An article I just read for strategy class hinges around a perplexingly unsatisfying phrase: “Not all, not none, but some.” Strategists can’t understand and control everything, the more they try the more their well laid plans blow up in their faces. They also can’t consider themselves powerless, hypothesizing systems that blow uncontrollably in the wind, because there are far too many examples of well laid plans actually WORKING. The unsatisfying answer seems to be to try to understand and control some things but not all things. This seems almost pointless, why bother understanding just a few pieces of a dynamically interconnected whole? And how on earth do you choose which pieces they are?
This dilemma is paralleled beautifully with something I like to call the Freshman Problem, which I’ll populate with a real-life example. My brother, Michael Jay, just started at Skidmore in upstate New York. When he arrived on campus there were several thousand smart, interesting new people for him to meet, all of them constantly rearranging themselves by affinity group, interest area and major. Who should he decide to become friends with? He could take an arrogant view- meticulously selecting his friends and rigorously ignoring the rest, but he’ll probably wind up being unsatisfied and coming off as a dick. He could also take a humble view, simply sitting back and seeing which friends come to him, but this will also be unsatisfying because he’ll wind up with little say over his own social life and will come across as a wet noodle.
The answer (or the best one I know) has to do with values. My brother should decide what he values and seek friendships that will allow him to explore and fulfill those values, even though those friendships are intrinsically unpredictable. When he arrives on campus my brother can use his values to find a crew of 5 friends who we spends all of his time with. A year later, when those friends are split into new dorms and new interest areas, my brother can use a more evolved version of his values to restructure his existing friendships and make new ones. As a complex and chaotic system, his campus is predictable in an important way: its entropy will always chip away at what he has and will always offer him unexpected opportunities for something new. It is only by understanding his own values that he can give this creation and destruction a strategic context.
Values put the satisfaction back in “Not one, not all, but some.” When systems are too chaotic to plan around and too orderly to ignore the middle path is to find a system for making plans. Values are at the core of of any such system. Like the systems that they grapple with values are always evolving and never really changing, as resilient as they are unpredictable. They’re a hat that protects you from the harshest rain and sunshine that a system has to offer and, just as importantly, gives the system a clear signal about how it can best integrate you. Hold on to your hat.