Second-order thinking can help us evaluate the consequences of our consequences
One thing I’ve learned since having children is just how early in life many of the faults in humanity show up. Children are reflections of ourselves but in the purest form. When children reveal behaviors like greed, biases and violence, it makes you start to view these behaviors as a natural part of human nature that can only be controlled through social norms.
I say these things to prepare you for the fact that you are not immune to these behaviors. None of us are immune to biases and it’s easy to accept the reality our biases create. Biases can also hide our true motivation for taking (or not taking) a course of action.
My children are at the age where we can play video games together, which is way better than playing with Paw Patrol action figures. The artificial world of video games is starting to reveal the dark underbelly of human behavior. When I see this darkness manifest in my children, it makes me look at these behaviors critically. In this post I’ll talk about an experience I shared with my daughter Ella, who is 10 years old, and the parallels I see in the workplace.
Satisfactory is a video game where players work together to extract resources from an alien planet and build various components out of those resources for their employer FICSIT. To do this the players move through a series of improving capabilities and skills that allow them to build factories to automate a lot of this work. Factories are a collection of machines that automate tasks in a pipeline like fashion to start with one type of input (eg iron ore) and at the end of the pipeline have a type of output, like iron rods.
One of the key tasks early in the game is making fuel for your generators. Generators are used to power the other components of your factory. My daughter Ella’s very first factory was created to produce Bio Fuel , which is the most efficient type of fuel in the early stage of the game. In order to make bio fuel, Ella created a factory pipeline that would take leaves and grass, convert that into bio mass and then take the bio mass and convert that into bio fuel.
When she built the factory, she had the idea of keeping 50% of her bio mass as-is and storing it, and then sending 50% of the biomass down the pipeline to be converted to bio fuel. Early on this technique made sense but over time we realized that anything that would take bio mass as a fuel source, would also take bio fuel as a fuel source. The difference is that bio mass burns a lot faster, so a generator might consume 18 units of bio mass per minute, but would only consume 4 units of bio fuel per minute for the same power output.
Once I realized that bio fuel could be used in everything, I suggested to Ella that we just focus her factory on creating bio fuel instead of storing 50% of our bio mass as is. With many different factories running, you can spend a lot of time making sure your generators are fueled. Having to fuel them less often is a huge productivity boost for your game play. To my surprise, Ella was very resistant to the idea. Like any proposed change in any setting, Ella had a laundry list of defenses for why things should remain the same.
“We might need bio mass later in the game” was her first retort. A fair one for someone not familiar with these types of gameplay loops. But I leaned on my 20+ years of experience playing these types of games to try to rationalize with her why this isn’t likely. I how the game play progression typically explained has us moving forward and that it wouldn’t be long before we probably wouldn’t be using bio fuel either. And bio mass is so easy to acquire that it wouldn’t be a problem if we needed to build a new factory later. But sometimes experience isn’t convincing to people.
“But there’s no downside to us just storing it” came next from her. That’s true, except it’s horribly inefficient. We almost never opt for bio mass, unless we’re out of bio fuel. And often what would happen is the storage container we used to store the bio mass would fill up, which would force us to convert it to bio fuel anyways to make space in the container. But this was a manual process, so again it hit our productivity and the productivity of the factory as a whole. Inefficiency though can get so embedded in the process that people just live with it because it seems easier than the alternative.
“Bio mass is just as good as bio fuel.” Here’s a scenario where data I thought would surely win the day. As I mentioned earlier, the game tells us the burn rate of fuel types. Bio mass burns 18 units per minute while bio fuel burns 4 units per minute. Each generator can accept a stack of 200 of either fuel type. Doing the math means we need to refill bio fuel generators every 50 minutes, but bio mass generators roughly every 11 minutes. I thought the data would make this an easy conversation, but if you work in any office setting, you probably already know where this is going.
“I don’t know if that data is right.” Now she challenges the validity of the data provided by the video game developers. I don’t know if she’s thinking there’s a global conspiracy against the bio mass industry or if the developer is staffed by pushing an agenda. She claims that when she watched the burner it felt like they burned around the same amount of time. Now I’m starting to lose my patience a little bit.
“I just don’t think it’s worth changing the entire factory for this.” We’re finally getting to the root of the issue now! She just doesn’t feel like doing the work. I don’t think the work is actually that much but I’m a bit more experienced than she is so I can see how she might think it’s a bigger task. I offer to do it for her. Finally the last wall of resistance crumbles. She agrees to the change and decides she’ll implement it as soon as she finishes a few high priority factory tasks, ironically one of which is refueling a bunch of bio mass burning generators.
Ella implemented the change in the most efficient manner possible. The conveyor belt that carries the bio mass goes into a conveyor belt splitter, sending half the bio mass to storage and half the bio mass to be created into bio fuel. She opted to just delete the conveyor belt that would have shipped the bio mass into a storage container. One minor tweak and suddenly the reality we were fighting about had finally come to fruition. We’re only producing bio fuel and we’re producing it at a much higher rate because the delivery of bio mass is now 50% faster. (Since we’re no longer splitting it)
If you’ve been reading this from the perspective of an employee at a company, a lot of this probably resonates with you. Remove video games and replace it with whatever it is your company does, and you’ve probably had a lot of these very same conversations with co-workers. And it’s easy to assign laziness, ambivalence, lack of empathy or any other host of adjectives to describe that co-workers work ethic.
The case with my daughter is the ideal scenario. The entire exercise was one of fun and recreation. The work that needed to be done was literally part of the game loop, the very thing that makes the game fun. The task was completely owned by Ella from beginning to end, so she could implement it any way she wanted. Despite all these things going for it, resistance still crept in. Why? Because it’s not the work, it’s the change.
Change is a funny thing for some people. It brings in uncertainty and doubt for the future. The devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Dealing with the inefficiencies of the current factory was a lot easier for Ella to get her head around than the potential problems that could be created by redesigning the factory from the ground up. What if she ran out of materials during the rebuild? What if she couldn’t get the pieces lined up properly? What if we ran out of fuel in our generators while the fuel factory was being rebuilt? I’m sure all these things were swirling in her mind at a subconscious level, which then consciously manifested themselves as resistance to change, with a set of adopted biases to justify that change. Confirmation bias is what happens when we interpret information in a way that confirms or supports a set of prior held beliefs. It’s what allowed Ella to replace hard data with her general feeling of how fast fuel burned. Keeping an eye out for when we might fall victim to confirmation bias is a part of being “data driven”. I put that in quotes because many people and organizations are “data driven as long as it supports what I wanted to do anyway”, which isn’t exactly the same thing. Confirmation bias plays a huge part in that mindset.
Another observation I had made was how the factory was left in this modified state that might not make a ton of sense to the next set of factory workers. With the intent of the factory going from making bio mass and bio fuel, to just making bio fuel, many of the components of the factory don’t serve a functional purpose any more. We have a conveyor belt splitter that doesn’t split to anything. We have a storage container that isn’t connected to the factory at all any more. We have an extra storage container in the pipeline that doesn’t make sense with just a single fuel type being produced. If I were a new employee at this factory, I’d be a little baffled as to why these things exist. This made me think of Chesterton’s Fence and how it plays in our comfort levels when making changes.
Chesterton’s Fence is a concept of second order thinking where we not only think about the consequences of our decisions, but the consequences of those consequences. The phrase comes from the book The Thing by G.K. Chesterton. In the book, a character sees a fence but fails to see why it exists. Before removing the fence he must first understand why it was there in the first place.
As a new factory worker who is trying to make the fuel factory more efficient, I might be confused by these extra components scattered about the system. What if they had a purpose that I’m unaware of? What would remove these things from the system do? Their uselessness seems so obvious that it almost makes it even more daunting of a task to remove it because you have no idea why it exists.
This is a common problem we see with hastily implemented changes. The change is designed to deliver the value needed now as quickly as possible but sometimes at the expense of clarity for future operators of the system. Thinking about the consequences of our consequences can create a more sustainable future but at the same time, put more work on our plates in the present.
This post ended up going on a way longer than I expected and if you’ve reached the end you deserve a cookie or a smart tart or something. The parallels in behavior between my video game-playing daughter and senior people in large organizations is startling. The truth is these behaviors are our default state of mind. Only with the awareness of our faults can we improve.
Some key takeaways from this lesson for me are:
- Biases exist early on in life and you’re not immune to them.
- Keep an eye out for confirmation bias. It can make you believe some crazy stuff
- People fear change, even in the most optimal of situations.
- Second-order thinking can help us evaluate the consequences of our consequences. It also pressures us to understand the intent behind something before we go about changing it.
This post was a bit off the beaten path but seeing these behaviors in my daughter, whom I love and is perfect, gives me room for critical thought about humans in the work force.