New Podcast

Audio!

I’ve been wanting to explore doing something in the audio/podcasting area for a while now. There’s plenty of good interview-focused shows out there so I didn’t want to go that route. Taking inspiration from Stratechery, I settled on doing an audio version of selected blog posts. It’s just an experiment at this point but I’ve been enjoying the creation of the first few episodes so I’ll see how things go.

The first full episode is already up: “The Future of Space, Part I: The Setup”. I’ll follow with the audio version of Part II in the next week. (Though similar to the blog, new episodes will be sporadic.)

Apparently I picked a bad time to launch a new podcast feed. Last week with their “paid subscriptions” announcement Apple deployed a new version of their podcast upload software and it was plagued with bugs and has been unable to upload new shows since Friday.

So although the podcast is available, it is not discoverable on the Apple Podcast app. [Update: It is now available in search and in the link below.] You can subscribe using one of the buttons below or click the “RSS Feed” button, copy the feed URL, and paste it directly into your Podcast app. (IMO, Overcast is the best player out there so I’d highly recommend it.)

The Future of Space, Part II: The Potential

Getting to space is about to get a lot easier. I reviewed the reasons why in Part I. Now for the fun part: what it will lead to.

A 10x reduction in cost to orbit has already started to change things. The next 10x reduction will lead to outcomes and use cases much harder to comprehend or predict. It would have been hard for anyone in the late 1800s to predict what drastically lower costs of energy and electricity would eventually bring. Or for anyone in the 1970s to predict the consequences of abundant computing power and ubiquitous global communication (Reddit? NFTs? Protein folding?).

But we can try.

This summary is focused on some of the changes we’re likely to see in the next 5 to 20 years. A lot can happen in that time frame. For reference, it’s taken SpaceX only 19 years to accomplish what they have. But progress compounds and is exponential — especially so once a tipping point like this has been crossed. The change we’ll see in the next 20 years will dwarf that of the last 20.

(Quick note: This isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s a highlight of the new areas I find most interesting, and doesn’t include anything on the two biggest space segments: communication and Earth observation. Although there are plenty of interesting potentials here — like globally available high-speed internet [Starlink] or ubiquitous, near-real-time worldwide monitoring [Planet].)

Infrastructure

Transportation & Launch Services

The progress of SpaceX, the current leader here, was detailed in Part I. Given the Falcon 9’s low costs, it’s likely to be the preferred choice for medium-sized payloads, and even smaller payloads with rideshares.

Until now, SpaceX has self-funded their Starship super-heavy launch vehicle. That changed a few weeks ago when NASA announced that Starship had won the contract to land humans on the Moon again. This is huge. The contract will fund $2.9 billion of development costs and speed up the timeline for Starship to become human rated. With the pace of their current development, Starship is on track to become fully operational within 3 years. This should keep SpaceX the leader for heavy and super-heavy launches for some time.

When it comes to delivering humans, the other Commercial Crew competitor, Boeing, is more than a year behind after testing mishaps. Blue Origin may the next best bet for heavy-launch vehicles and a dark horse candidate given its potential funding from Jeff Bezos. There’s multiple smaller upstarts like Rocket Lab, Relativity Space or Astra at the low-end of the market, potentially moving disruptively upward. SpaceX blazed the path for these rocket companies, showing how far costs can come down, and proving that lower prices can expand market size.

Also included in this category are spaceports. Most spaceports are currently owned and operated by governments — like Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This will start to change in tandem with the growth of commercial space.

Spaceport America in New Mexico is an example of an all-commercial spaceport, similar to most airports in that it’s owned and operated by the state. Rocket Lab built their own spaceport, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, in New Zealand. SpaceX’s R&D facilities in Boca Chica, Texas are now being converted into not only a spaceport, but a township to support Starship launches. Given Starship’s eventual importance, there’s no doubt this will become a hub of activity. Launches, and more importantly landings, will also take place on converted offshore oil rigs.

Most current space activity takes place in Earth orbit. As it becomes cheaper to leave the influence of Earth’s gravity, we’ll start expanding further out into the Solar System. The best staging point for this expansion isn’t spaceports on Earth — it’s the Moon and lunar orbit.

The Moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth and no atmosphere. The means the energy (or delta-v) required to launch from its surface is much lower. The Moon also contains 600 million tons of ice, and its soil is 40-45% oxygen by mass. These raw materials can be used to produce propellants for launch, along with water and breathable oxygen — nearly 100 grams for every kilogram of soil. A Moon base is not far off in our future.

On the Moon, concepts like space elevators or skyhooks also become possible[1]. Imagine a structure — similar to piers going into the ocean — extending from the lunar surface into orbit. Satellites can be sent up the elevator into orbit and ships can “dock” at the top, where supplies can be loaded with much less energy cost.

Once other infrastructure like commercial space stations and lunar bases get set up, I think we’ll start seeing regularly scheduled launches to specific destinations. From quarterly launches to monthly, weekly, and eventually daily. (Questions to ponder: Can rockets fit in the existing intermodal shipping system? What would a new space-specific intermodal container look like?)

Continue reading “The Future of Space, Part II: The Potential”

The Future of Space, Part I: The Setup

Expansion of life across our solar system and beyond has been a dream of mine since childhood. Of course, this isn’t uncommon among other sci-fi enthusiasts, or anyone who grew up knowing we’ve sent humans to the Moon but haven’t sent them back in nearly 50 years.

Space is fascinating for many reasons. It’s a frontier in every sense: physically, technically, even socially. It’s at the bleeding edge of what humanity is capable of. “Looking to the stars” and “shooting for the moon” are common idioms because space has defined our limits for generations.

Now (finally!) the technical and business tailwinds are coming together to make it possible. The cost and ease of getting to space are about to improve by many orders of magnitude. This will drive the space industry to be one of the biggest sources of growth over the next 10-20 years.[1] It will make existing technologies cheaper and more ubiquitous, like allowing worldwide high-speed internet in even the most remote, rural areas. It will also open up a host of new possibilities previously only imagined in science fiction.

This is the first of a two-part essay on the upcoming future of the space industry. I’ve been closely following SpaceX’s progress in particular since their first launch of the Falcon 9 in 2010, so I’m excited to finally write about it.

Why now?

TLDR: SpaceX has pushed cost to orbit down by 10x, and will by another 10x in 5 years. Along with further commercialization and government funding, a threshold has been crossed.

The success of commercial launch services puts the space industry in the same place as the early days of railroads in the 1800s or commercial ocean shippers in the 1600s. The key here is early days as things are really just getting started.

The “why now?” can be reduced to one chart — the average cost to get 1 kilogram to orbit:

Data from https://aerospace.csis.org/data/space-launch-to-low-earth-orbit-how-much-does-it-cost/

In the next section I’ll go over the reasons why this makes such a big difference. But first, how did it happen? As should be evident by the chart, this is essentially the story of one company — SpaceX.

The driving ambition for Elon Musk when he founded SpaceX in 2002 was to drastically reduce the cost of escaping Earth’s gravity. Their “MVP” was the Falcon 1, a single-engine rocket that could launch small satellites. Falcon 1 only launched 5 times, with only the last 3 succeeding. Haven proven viability, SpaceX quickly moved onto production of the Falcon 9, a scaled up version with nine Merlin engines eventually capable of delivering over 22,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Here’s the price progression of each SpaceX rocket, starting from the base of what a conventional rocket costs:

From a conventional rocket price of $10k per kg to LEO, to a price of $60/kg for a Starship with 50 launches, over 100x lower. See the Google Sheet here to check my math.

Driving the first order-of-magnitude reduction in cost are the following:

  • Engineering from first principles. Designed and engineered from the ground up, famously using first principles to rethink standard industry practices. This led to seemingly trivial savings like using ethernet cables rather than serial cable bundles. But added up they make a huge difference.
  • Better incentives. Traditional government contracts were cost-plus. This incentivizes contractors to increase their costs both to make more profit and for more admin overhead to track expenses. With fixed-prices, companies are incentivized to drive costs down as much as possible.
  • Standardization of launch config. Rather than customized configurations for each launch and customer, SpaceX “productized” the Falcon 9, allowing for cheaper setups and repeated processes.
  • Reusability. Why is air travel cheaper than space travel? It’s obvious, right? Aircraft are reusable while rockets are destroyed after a single use. But not anymore, as anyone not living under a rock now knows that SpaceX can land and reuse the first stage(s) of their rockets.

And the next 10x reduction with Starship:

  • Bigger rocket. There are economies of size in rocketry: The bigger the rocket, the higher the payload-to-fuel ratio can be.
  • Full flow combustion cycle engine. This higher-complexity engine design makes it more efficient and capable of being reused many times with very little maintenance.
  • Lower-cost methane as fuel. Methane is cheaper than the previously used RP1 (rocket fuel), and SpaceX is planning on literally drilling for methane gas on their Texas property and synthesizing it on their converted oil rigs. (It can also be synthesized on Mars…)
  • Full reusability. 100% of Starship will be reusable, allowing dozens (or hundreds?) of uses for each stage and engine.
  • More launches. The more launches you can sell in a year, the less markup you need to charge to cover admin costs. Economies of scale and purchasing power are also achieved in raw materials and fuel production.
  • Refuel in orbit. Starship can park in orbit while it’s refueled by up to 8 other launches. This makes payload capacity to orbit the same as payload capacity to nearly anywhere in the solar system. Imagine what we can do with the ability to send over 100 tons to Moon, Mars or Europa.

Government funding, particularly from NASA, has been a key enabler. Without these contracts it would have been very difficult for SpaceX to fund R&D. And they’ll continue to play a key role for SpaceX and other commercial space providers. In recent years NASA has stepped up their commercial contracts significantly, and with further falling costs this is likely to continue. (See footnote [2] for a list of recent milestones.)

This moment for space companies is the equivalent of 1995 when the NSF dropped all restrictions on Internet commerce, which let private companies take over the backbone. The breaking of the dam that releases a tidal wave of activity.

The cost-driven industry flywheel

Expensive launches aren’t just costly in their own right — they lead to cost inflation of everything else. If it costs $100M to get a satellite to orbit, reducing the cost of development from $10M to $5M is only a 5% difference. So why not over-engineer, paying up for components and testing to ensure everything is perfect? Now if a launch costs $10M, there’s more incentive to cut costs. Even if there’s an issue, a second launch is much cheaper. Order-of-magnitude-lower launch costs will lead to similar decreases in payload costs.

From a Morgan Stanley report:

Currently, the cost to launch a satellite has declined to about $60 million, from $200 million, via reusable rockets, with a potential drop to as low as $5 million. And satellite mass production could decrease that cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.

More launches will lead to even cheaper costs, which will lead to cheaper payloads, which… see where I’m going here?

There are 4 distinct feedback loops here, all driving more launches. Not shown in this diagram are balancing (negative) loops involving things like launch failures or excessive regulations.

SpaceX has initially started the flywheel that got the industry to this inflection point.[3] But it won’t be the only one turning it. Ultimately to truly take advantage of space transportation we’ll be seeing many competing service providers, at all different levels of payload size and capability.

The flywheel is already turning and has led to a higher volume of launches:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_spaceflight

At some point in the near future we’ll be seeing a launch per day, with spaceports treated more like shipping ports: hubs of travel and commercial activity.

Current state of the industry

Before moving on to Part II, I want to quickly review the two main categories of payload currently being launched:

  1. Government research and exploration.
    1. International Space Station cargo. In the U.S. this encompasses missions for Commercial Resupply (sending equipment and supplies) and Commercial Crew (sending people).
    2. Other research and exploratory efforts. This includes missions like the recently landed Mars Perseverance rover, the James Webb Telescope set to launch after much delay later this year on an Ariane 5 rocket, and the Europa Clipper set to launch in 2024.
  2. Satellites. Communication and Imaging satellites account for a vast majority of the space industry. Exploratory missions get all the publicity, but they are currently very tiny. This will continue, especially with broadband internet constellations.

    The use of communication satellites in particular is already a ubiquitous part of everyday life: from GPS navigation[4] to phone calls, TV signals, internet, and more. Satellite imagery as well: what once was a tool for only the military and intelligence agencies of large governments is now used by anyone with a smartphone.

    Satellites come in a range of sizes, from tiny CubeSats the size of a shoebox launched 100s at a time; to huge geostationary satellites that take up the entire payload of a rocket.[5] Most of this hardware — particularly for the larger ones — requires costly, sophisticated engineering and infrastructure. The full stack can include satellite manufacturers, operators, suppliers, and ground equipment. As costs come down, so will satellite size and launch frequency.

What’s to come

I hope I’ve convinced you that getting to space is about to get a whole lot easier.

In Part II, I’ll talk about the progress we will potentially see in space in the upcoming 10 to 20 years: commercial space stations, tourism, manufacturing, mining, exploration and more.


Footnotes

  1. The same is true for biotech in the upcoming decades. Areas like AI and Crypto will play big roles as well, but they’re not the thing. They’re the “thing that gets us to the thing“.
  2. Here’s a timeline of a few milestones:
    • 2008-12 — Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract of $1.6B to SpaceX and $1.9B to Orbital Sciences to deliver supplies to ISS. This helps fund Falcon 9 development.
    • 2012-05 — SpaceX Dragon capsule launches “empty” to perform tests and dock with the ISS, the first commercial spacecraft ever to do so.
    • 2012-10 — SpaceX CRS-1 mission sends Dragon with supplies to ISS. Dragon is the only cargo vehicle at the time capable of returning supplies to Earth.
    • 2014-09 — NASA awards final Commercial Crew Program (CCP) contract to SpaceX ($2.6B) and Boeing ($4.2B) for the capability to send 4-5 astronauts to the ISS. First flights for both initially planned in 2017.
    • 2020-01 — NASA awards Axiom Space the first ever contract to build a commercial module for the ISS.
    • 2020-04 — NASA awards lunar lander contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX under the Artemis program. The goal is to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024.
    • 2020-05 — Commercial Crew Demo mission sends 2 astronauts to ISS. These are the first astronauts on a commercial mission, and the first from US soil since retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. 10 million people worldwide watched it live.
    • 2020-11 — Crew 1, the first operational flight, sends 4 astronauts to ISS. Due to delays and other issues, Boeing’s Starliner isn’t set to fly for another year.
    • 2020-12 — NASA awards Blue Origin a Launch Services contract to transport planetary, Earth observation, exploration and scientific satellites.
  3. Elon Musk is a master at many things, but one of the greatest is his ability to get massive, company- or industry-wide flywheels moving.
  4. Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed by the military in the 1960s but not made public until 1996. GPS is an extremely critical part of our current technical infrastructure. Every time you use your phone to navigate, order food, or track your run, it is pinging multiple GPS satellites to triangulate your exact location.
  5. Here’s a good visual size comparison of satellites:

Lay of the Landscape

The more complex the world gets, the more we need models to simplify it. One of the models I return to often is fitness landscapes, which can help solve problems, design better experiences, and explain the world around us.


Imagine you and a group of friends are on a team playing a game.

The game takes place on a huge playing field with rough, mountainous terrain, like the Himalayas or Alps. The only goal is to increase your team’s average altitude. This seems easy enough, but there are a few catches: (1) any player can only see a few feet ahead of them, (2) the terrain slowly changes over time, and (3) if a player drops below a certain altitude for long enough, they’re eliminated. Given these rules, what strategies would your team use to find the highest peaks?

This is a metaphor for the “game” that species must play to survive in an ecosystem.

The terrain is a fitness landscape representing a library or design space of every possible variation of organism, spread out over a nearly infinite surface. The closer together on the surface, the more similar the genotype. This means single species would be clustered together. Dogs would be near wolves, far from fish, and even farther from fungi.

Altitude indicates the fitness of the organism — or how likely it is to survive in a particular environment. The higher it is on the landscape, the better the design and more fit the organism. Below a certain threshold, organisms can’t survive and species go extinct.

As a model, landscapes can help show us visually and mathematically how to find the best designs. The original concept was developed by evolutionary theorist Sewell Wright in 1931, and focused only on biological entities. But a design space could represent almost any set of possibilities — as long as it has building blocks or variables that combine into many variations, each with a value (or fitness level) that can be assigned. This means it could apply to design spaces of problems, equations, technologies, strategies, memes, or even sets of LEGOs.

Features of landscapes

A vast majority of the variations on a typical landscape are bad designs. These are oceans of low fitness, below the surface of which organisms are incapable of survival or reproduction.

But certain regions — springing out of the oceans like islands or continents — are full of a range of potential variations, all with some usable level of fitness. The basic features of these regions of terrain are:

  • Local peaks or plateaus — A point or area of high fitness where all surrounding paths go down.
  • Global peak — The highest peak in the region. The fittest entity in the area. The best design of all similar variations.
  • Valleys — Flatter areas of low fitness adjacent to hills and mountain ranges.
  • Pits or Crevasses — Deep holes of low fitness below the “sea-level” of survival.

Peaks are good. Pits are bad. And crossing valleys is very risky: you could find higher fitness, but likely not.

The unconscious process of evolution drives genotypes uphill over time, finding and settling on peaks of fitness until the landscape shifts or some other factor forces a move. More on this later.

Continue reading “Lay of the Landscape”

Managing Modes of Effort

This is the second essay in the Build Series.
The first was Wayfinding Through the Web of Efforts.

Making progress — in society, a team, or life — isn’t straightforward most of the time. Knowing where you want to go is generally the first step, but the destination can be very broad. And even if there’s a specific goal, the path to get there may be very indirect.

As strategy transitions into execution, it’s important to understand how these attributes affect progress. If an effort is managed or guided the wrong way, it may be doomed to failure no matter how difficult it is.

Project management as a discipline works great, but not with everything. Managing large, more uncertain endeavors in particular has been problematic recently. The wide-scale ongoing effort to fight COVID-19 and return the world to normalcy brings this challenge front and center.

Why are certain efforts harder than others and how do we navigate them? How were we able to accomplish such large scale collaborative efforts such as the Apollo program or Manhattan Project, but can’t do the same thing for curing cancer?

If we want to build, we need to understand the answers to these questions. The following is a framework for classifying efforts by the certainty of both their objectives and the paths to achieve them. Knowing which “mode” an effort is in is critical to understanding and managing its progress.

Classifying efforts

How do we classify efforts into modes? The best paradigm I’ve come across is the how/what quadrants.

In his 1994 book “All Change!”, Eddie Obeng described 4 different types of projects along with the difficulties and peculiarities of each: quests, movies, painting by numbers, and fog. It turns out putting a project on both the know how and the know what scales tells you a lot about how it should be managed.

Venkatesh Rao explored the concept much further in his essay on the “Grand Unified Theory of Striving”, pulling in other ideas like convergent thinking, critical paths, and lean methodology. Venkat’s visualization of the critical paths and point frontiers of each quadrant is a particularly insightful way to think about the concept.

Defining the dimensions and modes

Here’s how I’d describe the axes of the 2×2:

  • “Why”-axisKnow what vs. don’t know what. Do you know what the goal is? How specific is the desired outcome? Not knowing the goal (or having a very broad idea) is in the realm of divergent thinking: there are many potential solutions and progress can be non-linear. It’s the exploration phase of the explore vs. exploit tradeoff, searching for goals or areas of value.

    Knowing what and why is in the realm of convergent thinking: there is a single “correct” solution or destination. It squarely aligns with Peter Thiel’s deterministic approach of viewing the future: “There is just one thing—the best thing—that you should do.”

  • Horizontal-axisKnow how vs. don’t know how. Is it known how to accomplish the goal? Are the bottlenecks or resource-sensitive parts generally understood? When you know exactly how to accomplish something, there is a clear critical path1 (the red lines in the diagram below). Other paths of effort may still be required, but they are oblique with more slack, running parallel to the critical path.

    Knowing how allows you to operate lean because you can—in theory—use the least amount of resources necessary to get the job done. In the fat mode of operation, you don’t really know how to reach your goal. You can’t be efficient because you don’t know how to be, and there will be a lot of slack in the system. The path is determined opportunistically as you go, with critical paths only in smaller subsections.

Each quadrant can be described as follows:

Continue reading “Managing Modes of Effort”

Wayfinding Through the Web of Efforts

“An old story tells of a visitor who encounters three stonemasons working on a medieval cathedral and asks each what he is doing. ‘I am cutting this stone to shape,’ says the first, describing his basic actions. ‘I am building a great cathedral,’ says the second, describing his intermediate goal. ‘And I am working for the glory of God,’ says the third, describing his high-level objective. The construction of architectural masterpieces required that high objectives be pursued through lesser, but nonetheless fulfilling, goals and actions.”

John Kay, Obliquity

All efforts, from daily personal projects to global collaborative endeavors, fit in a webbed hierarchy of abstraction.

Understanding the full hierarchy of an effort is critical to accomplishing it, along with its higher-level objectives in the long-term. Not understanding it can result in bad planning, mismanagement, and failed expectations.

Ladder of Abstraction

“…the most powerful way to gain insight into a system is by moving between levels of abstraction.” — Bret Victor

The Ladder of Abstraction is a mental model originally applied to writing by S.I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Thought and Action.

The ladder represents a top-level concept or domain, with each rung a subset of the one above it. The rungs move from abstract at the top, to concrete at the bottom. The lower down, the more detailed and specific. The higher up, the broader and more abstract the concept.

The model is very simple, and can be applied to almost any discipline with a hierarchy of nested groups. This includes applying it to efforts.

Nested Efforts

First of all — what do I mean by effort?

An effort is the active search for the best outcome of an objective. It encompasses both the objective and the pursuit of that objective — both of which are not fixed and can evolve over time. The objective always has some boundaries, but otherwise can be very broad (“solving climate change”) or very narrow (“double next-month’s sales volume”).

All efforts are multi-scale and nested.1 This means we can put them on a ladder of abstraction, each rung with an objective or method that’s a prerequisite of the one above it. Lower-level goals are nested in higher-level purposes. Good project managers do this intuitively when breaking an objective down into tasks and sub-goals, mapping their dependencies.

Because efforts can have many dependencies and relationships aren’t just one-to-one, they exist in more of a webbed hierarchy of abstraction than a ladder. A simple one-dimensional ladder of abstraction is just a slice of the larger hierarchy.

Here’s an example of a hierarchy of abstraction for the efforts relating to Covid-19:

Why/how Chain

What’s the best way to determine the hierarchy of abstraction for an effort?

A simple way to move up and down the ladder is the Why/How Chain. To move up, ask “Why?”; to move down, ask “How?”. Many know this technique from the Toyota Production System’s method of asking 5 Why’s to find the root cause of an issue.

You can start by finishing the phrase: In what ways might we ___? This method can work on almost everything, from large-scale efforts to small-scale jobs-to-be-done:

  • ⬆️ Why? To make my home look good.
  • ⬆️ Why? To hang a picture.
  • ❇️ In what ways might we drill a hole?
  • ⬇️ How? Use a drill.

In the Covid-19 example, you could start at whatever level is most relevant to you.

  • ❇️ In what ways might we provide better medical care for COVID patients?
  • ⬆️ Why? To stop people from dying and reopen the economy.
  • ⬇️ How? Protect medical workers from getting sick.
  • ⬇️ How? Source and distribute PPE.
  • ⬇️ How? Contact regional manufacturers.

There will always be multiple “how”s, which is the essence of breaking a goal down into sub-goals. There can be multiple “why”s as well, especially the further you go down the ladder. But high up in the hierarchy the whys and hows become more and more vague. This means you have to approach them in a completely different way.

Abstraction = Obliquity

Knowing where an effort fits on the hierarchy is the first step. Now we need to understand how the different levels of scale need to be treated.

This is where John Kay’s concept of obliquity, from his book of the same title, comes in.

To solve a problem obliquely is to solve it through experiment and adaptation. In general, the bigger the scope and complexity of an objective, the more indirect the path is to achieve it.

The ladder of abstraction is a proxy for obliquity. The higher on the ladder, the more adaptive the problem should be solved. John Kay: “High-level objectives — live a fulfilling life, create a successful business, produce a distinguished work of art, glorify God — are almost always too imprecise for us to have any clear idea how to achieve them.” In the process of making progress on these objectives, we don’t only learn how improve, but “about the nature of the objectives themselves.” You’re wayfinding, rather than following a prescribed path.

The lower on the ladder, the more direct. “Directness is only appropriate when the environment is stable, objectives are one-dimensional and transparent and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved.”

The following table compares the different aspects of both ends of abstraction.

Direct (concrete)Oblique (abstract)
ObjectivesClear and simpleLoosely defined and multidimensional
IntentionalityMost outcomes are intendedOutcomes arise through complex processes with no simple cause and effect
Interactions with othersLimited and predictableDependent on many variables, including interpretation of them
OptionsRange of available options is fixed and knownOnly a subset of options are available from successive limited comparison
RisksCan be described probabilisticallyUncertain: Range of what might happen is not known
ConsistencyInsists on consistency: always treating the same problem the same wayConsistency is minor and possibly dangerous — rare that same problem is encountered twice
AdaptationConscious maximization of objectivesAdapt continuously to changing circumstances

Consistency is vital when you’re low on the ladder, not so much higher up. “The oblique decision maker, the fox,” John Kay remarks, “is not hung up on consistency and frequently holds contradictory ideas simultaneously.”

But the real power of solving an oblique problem lays in adaptation: “If the environment is uncertain, imperfectly understood and constantly changing, the product of a process of adaptation and evolution may be better adapted to that environment than the product of conscious design. It generally will be.” There is no map, so instead you have to wayfind and look for clues in front of you, making your way with the tools you have at hand.

Keep in mind again that this is a scale — it’s rare that an effort would completely check all the above boxes for either Direct or Oblique. The point is that efforts always fall somewhere on the scale and that this determines the best methods to pursue them.

Consequences of Misplaced Directness

I’ll try to keep this section short, as whole books have been written on the consequences of misplaced directness. See Nassim Taleb’s Incerto for example.

Attempting to approach a large, complex effort too directly almost always leads to failure — or at the very least a failure to meet initial expectations. Directness is only appropriate when the objective is one-dimensional and the path to achieve it is known.

  • The design and planning of the city of Brasilia serves as a good example. Engineering-wise it was incredibly impressive — a large, modern city built from the ground up between 1956 and 1961.

    The intention was to create a new Brazilian capital from scratch that was truly unique and modern, paying special attention to cars and traffic flow. (This was the same time period the U.S. began building out the intercontinental highway system.)

    As time went on, unforeseen circumstances in the messiness of the real world intervened. Overpopulation drove traffic congestion, slums, and general inequality. The focus on form over function from the top-down design caused alienation and poor quality of life. This is exactly why any such an effort can’t be planned with precision. Not only are the details of the true goal not understood, but the methods to achieve it involve unpredictable complexity. They’re in the world of “extremistan” as Taleb would say.

    “The structures in this artificial capital are impressive,” read an FT article on one of the architects, “yet few want to walk its barren streets. Politicians leave as soon as possible to return to grittier, but livelier, Brazilian cities.”

    The Brasilia master plan was partly based on architect Le Corbusier’s misplaced utopian vision of creating the ideal city. Corbusier’s work also included the Indian city of Chandigarh with similar consequences. This was, in the words of John Kay, “the hope that rational design by an omniscient planner could supersede practical knowledge derived from a process of adaptation and discovery.”

Many overfunded startups suffer from the same fate. When you have access to seemingly unlimited resources, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you can build your exact vision into reality. But these visions generally exist in a complex world of human culture, desires, and economic feedback loops.

  • Quibi — the $1.8 billion funded short-form media startup — is case in point. Ultimate success or failure remains to be seen but results have yet to come close to expectations. They had the resources to build a particular product and business model into reality — a reality where most customers don’t seem to want what they’re selling. A destination was chosen on a map that couldn’t be seen.
  • Magic Leap has an amazing vision of seamless AR glasses to enable a digital layer on top of the real world. The actual objective in this case might actually be the right destination. But the complexity of the problem means the approach still can’t be direct. Currently their product has seen minimal success as they struggle to find a sustainable business model.
  • WeWork seemed to start at the right level of abstraction, then an ambitious “visionary” founder is given unlimited funds, and a direct approach is applied to a still-oblique problem.

Summary: The Right Strategy for the Right Level

All efforts, and the efforts within them, can be placed on a ladder of abstraction. The higher up you go, the less concrete the objectives and less straightforward the methods to achieve them.

Where the effort falls on the scale is critical to the strategies for making progress on them. Direct, methodical approaches are only appropriate at lower, smaller-scale levels. This is where it’s good to plan details, use processes, and keep things consistent.

You can still have a grand, abstract vision. You just need to wayfind to get there: working from the bottom up, adapting and evolving the path while shaping and refining the details of the goal. Keep things flexible, adaptive, and opportunistic at the top.


Footnotes

  1. Organizations: Given the definition of an effort above, what about coordinated groups of efforts or goals? ↩︎

    In the book The Origin of Wealth, Eric Beinhocker describes organizations as “goal directed, boundary-maintaining, and socially constructed systems of human activity. . . . There is a boundary distinguishing the inside world from the outside world, and the goals of the organization drive activities that lower entropy inside the organizational system.” This is the best description I’ve come across given its abstract nature. But I’d like to propose simpler, yet still compatible definition.

    An organization is a group of people pursuing one or more ongoing efforts, generally with the same high-level objective. This means an organization can be anything from seven-person hunting parties, to fleets of exploratory vessels, to philanthropies, to a multinational conglomerate.


This essay is one of an ongoing series of frameworks and stories on building. Check out the intro, Build Series, and a collection of all the essays here.

Build Series: Frameworks for Effort

In April, Marc Andreessen put out the call to build. It was in response to our failure to control and mitigate the effects of Covid-19 — institutions on every level were unprepared for the pandemic, and have continued to show their inability to quickly find and scale solutions.

But more than anything it was in response to our failure to build in general. We chose not to build, he claims. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” The problem isn’t a lack of resources or technical ability — it’s with supply and demand of desire. Demand is limited by our ambition and will to build. Supply is limited by the people and organizations holding it back.

Andreessen is generally an optimist, which is why I see his essay as positive in overall tone. But it was also somewhat of a mea culpa. Andreessen has for years been on the other side of Peter Thiel’s view of modern technical stagnation.

Thiel’s view may be too pessimistic, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. If you’re familiar with the history of tech and innovation, something feels different. The late-1800s to mid-1900s had explosions of innovation in fields from medicine to consumer products, transportation, energy, communication, computing, food, and more.1

This is the introduction to a series of ongoing essays centered around the question:

What frameworks can help us build more, better?

And further attempting to investigate the answers to the following:

  • What are the best ways to approach solving big, complex problems?
  • Why are certain efforts so much harder to achieve than others?
  • How are these efforts best managed at every level?
  • How do we build things faster? (Without sacrificing quality or safety.)
  • What is holding us back from building more?
  • How do we overcome these barriers?

Many of these lessons apply not just to “building” in the physical sense, but for solving problems, scientific discoveries, improving systems, and making progress overall. Building in a way is symbolic. It represents making big, necessary changes to move humanity and our planet forward. This can be building something physical or digital, pushing the boundaries of fundamental research, or trying new uncertain ways to solve problems.

It doesn’t even have to be anything new or innovative per se. Andreessen gives many examples of expanding existing tech: housing, infrastructure, education, manufacturing. Even preservation and restoration — in many ways opposites of building — can still apply. In the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt established over 230 million acres of public lands and parks. This added an incalculable amount of value to future generations. I would love to see E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project executed at scale. This is in the spirit of building: making progress and pushing humanity toward a better future.

Here’s a preview of some of the specific topics I want to explore in the series: Ladders of Abstraction (why/how chains), Oblique vs. direct approaches, Modes of effort (why/how quadrants), traversing fitness landscapes, the explore vs. exploit tradeoff, the role of trust in building things fast, forcing functions, and the specific methods we used to accomplish large-scale collaborative efforts such as the Apollo program, the Manhattan Project, etc.

Table of Contents

  • IntroBuild Series: Frameworks for Effort
  • Part I: Lay of the Land
    • Wayfinding Through the Web of Efforts [8 minutes] — Putting goals on a ladder or hierarchy of abstraction. Defining efforts and their multi-scale nature. Determining the hierarchy of efforts using a why/how chain. The difference between making progress directly and obliquely, and the consequences of misplaced directness.
    • Managing Modes of Effort [10 minutes] — A framework for understanding how managing progress differs across scales of effort. Classifying efforts into four modes on the how/what quadrants. Defining the modes and how they fit on the hierarchy of abstraction. A Covid-19 case study. How to manage an effort based on its mode.

Footnotes

  1. What was different about this era? The following is a good rundown from Vaclav Smil’s book “Creating the Twentieth Century” on the remarkable attributes of the pre-WWI technical era:
    • The impact of the late 19th and early 20th century advances was almost instantaneous, as their commercial adoption and widespread diffusion were very rapid. A great deal of useful scientific input that could be used to open some remarkable innovation gates was accumulating during the first half of the 19th century. But it was only after the mid-1860s when so many input parameters began to come together that a flow of new instructions surged through Western society.
    • The extraordinary concentration of a large number of scientific and technical advances.
    • The rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction—made more efficient, more convenient to use, less expensive, and hence available on truly mass scales.
    • The imagination and boldness of new proposals. So many of its inventors were eager to bring to life practical applications of devices and processes that seemed utterly impractical, even impossible, to so many of their contemporaries.
    • The epoch-making nature of these technical advances. Most of them are still with us not just as inconsequential survivors or marginal accoutrements from a bygone age but as the very foundation of modern civilizations. ↩︎

The Scale of Large Projects

$100 million +

  • Midsize commercial airplane — $120m ^
  • Big budget video game — $150m ^
  • F-22 Raptor jet — $157m ^
  • iPhone R&D (2007) — $185m ^
  • Titanic (1912) — $190m ^
  • Big budget movie — $250m ^
  • SpaceX Falcon 9 v1 R&D — $350m ^
  • Empire State Building (1931) — $400m ^
  • Modern cruise ship — $750m ^
  • Hoover Dam (1936) — $863m ^

$1 billion +

  • Modern sports stadium — $1.3b ^
  • Modern skyscraper — $1.5b ^
  • Space Shuttle launch — $1.5b ^
  • Erie Canal (1825) — $4b ^
  • Human Genome Project (2003) — $5b ^
  • Panama Canal (1912) — $9b ^
  • Hubble Space Telescope (1990) — $9b ^

$10 billion +

  • Global Positioning System (1989) — $10b ^
  • Large Hadron Collider (2009) — $13b ^
  • Great Pyramid of Giza (~2500 BCE) — $20b ^
  • Three Gorges Dam (2009) — $25b ^
  • Transcontinental railroad (1863) — $30b ^
  • Manhattan Project (1945) — $30b ^
  • F-22 Raptor development (1997) — $42b ^
  • Great Wall of China (220 BCE) — $50b ^
  • SR-71 Blackbird development (1964) — $90b ^

$100 billion +

  • International Space Station — $150b ^
  • Apollo program (1969) — $200b ^
  • U.S. Interstate Highway System (~1980) — $500b ^

Many of these numbers are rough estimates. Figures adjusted for inflation after 1900 that weren’t already. Any figure before 1900 was adjusted via per capita GDP to more accurately reflect the scale of the undertaking.

If it were possible, the best metric to compare the scale of projects would be something like “Man-years + Value of Raw Materials (possibly in ounces of gold)“. This is especially true for projects like the Great Pyramid, the Suez Canal, the Great Wall of China, or the Manhattan Project which used mostly unpaid or low-paid labor.

Related: The Tallest Skyscrapers in the World, Pyramids vs. Skyscrapers

Books: 2017 Reading List

Competing Against Luck — finally a full writeup on “Jobs Theory”, and required reading for anyone involved in product strategy & UX design (i.e. all startups).

The Change Function — good, simple model to think about how valuable a new innovation is (all about UX, or if (perceived crisis > cost of adoption)).

Marketing High Technology — best book on distribution you can find, for technology or otherwise.

Shoe Dog — Great story; wish he would have spent more time in the later years of Nike’s growth.

Doing the Impossible — too dense overall, but I loved hearing the story of the moon mission from the inside, especially from such a talented project manager that made it happen.

Scale — not as good as hoped, but a good “skim” with lots of interesting ideas around a theme.

21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership — great leadership advice + stories to go along with, Dale Carnegie style (but could have been much shorter).

Hard Drive — 3rd reading of the best bio of Bill Gates & Microsoft’s early years.

The Elements of Computing Systems — I never had formal CS education so this was a great practical explainer, from translating binary to assembly, to how an OS works.

A Mind at Play — always been a huge fan of Claude Shannon’s work, mind, and humility.

Turing’s Cathedral — a little long in places, but great overall history of computing & early people who shaped it.

Softwar — Reading now. Interesting insights about early Oracle, also gives me new appreciation for Ellison. [Update: I would not recommend this book. First part is good but last half rambles on, fawning over Ellison with random stories. “The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison” is much better.]

Found Quotes 3

Let’s start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told. ― Paul Graham

If you’ll laugh about something one day, you may as well start now. ― Paul Graham

Be patient, calm, compassionate. Know that existence is fleeting.― Ettore Sottsass

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have. — Tim Ferriss

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. — Ed Catmull

Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences. They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item. — Bertrand Russell

Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them. — Jules Verne

1) Don’t sell anything you wouldn’t buy yourself, 2) Don’t work for anyone you don’t respect, 3) Work only with people you enjoy. — Charlie Munger

The game of life is the game of everlasting learning. At least it is if you want to win. – Charlie Munger