The Insider - April 2023

The undertow of technology, over engineering process, asymmetrical risk, boring businesses, and rehearsal dinners.

The Insider - April 2023
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the April edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.

On the undertow of technology

A few weeks ago, a Nobel Prize-winning economist predicted that the productivity advances from AI will allow us to “move to a four-day week easily.” I wish it were that simple. If the 4-day workweek was possible through gains in productivity alone, then we would have moved to a 4-day workweek long ago (Nixon predicted that a 4-day workweek was imminent in 1956).

We tend to over-attribute progress to advances in productivity and technology and under-attribute that progress to human judgment, disciplined focus, and good leadership. The commentary in vogue today about how AI will eliminate jobs and usher in previously unimaginable futures neglects how humans will mishandle and redirect the very technology that’s been hyped to liberate us.

In a recent podcast, Ezra Klein asked his listeners to rewind and imagine it’s 1990 and someone from 2020 tells everyone that in 30 years, we will have devices in our pocket that have the computing power to access the entire corpus of human knowledge, instantly collaborate with people anywhere in the world, and get done in seconds what it takes all the 1990 humans many hours to accomplish. If that future was articulated 30 years ago, many might predict that the pace of human progress would speed up. But instead, productivity gains, scientific discoveries, and other markers haven’t seen the major uptick that the most pollyannaish futurists would have predicted. Instead, those devices have also led us to be more distracted, more disconnected, more annoyed, more tired, more angry.

Since 1990, the gains in such powerful technological progress were attenuated by the millions of conflicting ways those technologies were leveraged. The wave of technological progress may move us forward, but the stronger its force, the stronger its undertow.

On authority vs. process

It’s a mistake for teams to build a lot of processes before they establish clear authorities and decision-rights in their organization. But this is the approach that many flat organizations who embrace inclusive decision-making take: they over-design processes to include everyone and under-design clear lines of ownership and decision-making. Authority without process leads to bad decisions. Process without authority leads to slow (or no) decisions. Before building tons of processes, build clear authorities, then determine what process is needed.

On asymmetrical risk

I came across an article in The New Yorker from 2010 that argued that the best entrepreneurs weren’t those who simply took bigger risks, but rather those who designed the risk equation to have more upside than downside. They carefully searched for asymmetric opportunities between risk and reward, and then seized them.

We’re often told this story that the greater the risk, the greater the reward, but that misguides us to think that the levers holding risk and reward are always equally balanced. The world is full of imbalanced levers, but finding those asymmetrical opportunities is hard work and might favor those who are non-conformist in how they perceive risk. You might not find them on a Forbes 30 under 30 list, and they probably won’t be in Silicon Valley folklore; instead, they will be relentlessly focused on finding the sure bet over the flashy bet.

On 'hammer and paperwork' businesses

For every flashy climate technology like direct air capture, hydrogen fuel cells, and sustainable jet fuel, there are ten boring businesses that are flying under the radar, solving everyday problems involving hammers or paperwork. ‘Hammer and paperwork’ businesses are not particularly innovative, but they’re everywhere, and they’re on the front lines of decarbonizing the economy by processing solar rebates, training electricians, navigating bureaucracies, financing solar panels, and installing heat pumps.

The speed of deploying clean energy and new climate technologies will ultimately depend on hammer and paperwork businesses at the last mile—doing work that is not easily done by ChatGPT, but is maddeningly hard to staff. The Wall Street Journal quoted Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management, on the challenges in today’s labor market: “We can’t hire a truck driver to drive a trash truck for $90,000 in Houston, Texas, but I can hire an M.B.A. from a small school for $60,000, and I can get them all day long.”

On the 4-day workweek

Smart Workweek, my 4-day workweek training company, has signed a partnership with the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence to offer more extensive support, consulting, and resources to teams looking to pilot a 4-day workweek. Led by Joe O’Connor, one of the leaders of the global 4-day workweek movement, the Center is a leading research group, consultancy, and movement builder for the 4-day workweek. If you’re considering piloting the 4-day workweek over the summer, reply to this email and I’ll send you some ideas for how to get started.


What I am reading

  • When progressive politics loses the plot. How one-step-forward-two-steps-back liberalism gets in the way of progress. The New York Times.
  • Millennials have a reputation as the broke generation. But that’s now a myth; the generation is thriving. The Atlantic.
  • How artificial intelligence is fostering over-employment. The people that have multiple full-time jobs. Vice.
  • The great electrician shortage. How going green will require an aging army of blue-collar workers. The New Yorker.

Something personal

My favorite part of any wedding is the rehearsal dinner. It’s when the most important people in a couple’s life stand up and say the intentional, beautiful things they rarely find occasion to say in everyday life. My brother got married a few months ago, and listening to the extraordinary toasts by the other groomsmen and bridesmaids made me pause and think how unfortunately rare it is that we reserve for weddings the eye-to-eye affirmations and appreciations that we could bring more regularly into our most important relationships. We often need the excuse of a big event or elevated moment to overcome the awkwardness of being so direct with the people we love, but if we can push through that valley of awkwardness, there is deeper connection on the other side.