Archive for the ‘Powerful Ideas’ Category

By Richard Martin

For about two centuries now, the political, social, and economic “left” has been saying that they are at the forefront of progress. Whether the socialist millennium will come as a result of the inevitable forces of “History,” or by the disruptive, revolutionary, or evolutionary actions of a completely devoted proletarian vanguard, the claim has been, “We, the Socialists, are the Future!”

Socialism, in theory and practice, is the most reactionary and regressive doctrine of all. It seeks to undermine and overthrow the will of individuals who are trying to make themselves, their lives, and their surroundings better. Socialism is collectivism, and collectivism is the entire history of humanity, ever since the first Homo or Australopithecus started to climb down from the trees and walk on the open savannah.

The development of mankind is a succession of attempts by individuals to gain more and more independence in their own lives, to make decisions for themselves and those they choose to help and support. The driving force in humankind’s growth and evolution has been and will continue to be, as long as human beings have individual will, reason, and emotions, the drive to succeed and make a better life for oneself and for one’s loved ones.

Against this expression of individual will, autonomy, independence… and freedom, is arrayed a phalanx of do-gooders, busy-bodies, coercers, and autocrats. These despots will stop at nothing to impose their will and personal values on others. In its least socially destructive form, these authoritarians are willing to make the lives of their immediate neighbours, friends, colleagues, even family members a living hell. They badger and harass them into submission. They use their influence and authority, such as it may exist, to coerce those closest to them to submit to their personal will.

At the other end of the spectrum are the totalitarian psychopaths, the Hitlers, Maos, Pol Pots, Maduros, Castros, Ho Chi Minhs, and Stalins. These monsters use violence, fear, and destruction to impose their “revealed truths” onto society as a whole, through the power of the state and armed gangs. They create a rule of terror for their own profit, all the while proclaiming the noblest of aims, the freedom of the “the People.”

Whether at one extreme or the other, the goal is to interfere with the lives, the will, the happiness, the property and the freedom of others. They can’t stand to see others succeed, much less do things in their own way, using means they own, for their personal ends.

The Protestant Reformation set in motion a movement of personal freedom, will and self-determination. The Enlightenment questioned all claims of divine or “natural” authority, that the existing order is the best one possible in the best of all possible worlds. The American Declaration of Independence and the subsequent revolution have yet to be surpassed in assuring the dignity of the individual against the onslaught of do-gooders and tyrants, petty or monstrous. It is an imperfect solution, but it’s the best we have. The proof is that it has been imitated around the world, if not in deed, then in word.

We must continue to build the Radical Individualist Commonwealth. This is the commonwealth of free individuals, seeking to better their lot through personal responsibility, private property, free trade and capitalism. Anything else is conservative and, yes, reactionary.

© 2020 Richard Martin

By Richard Martin

What is the radical centre? For most people, the centre is associated with moderation. There is no real way to characterize the conventional centrist position other than to say that it eschews extremes and claims moderation. Unfortunately, most centrists tend to hold non-principled beliefs. They take a smorgasbord approach in supporting various political and economic positions. A bit from this party, a bit from that, some left, some right, maybe more or less of either. This isn’t to imply that centrists are unprincipled. My claim is merely than in most cases they don’t base their positions on well articulated principles and axioms.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that type of centrism. It’s just that it can be vulnerable when the political and social wind changes. Moreover, while conventional centrism draws on left and right policies and beliefs, most centrists would be hard pressed to express why they have decided to believe something in the political or economic sphere. It’s impressionistic and intuitive, based on what seems right at the time. I believe conventional centrists are actually mostly apolitical. They don’t adhere to political, economic and social positions from specific, well-articulated principles, which puts them up for grabs by politicians and activists of the left and right.

Instead of conventional, unprincipled, improvised centrism, I’d like to propose the concept of a Radical Centrism. To call it Radical is to say it articulates positions from clearly articulated principles or beliefs. Radical means “root.” If you have stong principles and they are well articulated with an understanding of how they influence beliefs and actions, this makes one more resilient in the face of changing opinions, political rhetoric, and even brow-beating by activists of all stripes. Furthermore, it provides a counter to confirmation bias, the well-known logical fallacy of seeking evidence to confirm an existing belief, rather than trying to determine the logical implications of one’s principles and axioms.

This is different from conventional centrism which is mostly apolitical, picking and choosing from a menu of options and positions articulated by the political Left and Right (whether moderate or extreme). On the other hand, it is Centrist because it places the Individual at the centre of things. Call it selfishness or egoism, the reality is that everyone is selfish. That’s how we exist and thrive. In other words, Radical Centrism is unabashedly individualistic.

As a matter of fact, Individualism is the number one principle and axiom of Radical Centrism. Only individuals exist. Collectives such as “society,” “race,” “class,” etc., only exist to the extent that they form patterns of behaviour and action of individuals. To quote Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as society.”

This entails methodological individualism in the human sciences, such as economics, politics, ethics, etc. I could go even further and claim metaphysical individualism, but that more extreme stance is not needed to draw useful inferences and conclusions that are relevant to reasoned discourse and action.

I’ll be adding more principles over the next little while. In the meantime, feel free to comment and add your own thoughts. I’d like to get a dialogue and conversation going on this. Please refrain from emotion and rhetoric and try to keep things civil.

© 2020 Richard Martin

#radicalcentre #personalfreedom

By Richard Martin

There’s a lot of screeching and prancing about going on right now about COVID-19 numbers, mainly in the US, of course, but also in Canada and elsewhere.

I’m not saying any of the numbers are necessarily wrong. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily have the information to make a judgment about their validity. Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself, to which I don’t have the answers. If anyone does, I’d appreciate any references.

Question 1. Are they being counted in the same way in different jurisdictions? There are over 30 countries in Europe, 50 states in the US, 10 provinces and 3 territories in Canada. Are the accounting methods sufficiently similar to make useful and valid comparisons?

Question 2. What is the error margin? We’re familiar with this concept from announcements of public survey results. For instance, Gallup will say that their survey results for a specific survey are within a certain margin of error 19 times out of 20. So, they’re saying that there is a possibility of inaccuracy and that close results shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth. This kind of transparency about results is par for the course in quantitative science. Astronomers report their results with a margin of error. So do particle physicists, biologists, and chemists. Even psychologists and cognitive scientists give a margin of error. This is because error is inherent in any measurement process. It can be minimized and estimated, but never eliminated. This is the a fortiori the case for COVID-19 accounting.

Question 3. What are the relevant rates? Even assuming we had reasonably accurate and comparable numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and they were comparable between jurisdictions, that doesn’t necessarily mean the numbers are inherently meaningful, especially as a guide to action or policy. The best example of this is that we lack the denominator in many cases to establish reasonably accurate rates: of contagion, of infection, of morbidity, of mortality.

Question 4. How “granular” are our numbers? In other words, who is spreading, who is getting infected, who is getting sufficiently ill, and who is dying? In Canada, 80 % of deaths are in nursing homes, and these mostly in Ontario and Quebec, by far the two most populous provinces. Anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that this percentage is accurate (but I could be wrong of course), but is it reasonable to compare this figure with those in other countries? Maybe, maybe not, but this is something for public health scientists and epidemiologists to evaluate. It’s probably too early to get definite answers, while generating interesting paths and hypotheses to investigate. Time will tell.

Question 5. How valid are international and interjurisdictional comparisons? I was reading a FB post this morning showing that the death rate in Canada is much lower recently than in Florida, Texas, and other US states. The graph also showed that Canada’s population is about 50% greater than either of those two states. However, Texas and Florida are also a lot more densely populated than Canada. You’re comparing two completely different geographic and demographic profiles. That’s not even taking into consideration cultural, political, economic, and social differences. We can’t simply assume that different countries and regions have similar bases for comparison, no matter how similar they may appear on the surface. A fortiori for intercontinental comparisons. They’re not devoid of interest. It’s just that they usually don’t mean what rhetorical flourishes claim for them.

These are just some questions I’ve been asking myself. I suspect others have too, although they haven’t articulated them as such. Feel free to add your own, but please refrain from conspiracy theories. If we’re going to have rational policy and action, these must be based on reason and prudence, not gut feel and wild swings of passion and emotion.

© 2020 Richard Martin

I like Jordan Peterson’s work. In my opinion, he is a thought leader, in that he makes me (and hundreds of thousands of others) think. He’s become something of a cultural icon over the last 2 years. I believe there are four key reasons for this:

  • He has reinvigorated the practice of “moral examination,” which has ancient roots in classical civilization and was advocated by Ignatius de Loyola as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In fact, Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Lifeis actually a distillation of timeworn wisdom about how to live one’s life and interact with others through moral examination. Rule 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Another of the rules is “Clean up your room.” If someone takes that only literally, then they need to think more. One of the more provocative rules, in my opinion, is “Don’t let your children do things in public that would make you hate them if they were someone else’s kids.” The fact that these are basic is important, because who doesn’t need a good reminder once in a while. I certainly do. Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s why we quote the Bible so often: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or, “No one is a prophet in his home” (or words to that effect). This leads to the next point.
  • His basic message is that meaning comes from taking on responsibility. This seems to resonate particularly with young men. I believe that this comes from the general lack of a framework for transitioning men from boyhood to manhood in the Western world these days. This is the kind of tough love, teamwork, and mentoring that is provided by team sports and that comes from a coach who is a role model for youths. I got this in the army, and I think it is missing for many young men who are, let’s face it, raised surrounded by women. Not all, but many.
  • Peterson is also defending traditional Western, Judeo-Christian values, many of which have come under attack in recent decades, especially in the face of political correctness, islamophobia, ideological feminism, resurgent anti-Semitism, and cultural Marxism. Many on the Left hate this aspect of his writings and speeches, for obvious reasons.
  • The final point, which is a major aspect of the previous one, is that we risk much when we throw out ancient traditions, cultural, social and religious. Amongst other things, he claims that there is much wisdom in the Bible, if read in a symbolic, allegorical frame of mind. He has also said that nobody knows what effects recent social changes will have on our society. I see that as an antidote to the conceit of many social justice warriors, university professors, and other miscellaneous social engineers and junior dictators. These are the same people who tar anyone who questions the zeitgeist as fascists, authoritarians, and anti-this and anti-that.

All of this makes him something of a “cultural” conservative, and I, personally, find that resonates with me. It also resonates with many others. I realize that’s only an ad populam argument, but it does explain much of his appeal around the world. 12 Rules has sold over 2 million copies and is being translated into 40 languages. He’s been on speaking tour around the world for all of 2018 and has been engaging with large, enthusiastic audiences, as well as with cabinet ministers, heads of government, and deep thinkers in many other domains (e.g. Sam Harris, Roger Scruton, Camille Paglia, etc.)

He may prove to be a flash in the pan, but I sincerely hope not. Shouldn’t we at least find out what all the fuss is about?

© 2018 Richard Martin

The following quotes are from Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (HarperCollins Canada, Kindle Edition).

I couldn’t say it better myself. Heath and Potter have identified the underlying motivation and process of how individualism shades into narcissism. This is what happens when identity politics and self-centredness go too far. It’s what Jordan Peterson talks about as being analogous to the extreme right’s focus on group/ethnic identity. However, it’s not about equality of outcome. It’s about narcissism and wanting everyone to conform to your personal wishes and to pay the price for your idiosyncrasies.

“Whenever you feel that society is forcing you to conform or treating you like a number, not a person, just ask yourself the following question: ‘Does my individuality create more work for other people?’ If the answer is yes, then you should be prepared to pay more. Most institutions in our society have a system that they follow. At the fast food restaurant, at the bank, in a hospital, there is a standardized system for interacting with clients and delivering services. Such a system is generally designed to maximize the service that can be provided at a given price (or given certain budgetary resources). Individuals who refuse to follow the system not only cost more to service, they often gum up the works for everyone else. In this context, individualism often shades over into narcissistic disregard for the needs of others.” (Kindle Locations 3730-3736)

“While there is nothing wrong with individualism per se, it is important that no one person’s individuality be secured at the expense of other people’s time and energy.” (Kindle Locations 3747-3748)

“If your individuality is such that it requires other people to wait on you hand and foot, then you should be prepared to pay an arm and a leg.” (Kindle Location 3752)

by Richard Martin

This is my last Stand To! of 2017, as I’ll be taking a break until 7 January. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2018! May all your goals and plans come to fruition and may you have all the resolve and resilience you need to be ready for change and uncertainty in the coming year.


With that said, I’ve noted a disturbing trend that undermines good will and social accord. In recent weeks, a message has been circulating through numerous networks on Facebook concerning Muslims in Montreal. Muslim parents of children attending a school in Dorval Quebec allegedly requested that pork be removed from the cafeteria menu. The mayor of Dorval supposedly penned a letter refusing the request on the grounds that it goes against Quebec culture and customs. The “letter” is the object of Facebook sharing, with hundreds of people weighing in with their “attaboys,” and worse in some cases. Well, it’s a fake. It goes back to 2015 and even earlier, as it appears the meme originated in 2013 in the U.S. Just Google it to see.

Another occurence last week in Montreal shoes how the media and wider public are quick to overreact to purported outrages when it corresponds to prejudices or biases. The imam of two mosques in Montreal allegedly requested that a construction site near the mosques remove the women working there as this is against their religion. The Commission de la construction du Québec investigated it quickly and it is, once again, a fake. The TVA television network had to recant its story on Friday and apologize for its sloppy reporting, i.e., failure to go beyond what had been claimed and verify the source. The mosques have since received threats and there are hateful messages circulating on Facebook, that fount of calm and intelligent consideration.

Now, I’m not picking on Montreal, French Canadians, or Quebeckers in general. There’s plenty of intolerance to go around, regardless of nationality, origin, or religion. I’m not even pro or anti-Muslim. Though I come from a Catholic background, I’m an atheist, philosophically and practically. However, I am a firm believer in freedom of religion and freedom of speech. People can say and do whatever they want, so long as they don’t harm others. On the other hand, spreading hate propaganda of any kind, whether it’s anti-Muslim, antisemitic, or anti-anything goes against these principles, because it produces a climate of hate, fear, and mistrust. It feeds on atavistic tendencies in all, and that includes me. We can all be guilty of reacting with emotion when we should be reacting with our head.

When I commanded troops on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia, our motto was “First information is always wrong, so don’t overreact.” Whether we’re journalists, business people, politicians, managers, or just plain citizens, we owe it to others (no matter how different) and to ourselves to validate information before we start climbing the barricades. A simple test is to ask ourselves if the information conveyed in a message corresponds to a popular belief (not necessarily founded), a prejudice, a bias, or a stereotype. If yes, is it possible that the message is just repeating a “meme”? The latter is a bitesized piece of information that is designed, usually unconsciously, to be repeated and spread through a population, just like a virus.

The first question we should always ask ourselves is whether something we hear or read–in some cases, even claim to see–is true. Is the information valid? Does it come from a trustworthy and valid source? What is its provenance, i.e., can we trace it back to an actual author and follow the “paper trail”? The second question is, do I really need to react to this information? Is it of vital importance to me or others? Will I make things better or worse by weighing in? Can I back up my opinion–because that’s all it is, opinion?

I’m not saying people should keep their opinions to themselves. Rather, I’m saying that freedom of speech, association, thought, worship, etc., carry privileges, but also responsibilities. Retransmitting hateful propaganda or messages of dubious origin and validity are rights, certainly. But they are also actions which can have harmful or hurtful consequences. We must be smarter than the low-lifes who start these hateful memes and propagate them to satisfy their own twisted purposes.

I may not be religious or a believer, but I don’t think one needs to believe in God or Allah or Shiva to hope and act for peace and goodwill to all men. Amen!

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Support my work!

by Richard Martin

An engineer employed by Google—James Damore—was recently fired for writing and circulating an internal memo criticizing aspects of Google’s diversity policies, specifically corporate goals regarding the ratio of women and men in software work. I won’t go into the details of the arguments for and against, except to illustrate how the selection of the aim has an impact on the scope and validity of the ways and means of achieving it.

My purpose is to look at the structure and logic of the problem to show that the objective conditions and delineates the analysis of the problem, how it is resolved, and what are considered acceptable and unacceptable questions and factors for consideration, planning, and decision-making. This newsletter is longer than usual because I think a failure to understand the logic of arguments and reasoning underlie most social and organizational conflict. This can in turn have a major impact on performance and readiness.

Google’s objective appears to be (approximately) equal numbers of men and women in software development, programming and engineering. It follows that only options which have a realistic chance of achieving that aim should be developed and considered for implementation. Anything that questions that objective should not be considered any further as it may undermine its achievement and take resources from better uses.

Damore’s memo didn’t question gender equality in itself, rather the wisdom of Google’s goal in service of that aim. His questions and skepticism weren’t addressed at the ways and means of achieving the aim, but rather at the goal itself. In other words, Damore’s memo was at a different logical level than the stated Google policy. If you set the goal as a 50/50 split of men and women in engineering and other technical jobs, and that’s non-negotiable, then it follows that you must, of necessity, consider only alternatives that can achieve that. On the other hand, if the goal is gender/sexual equality in general, then aiming for 50/50 split may or may not be a realistic or desirable way of achieving that.

This is where values and underlying beliefs come into play. In terms of beliefs, there are three big assumptions leading to the Google objective of 50/50 split. IF men and women have equal capabilities (in any meaningful and statistically significant sense), and IF there is no coercion (explicit and/or implicit), and IF there is no stereotyping (subtle or not so subtle) in hiring and managerial practices by Google or any other employers, then it follows that aiming for an equal split (or close thereto) between men and women is a desirable and achievable goal.

All three of these IFS are empirical questions that can be answered through rigorous research and analysis. For the record, my personal belief is that any statistically significant capability and performance differences that are demonstrated scientifically between men and women are merely of academic interest IF AND ONLY IF there is no coercion and no stereotyping. With that said, capability, coercion and stereotyping can be slippery concepts. Ideology can influence all three, especially coercion, as it is related to power and hierarchical relationships.

So much for the underlying assumptions and beliefs. What about values? In a culture that values well-defined sex roles, it follows that sexual/gender differences, coercion, and stereotyping won’t even be questioned. They will simply be assumed and justified, usually based on what is viewed as common sense and custom. We on the other hand, live in a society that values sexual and gender equality. Why? Because we have an even higher level value which we call freedom of choice. We believe that anyone should be allowed (and even encouraged) to choose whatever education, job, and career that they want. And what someone wants should be defined by whatever mix of challenge, interest, satisfaction, pleasure, ease, investment, and compensation they find most appealing at any specific time, so long as there is demand for that work, and it doesn’t undermine someone else’s goals through coercion or stereotyping. All this follows necessarily from our western values of individualism and self-actualization.

If we value freedom of choice, then it follows that people should be allowed and encouraged to choose whichever career they deem most acceptable and satisfactory to them. However, this may or may not result in a 50/50 split, either within any specific organization, or society in general. It could be 10/90, 60/40, 49.999/50.001, or another other ratio. And that’s only in one specific work area, in this case software-related jobs.

I have no doubt that Google’s senior managers believe firmly in sexual and gender equality. I would also bet that most, if not all, its leaders and employees hold deeply to the values of non-coercion, non-stereotyping, and freedom, at least as regard career and occupational choice. Google has apparently chosen to pursue a 50/50 split between men and women as the means of achieving the goal of gender equality and diversity. From that perspective, the Damore memo can undermine its implementation and achievement.

On the other hand, Damore raises some interesting questions. Can Google’s stated policies and goals generate coercion and stereotyping of men? Can the 50/50 goal lead to a kind of affirmative action where capable men are being sidelined by less-than-capable women? Could this undermine the company’s long-term viability, sustainability, and culture of performance? By adopting a quantitative goal, is Google trying to solve a social problem that it didn’t create and for which it may not be well adapted?

I don’t have the answers to such questions, and I suspect no one else does either, at least not in the short term. But aren’t they worth asking and examining? By firing Damore, Google has sent a clear message that the decision to pursue literal sexual/gender equality is taken and will not be undermined. Management has taken a stand will not brook internal opposition or questioning. The train has left the station. On the other hand, Damore raises valuable questions from the standpoint of corporate governance and societal change. It’s not Google’s job to solve all of society’s problems, but nor can the issues be ignored by such a big and influential economic player.

My purpose here has been to analyze the logical structure of the problem and the goals these lead to. I chose the Google-Damore case because it allowed me to highlight what I consider to be the most salient aspects of decision-making and management. I’ve shown how goals are conditioned by values, assumptions, and beliefs, and that goals then limit or expand the problem space. We must choose our goals judiciously and calibrate them to our underlying beliefs and values, as this directly influences the scope and validity of our plans and readiness to implement them.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

It’s that time again, when all the predictions and forecasts of gloom and doom—or better times ahead—come at us. In the interest of jumping on that gravy train, I make only one prediction for 2017:

There will be predictions, and most of them will be wrong.

A few will be somewhat right, usually something self-evident and not particularly informative: “The stock market will fluctuate.” Well, thanks for that…

Some will be a bit off the mark, but most will be completely wrong; a few will be wildly off the mark. This will lead many media commentators to lament in June that such and such never could have been predicted.

There are fields where there are reasonably accurate predictions, but they tend to be in the sciences. This is because predictions in physics, chemistry, meteorology, etc. are based on empirically-based, quantitative models, and they are put through a process of peer review to ascertain their effectiveness.

The question, then, is what predictions outside of pure sciences can be trusted. Not many, but there are still some precious metals in the pile of slag. You must make your own assessments as these forecasts come out and judge how much credence to lend them. Here are my six simple rules for evaluating the credibility of predictions and the prognosticators making them.

Rule 1—Consider the source (Expertise Rule). Do they have genuine expertise in the subject matter? Are they disinterested parties or participants in the predicted process? In other words, do they have a stake in the outcome? Psychology and common sense dictate that interested parties are seldom as objective as they claim.

Rule 2—Identify the theory or model underlying the prediction (Model Rule). Do they generate predictions based on an explicit explanatory model? Or, do they just seem to wing it, based on intuition and past results?

Rule 3—Determine how the model was developed and tested (Cherry-Picking Rule). Was the explanatory model created through purely statistical legerdemain? In other words, did they analyze a bucket load of data and then look for patterns, or did they instead develop a theoretical model and then see how the data conformed to their predictions. The first approach is called cherry picking; it’s like shooting at the wall and then drawing a target around the closest bunch of bullet-holes. The second approach is the only truly valid one.

Rule 4—Look at the data (Secret Knowledge Rule). Do they provide their inputs and data, or otherwise reveal what and how empirical information was used in formulating their predictions? If they don’t, then how can their models be validated and tested?

Rule 5—Consider the timeframe (Horizon Rule). Some predictions turn out reasonably accurate as to amplitude or outcome. They just never specify WHEN they will come to fruition. I predict that the Dow will hit 25,000… eventually. Makes a big difference.

Rule 6—Compare past predictions to actual results (Performance Rule). This one is self-evident, but the usual case is that past predictions are quickly forgotten in the rush to generate and consume new ones.

You’ll notice that none of these rules gives you an exact answer. That’s because there rarely IS an exact answer, except in tightly constrained situations. Business, finance, economics, politics, sports, and military strategy are all highly complex and somewhat chaotic. Beware the prognosticators who claim inerrant accuracy and foresight.

We may not know precisely what will happen in the future, but we can be better prepared.

That’s why we all need the readiness principles and prudential approaches that I write, educate, and consult on.

Here are some of my other thoughts on these matters:

What Goes Up: The S-Curve and its Many Applications

Trend or Bandwagon?

Beware the Prognosticators

Let’s Have Some Perspective

Stop Predicting, Start Experimenting

Surprised by the Normal

Remember Richard’s Business Readiness Process in 2017!
  1. Ensure vigilance through situational awareness.
  2. Do preliminary assessment of tasks and time.
  3. Activate organization or team.
  4. Conduct reconnaissance.
  5. Do detailed situational estimate.
  6. Conduct wargame and decide on optimal course(s) of action.
  7. Perform risk management and contingency planning.
  8. Communicate plan and issue direction.
  9. Build organizational robustness.
  10. Ensure operational continuity.
  11. Lead and control execution.
  12. Assess performance.

Call me if you would like a 90-minute Business Readiness Briefing in early 2017!

My name is Richard Martin and I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Last week I introduced the concept of self-similarity and showed its relevance for power law distributions. In this post I discuss the applicability of self-similarity in S-curves.

To recap briefly, self-similarity implies that a structure looks essentially the same at all levels of “magnification” or scale. You can zoom in on any part of a “power curve,” and it will look like… a power curve, with basically the same appearance as at the higher scale.

The same phenomenon can be seen in s-curves, with the difference that the scale invariance is less apparent, at least initially. The following diagram shows how each phase on an s-curve can be broken out into smaller, constituent s-curves at the next lower level. By extension, each of these subordinate s-curves can be parsed in the same, self-similar way. The structure is recursive and nested. If you want to grow, develop, or improve in any way, you must see it as a succession of s-curves at all levels of scale.

self-similarity-s-curve

This is why I’ve titled this post “Growth is a stairway, not a high jump!”. You make progress in increments, climbing from one step to the next in a succession of achievable bounds. This breaks progress and improvement into (to paraphrase Neil Armstrong) a series of “one small step” moves so you can make “one giant leap” for your bigger purpose… or goals.

This is more manageable from a psychological standpoint as well as logistically. It also makes risk more manageable. As I illustrate in the following diagram, there are risks at each transition to a succeeding s-curve. Risk can arise from making a jump–even a small one–to a higher level of performance and engagement. It can also arise from a drop in performance at this critical juncture. We can seldom know and do everything that is needed at the new level. We need to learn–which is why progress is depicted as an s-curve in the first place. We start out with low performance at the new level and a high potential for mistakes. If we’re focused on learning from our mistakes and on improvement, we get progressively better until we hit the rapid growth stage, and continue up the “learning” curve from there on in. When we hit the inevitable plateau, we must jump–or drop–to the next curve.

risk-at-thresholds

The final point is that performance or growth can bog down or slip at any point, for any number of reasons. We can stop or slip back down the curve we’re already on. I call this regression. Even more consequential is when we drop back to a previous curve. I call this retrogression, and I’ve illustrated it in detail in the following diagram. It shows how you can fall from any performance level to any other, usually through neglect, over-confidence, smugness, or simply through inattention to changing conditions in the environment. For instance, new technology, new competitors, changing demographics, all these can make our current success or standing shaky or even irrelevant.

retrogression-s-curve

I don’t say this to be overly pessimistic, but rather realistic. Stasis is death. Movement is crucial. Business, life, performance, everything, they are what is called a “red queen” race. You have to work just to stay in place and work even harder to make progress, grow, develop, get better.

We’ll address these issues and many more in my coming posts under the topic of “Ideas,” so stay tuned to this space.

My name is Richard Martin and, as indicated by the title of this blog, I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

In my last two posts under “Ideas” I introduced the concepts of the S-curve and Power Law (a.k.a. Pareto’s Law, Zipf’s Law, or the 80/20 rule).

In this post I discuss the concept of self-similarity. I view it as an adjunct to the S-curve and Power Law that multiplies their effectiveness for anticipating change and other dynamic interactions in society, businesses, and other forms of organization.

According to Wikipedia: “In mathematics, a self-similar object is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself (i.e. the whole has the same shape as one or more of the parts). Many objects in the real world, such as coastlines, are statistically self-similar: parts of them show the same statistical properties at many scales.” The term fractal is also frequently used to characterize self-similar structures.

Furthermore, self-similarity is characterized by scale invariance. Again according to Wikipedia: “In physics, mathematics, statistics, and economics, scale invariance is a feature of objects or laws that do not change if scales of length, energy, or other variables, are multiplied by a common factor.

(My emphasis in both quotes.)

In practice, this means that it is difficult or even impossible for an observer to detect the system level depicted just by looking at a picture. As mentioned above, coastlines are the paradigmatic illustration of this phenomenon. You can look at satellite image of a coastline at various scales and, barring the presence of a scale indicator (e.g. a boat or a human on the picture), you can’t determine the scale with any certainty. Moreover, this is also a statistical effect, as the underlying math is the same or very similar at all levels of magnification.

There are many phenomena in nature and society with this characteristic structure. However, for business and strategy, the most crucial realization comes from the self-similar (or fractal) nature of power curves and s-curves. Take any distribution governed by a power law. If you hone in on any particular segment of the distribution, you find that it is also governed by essentially the same power law. In other words, the distribution looks basically the same at all levels of magnification, or scale. The follow diagram shows this effect.

self-similarity-in-power-laws

No matter what you’re measuring or tracking–it could be total sales, the performance of your salespeople, the relative impact of your clients–you are likely to notice a power law working at all scales. This was illustrated in my Power Law article last week by the example of real estate agents in the Greater Toronto area. I’ve reproduced those two graphs here, as they show how a power law is in evidence at two different scales.

treb-6-and-under treb-gif

Although not as stark at the level of agents with only 0 to 6 deals, we can see that the two scales are broadly similar. What about practical applications? Well, for one, we can see that the effect is likely to be similar at all levels and in all categories of agents. For instance, if you break out each category (7-12 deals all the way to 201 plus deals), you will probably find the same pattern. A small number of top performers skewing the results of the group upward.

This type of distribution plays havoc with our basic assumptions of normally distributed performance or effects. If we were to assume a normal distribution (Gaussian distribution in technical statistical terms) for real estate agents, we could easily be fooled into thinking that there is an “average” performance, a “typical” real estate agent. But this could not be further from the truth. In a normal distribution, the mode, median, and mean are all very close to having the same value. This means that the arithmetic mean could give a false understanding of the performance distribution for a sales group. In actuality, the mode (most frequent value), median (the middle value), and the actual mean could be different, with the latter possibly heavily skewed in the direction of the highest performing class of sales people. This is what we see with the distributions of real estate agents above.

Would the arithmetic mean of this distribution truly represent the average or typical performance of a real estate agent in the Greater Toronto area? Obviously not. If we look at the numbers of deals, 0-6 is the modal value, and represents about 50% of the total number of agents! This means that the largest number of real estate agents are actually sluggish performers, and even don’t participate in any deals at all! If you’re looking, say, to providing products and services to real estate agents–at least in the Greater Toronto area in 2011–then you’d be better to look at the actual performance distribution at varying scales so you can segment the market properly.

These relationships tend to hold across time and space for any particular phenomenon. We can safely assume that the distribution of real estate agent performance is broadly similar no matter when and where you build your sample. While it’s ultimately a question for empirical investigation, in my experience, self-similar power laws are ubiquitous in market dynamics and human performance. You can apply this insight to all market and performance numbers and you will get similar results. This enables much better analysis, planning, and strategy to gain and sustain a competitive edge.

I’ll explore scale-invariance and self-similarity in s-curves in my next “Ideas” post. In subsequent ones I’ll also look at the broader implications of self-similarity, particular as they relate to hierarchy in organizations, specifically what I call “nested hierarchical planning” and “nested hierarchical vigilance.”

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be forwarded, reproduced, or otherwise referenced for non-commercial use with proper attribution. All other rights are reserved and explicit permission is required for commercial use.