuss, why pressure sometimes increases performance, and why it doesn’t most of the time.

I have identified four different types of urgency and busyness: (1) urgency/busyness as mechanism of manipulation, (2) urgency as a necessary part of the system, (3) urgency as a heuristic indicator, (4) urgency as a motivator. I’m not going to explain why I have ended up this kind of classification. I just try to show the variety of ways urgency and busyness exists in the work life. In this blog post is discuss two wasteful and devastating types of urgency. In the next one I will analyze a useful and good type of urgency/busyness.

Urgency as blame

Some people seem to think that a thread of fear makes people work harder. The logic is basically the same as the logic of slavery: people are willing to do things they would not otherwise want to only if they have to fear something worse. Unfortunately, the effect is opposing to people who like their work: it makes them averse or even hate it; it makes them less motivated to do it well.

An examples clarifies this. Say a customer needs a software system by December. Let’s presume that that it would be not completely possible to deliver the solution in time but also very probable. Even if the initial deadline was realistic, the project failed. The reason to the failure was artificially created urgency that was meant to be motivating.

Following diagram depicts what happened and why the project failed:

So what happened?

  1. First, the customer (=one who pays for the software) buffered risks and told to the supplier that the deadline is two months earlier than it really was. Including a risk buffer to the schedule is certainly a good practice. However, often the risk buffer is hidden due distrust. Instead, what is told is that this is a high risk project, and it have to be ready by day X. The customer believes that the supplier anyway will miss the deadline and if they know the real DL they are likely to miss it too.
  2. Often the supplier’s manager thinks in similar way. In this example, he doesn’t trust in the implementation team since the team have often missed the deadline – even the one they have told realistic. Managers don’t often see the unreasonable and unrealistic expectation as a partial reason to the missed deadlines. That’s the case also in this example. It’s psychologically far easier to subconsciously blame the others than to seek the root reason from the system you are part of. Therefore the manager adds an additional, hidden risk buffer and tells the team that deadline is on August. The real deadline is hidden, since – this is how many people thinks – the people will use the all the available time they have for a task anyway.
  3. As a consequence of (1) and (2) the time schedule is completely unrealistic. As the team complained that they need at least two more months to get things done, they were told that “this is a risky project but we have to try anyway”. Secretly the manager was satisfied. The team’s estimate was aligned with the deadline the customer set and now, by setting the tight deadline the team will try harder. It’s not a surprise that the deadline was missed.
  4. The implementation team feels inadequate and insufficient, even if everyone knew that the DL was unrealistic (4a). Also the manager pretends to be surprised and slightly dissatisfied. Nonetheless, he softens the implicit blame by telling that the company took conscious risk as it tried to implement the solution within this tight schedule. Of course that is not quite true, as there were two months hidden in the risk buffer. “Luckily” the team is given a second chance (4b). The DL is moved by 2 months, and now “we really must keep this schedule, otherwise we have serious problems”. The urgency as a thread and blame is recreated as even worse than it was. As this happens more than once or twice, people stop trusting management and become more and more cynical toward the project (4c) “These projects are always late – who cares” attitude replaces the positive optimism and will to success.
  5. This kind of urgency and pressure has few notable side effects: First, people have the tendency to hesitate. Second, they also often get fatigued by trying harder and harder. People who hesitate and are fatigued make far more mistakes. We all know that. The third side-effect of the urgency and busyness is that managers think “now we are needed more than ever”. The worse the project status, the more time managers seem to require for different kind of “fire fight” meetings and reports that helps them to do “wise decisions”. Common sense says that if the ship is sinking you should either let it sink and save the crew, or let crew focus fully on saving the ship. This is not how the system works in the software industry; instead the focus is often in the manager’s survival plan and in their ability to do decisions. Due to all hesitation, fatigue and wrong focus the team not only misses the managers’ hidden deadline but also the customer’s real deadline.
  6. Next time the manager and the customer secretly reserve an even bigger risk margin and by doing so makes the schedules once again ridiculous. By doing this they follows DeMarco’s and Listers’s first rule of bad management: If something is not working, do more of it.

Urgency/busyness as a mechanism of manipulation

The example above illustrates how urgency and blame substitutes trust and collaboration. Urgency and busyness are powerful tools of manipulation. The false deadline is one the most common pattern how the urgency and busyness is used in management – there are many others.

The algorithm behind this and other similar patterns is very simple: (1) Set such (unrealistic) goals that people will work hard in order to not fail, but most likely they will still fail. (2) Once they have failed, create implicit blame and offer the second chance. As people have failed they are more willing to obey and they less likely protest whatever you do and decide. They also feel that they are not worthy, and therefore it’s hard for them to ask more salary, or other benefits. Why should a company pay more form people who fail often? The manager just need to make people see this logic: you are losers and therefore you have to obey the one who will clean up the mess you’ve created (that’s me) and you must not ask for any benefits because you are not worth of them. “The second change” directs the workers attention away from the managers themselves back to the work. It’s a necessary part of this ‘sleight of hand’. Otherwise the workers might realize that actually, the management is the loser-maker, and not take the blame.

The worst thing in this all is that the most managers don’t consciously use this kind of patterns. They seemingly don’t understand this logic. Instead, they think that this kind of misuse of urgency is a good management practice. They even may see the problems caused by the popular leadership anti-patterns, but they don’t have courage to be critical and do the conclusions. “This is how I’m supposed to behave. This is what people expect from me.” It’s just fine that people become cynical and the projects keep on failing – that’s the way the world work; I can’t do nothing. The urgency and busyness become necessary – that’s the second devious form of urgency and busyness.

Busyness as false heroism

In many companies busyness is associated to diligence. Hard working people are praised, and the ones that do ridiculous amount of overwork are glorified. Not because they get a lot of done, but because they sacrifice a lot for the greater good. The most obvious reason for this kind of work culture is the (false) belief “the more time a worker spends, the greater are the results”.

This is not true in creative knowledge work: rather, the more work hours you have to use for something, the more likely it is that you are doing a lot of unnecessary work. The same thing could be done with significantly less work. The following diagram illustrates the underlying logic of “urgency as a false heroism”:

  1. The system (= here, the way the organization works and interacts with other systems) is initially ineffective, and therefore people need to do more work for the results than necessary. Notice, that the system is taken for granted. It is not questioned or changed intentionally. If it changes, the change is just a side-effect.
  2. Due to the competition and the need for growth, more results are needed. However, changing the system is an unobvious way to do more results. Usually the management want to have control inside the system rather than control over the system. I will discuss this difference (between the control inside the system and the control over the system) in the last part of this series. Instead of a change in the structure and function of the system itself, the most companies force people work more. This is called improved productivity, but actually usually it is just increased busyness.
  3. As a consequence the organization is unable to change. People simply don’t have time for a change. Actually they don’t have time to think if things could be better. They don’t care, as long as the current state isn’t too painful.
  4. As a result people (including management) becomes cynical and pessimistic. Nothing can be done for the system, we just have to work harder and harder in order to survive. This is what I call the first positive feedback loop. As a result, busyness is glorified.
  5. Since busyness is now associated to diligence, productivity and efficiency, diligence, productivity and efficiency are associated to busy people: because that person is busy he must be also highly productive and thus a good worker. Therefore people who want to progress in their careers want to be busy – the busier and closer to burnout, the better. This is what I call the second positive feedback loop.
  6. Busyness is now both necessary and also a good indicator: Too much work becomes a positive problem that need not be solved. Rather we just have to invent a way to do all that work. Instead of thinking what we need to do to the system in order to raise its capacity in a healthy way, we rather maximize the utilization of people. That is, we make people maximally busy. I call this the third positive feedback loop.

Urgency and busyness as a necessity

So, what is missing from the picture? The positive feedback for improving the system. It is not there, because most organizations don’t have a positive feedback loop that would make them change the system and take control over it. Usually the system is sacred. “The logic of business cannot be changed: you either accepts the rules of the game, or you don’t play at all. Changing the rules of the game, is not a legal move. We have to work in this way exactly, because we have to work in this way.”

However, the system can be changed. The organizations could create a positive feedback loop that drives the change. In order to have self-evolving system, you should understand the system and its dynamics. Unfortunately, understanding the system seems to be too hard for the most. Can’t you hear the lamentation of the masses of mediocre and bad managers, can you? “Why can’t we just make profit? Why can’t we just make the results? We don’t’ want all the complexity of the systems, we want simple numbers; simple euros (or dollars)!”

There are numerous reasons why urgency is seen as a necessity. The most common ones are intellectual laziness, lack of imagination and ideals, and inability to think the system. While passive submission for urgency and busyness is an anti-pattern, urgency and busyness as a necessity is not completely bad thing: If urgency and busyness seems to be necessary, you have a problem you should solve – urgently. The next entry in this series “The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics for Cadence” will discuss this subject.

Toward the Game Theory of Everything

On July 22nd Business Insider published an article titled “They Finally Tested The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ On Actual Prisoners — And The Results Were Not What You Would Expect“.

There are few different variations of the dilemma. The study uses this one: “Two criminals are arrested, but police can’t convict either on the primary charge, so they plan to sentence them to a year in jail on a lesser charge. Each of the prisoners, who can’t communicate with each other, are given the option of testifying against their partner. If they testify, and their partner remains silent, the partner gets 3 years and they go free. If they both testify, both get two. If both remain silent, they each get one.”

The article claims that as per the game theory betraying the partner should be the dominant strategy even if mutual co-operation would be the best outcome for the both player. (This interpretation and analysis of the dilemma is a bit too straightforward to my taste. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on the prisoner’s dilemma for more complete analysis.) For me it wasn’t a surprise that humans are more cooperative than the purely rational models used traditionally in economics predicts. Applying the game theory to social reality is a tricky thing to do right.

Then again, the game theory could work, but… That’s the subject of this blog entry.

Evidence against the game theory?

Among my social network the most common interpretation was that the study is a counter-evidence against the games theory. Prisoner’s dilemma in overall can be seen as a counterexample against the game theory.

I’m unwilling to do such a hasty conclusion. It might be an evidence against the self-interested, calculative and rational behavior suggested by the game theory. On the other hand, the study may as well just show that our conception of what is beneficial or desirable for an individual is too limited, or that the used interpretation of rationality is too narrow.

A rational agent

A problem in the game theoretical models is that every now and then even intelligent and well-informed persons behave differently than the model predicts for reasons that are intuitively clear and understandable for other. To be useful a model need to be complete and errorless, but if it gives false predictions that are in addition counter-intuitive there something wrong in the model. In my opinion the problem is not in the game theoretical approach per se but in the preferences the models (arbitrarily) expects the rational agents to have or to not have.

Since I don’t want to take preferences for granted, I start by defining a rational agent slightly differently than normally: A rational agent always tries to attain the most beneficial overall outcome for itself in a systematic and consistent way. A rational agent can be a person, organization, machine or software. The most beneficial outcome for an agent is defined directly or indirectly by its needs (e.g. it is rational to seek food if you are hungry).

By ‘need’, I refer a mechanism that makes an agent to prefer one alternative over another, rather than to prefer nothing. In case of organizations ‘demand of something’ is a need. In case of machines, the need is a preprogrammed “state of satisfaction”. E.g. think of an intelligent painting robot. It have a ‘need’ to paint ever point of surface with minimum amount of paint and within minimum amount of time. That state of satisfaction defines and determines its decision making and learning everywhere. In case of human, ‘need’ means pretty much what you expect it to. We have a basic need for nutrition, and not-so-basic need for financial prosperity. Our ability to evaluate benefits of different outcomes is derived from the needs. We are able to evaluate financial value of an object (most likely) because we have a need for financial prosperity, otherwise we would find such an evaluation irrelevant and obscure.

Within this definition an agent is irrational only in two cases:

  1. if an agent does an error in deduction. I call this ‘unintentional irrationality’.
  2. if we have a bounded context for rationality in which we ignored intentionally some of the de facto needs an agent have and the agent’s decision was based on an ignored need. I call this ‘contextual irrationality’.

My position here is naturalistic: I don’t take preferences, goals or expected value of an outcome for granted or as objective facts. There is no god-like point of reference or a platonic world or ideas that would make an outcome valuable or preferable. There is only a system (or a machine – organic, abstract, electronic etc.) that produces the preferences and the evaluation functions from the needs and the information the system have or can achieve. In case your backgrounds are in the continental philosophical tradition, I believe that the ‘needs’ are more or less equivalent to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘desire machines’. Yet, I’m not completely sure on that.

The question on self-interest

Back to the prisoner’s dilemma.

According SCARF model (see David Rock’s article on SCARF form NeuroLeadership Journal: autonomy – control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices – is just one of five primitive needs we have. There are at least two others that are relevant in the case of prisoner’s dilemma: social relatedness and fairness. According SCARF model relatedness and fairness are as strong needs as autonomy and may even be as strong as Maslow’s basic needs (e.g. food and physical safety).

If SCARF model is true, a person who have a strong need for fairness and who acts systematically and consistently to make the world around fairer, is not only rational, but also behave in self-interested and calculative way.

You cannot claim that ‘minimizing the expected time in prison’ is necessarily more rational, beneficial and self-interested goal than fairness toward the other prisoner – for some actor it is, for another it’s not. At least, you need one more premise to make such a conclusion: “For agent X objective to ‘minimize the expected time in prison’ base on presently stronger needs, and thus is presently more desirable for him, than the objective to do a maximally fair and mutually optimal decision.”

If the needs of an agent did not define what is self-interested behavior, what would? The theories of rationality are often biased by an idealistic conception of self-interested behavior. The contradiction between altruism and self-interested behavior is often delusive, but still possible in certain situations.

Simplistic game theory

In order to fulfil needs and desires alike fairness or relatedness, a rational agent needs to do such calculations for which classical game theory is a bit simplistic and naive.

The game theory is not simplistic because it seems to ignore psychological facts about human nature; because it presuppose that all actors are rational but in real world we sometimes seems to act irrationally. Psychology is here somewhat irrelevant. You can see the game theory as a purely mathematical theory that – obviously – is poorly adapted into psychology and sociology.

A game theorist can always claim that our mathematical model of the psychological reality is incomplete (within the bounded context we are interested in). If it was complete and sufficient within the context, the game theory would be fully applicable. A game theoretical model could take (for instance) emotions into account; it could mathematically model them within sufficient extend –not completely but extensively enough. If a practical application of the game theory doesn’t do that even if it should, it does not prove anything about the mathematical core of the game theory.

Rather, the concurrent game theory is simplistic, because it focuses almost solely on the first order desirable outcomes and needs and ignores almost completely the second and third order desirable outcomes and needs. Because of that, you can use it only in limited contexts. Often the limitations are a bit too strong and a game theoretical model becomes rather only a theoretical model than a practical one.

Winning strategy vs. heuristic strategy

The second order preferable outcomes and needs relates to the properties of the structure of reality. Fairness and certainty are examples of such properties. (For sake of clarity, I ignore “non-living machines” for now on, as we don’t have machines that do decisions on this level.)

While the first order outcomes are immediately attainable factual things or states of things (e.g. freedom or two years in prison), the second order outcomes are something people want to maintain, improve or change, but they cannot have or attain them. That is, people cannot achieve fairness as a factual thing, but they can make the world around more fair.

Achieving a second order desirable outcome requires a heuristic strategy rather than a winning strategy: “What it is means to be fair and to be treaded in a fair way?” before “how to ensure fairness regardless of what ‘moves’ the other agents do?” A rational agent cannot know in advance what would be the optimal, because the optimal state is not a state the actual world but of the all relevant possible worlds. The meaning of fairness depends upon what an agent is able to expect from the others in any actual and counterfactual situation. The heuristic strategy is about finding the relevant possible worlds. It is noteworthy that ‘possible world’ is already a concept of the game theory. It is needed for to understand probabilities. Then again, possible world are more than just probabilities and the game theory seems to ignore many aspects of this concepts.

Winning strategy vs. reflective strategy

The third order desirable outcomes and needs relates to generative patterns of observed social, physical and internal reality. They are building blocks of the subjective reality. The needs for creativeness and relatedness are examples of them.

Often, the theories of rationality faces serious problems with the third order outcomes and needs. Why an artist wants to be an artist even if the society sees him as an obsessed outcast and he has barely enough money to food and shelter? Why a soldier was ready to do die (and also died) in order to protect his family and countrymen? For a theory of rationality, it’s problematic if you need to explain some systematic and consistent decision making paradigms – like artist’s passion to do art or soldier’s patriotic self-sacrification – as insanity and irrationality even in those cases we emphatically understand the reasons behind the decisions of an agents and they are not insane or irrational. I’m saying that dying for others – for instance, can be completely rational and self-interested action. Its rationality depends upon how you define yourself and your relation to everything else.

Now, consider creativeness and a need for creative insights. There is no heuristic map nor winning strategy toward creative insight. Creativeness is not attainable state of things in actual or possible worlds, nor is it about understanding what it is all about. Yet, it is not random, arbitrary thing either. You can have a strategy toward a state in which your need for creativity is temporarily fulfilled: a reflective strategy. The reflective strategy is “pattern matching with your life and identity”. The both examples illustrates that suddenly the question “who is the subject called ‘me’ whom an outcome is more beneficial than another one?” always precedes the question “what actions are maximally beneficial for me in this situation?” Re-identification and re-initiation of the agent itself is a rational strategy toward ‘a better real’.

This is rather far from the classical theory of the rational agent and the concurrent game theory. Nonetheless, the idea is simple, an agent is a system that can affect surrounding reality that is also a system. The system of self is not separate from the system of the surrounding‘. Thus, a change in the system of self is always a change is the system of surrounding reality (including both the actual world and the possible worlds). This is the reason why changing your perspective to a hard problem is a very efficient problem solving method. That is, a change of self is obviously rational action, but it’s hard to explain why exactly this change was rational – why I chose this change of self rather than that? Even in case of problem solving this is far from obvious; social situations requires are far more complex rational changes of self.

Perhaps, a game theorist could claim that the second and third order goods and needs can be reduced into first order desirable outcomes, preferences and needs. I find such a claim poorly justified. I personally think that the need for creativity or fairness for instance are irreducible to first order needs like physical pleasure, status (or observed appreciation), satisfaction and safety. There are games that can be understood fully via a winning strategy of the traditional game theory (e.g. chess). Social reality, for instance, is not such a game. In order to attain the most beneficial outcomes for us in the game of social real, we need also heuristic and reflective strategies. After all winning is irrelevant, if we win things that does not matter.


The study mentioned above is not necessary an evidence against the game theoretical approach to human behavior. It just clarifies the boundaries within which the concurrent game theory can be applied. Despite of this study, the game theory can still be applied within certain, rather strict constraints without any problems. Actually, the study – as presented in the article – is about internal logic of a rational agent rather than the game theory. Perhaps in future we have the game theory of everything that would apply in any situation. Actually, I hope we do, since the game theory is pretty cool thing. 😉

However, in order to have the game theory of everything we must understand better the internal logic of rational agents and the ways an agent interacts with the surrounding reality. We also have to answer more accurately to the question “in which sense rational”. And at last, we have to pay more attention in the modalities and the semantics of possible worlds.