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The Big One

5 min

At my day job, I spend tens of thousands of dollars of my client's money on online ads.

That's a lot of money. Emotions tend to run high whenever you are spending a lot of someone else's money...particularly if they aren't immediately showered with riches as a result.

While I'm good at what I do, and my clients are successful on average, there are always situations where things don't go as planned. Success is slow in coming, results don't meet expectations, and things seem far more difficult than they "should" be.

In these situations, I will typically get some variation of this question:

"What's the plan?"

This question - and the error that underlies it - is so common, and so fundamental, that I call it "The Big One."

It can be tricky. Most clients don't like my answer, which is:

"There isn't fact, having a plan would be one of the worst things we could do."


The key to understanding this is hidden in the description:

Success is slow in coming, results don't meet expectations, and things seem far more difficult than they "should" be.

The elements of this description ("slow," "don't meet expectations," "more difficult than they 'should' be") all point to judgments based on preconceptions. We expected things to go one way, but they went another.

If the world we were operating in was comprehensible - if the rules were known and followed consistently, if the interaction between the elements of the system weren't too numerous, if things more or less followed according to plan - we'd be in what Dave Snowden has called the Complicated Domain.

In the Complicated Domain, things are...well, complicated. There's a lot of stuff you need to know, a lot of levers to pull and buttons to push. But, if you know the system well and have a grasp on its rules, you'll be able to get the outcome you want. Things are ordered.

A car is a complicated system. Mechanics require a great deal of technical knowledge to be able to fix, maintain, or modify cars...but if they possess that knowledge, things more or less go according to plan. If you "fix the problem" and find that it doesn't go away, no one throws up their hands and complains that the nature of the car is unknowable. You just assume you didn't diagnose the issue correctly and get back to work.

The Complicated Domain is where plans, strategies, and goals work best. If you know where you are and where you want to go, you should be able to plot a fairly straightforward path between the two. While you may not know exactly how to achieve what you desire, someone out there does - whether that's a nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, chemist, or whomever else you might need.

In Complicated Domains, the rules are followed, and experts know how to manipulate them accordingly.

The client I described at the beginning is making a fundamental assumption about what they're trying to achieve. They are assuming that online advertising is in the complicated domain, and therefore, if things don't work out according to plan, the problem lies with the plan.

That's the big error. That's the misunderstanding that's going to drive you right over the cliff into chaos.

Because online advertising - like investing, business, personal relationships, politics, dance, or myriad other things - is not complicated.

It is Complex.

And there's a very, very big difference between the two.


Systems inside the Complicated Domain seem very intimidating to the uninitiated, but experts who understand the rules of the game will be able to achieve their desired outcome most of the time.

Could you say the same of, say, the stock market?

Not really. It's often the most experienced, most skilled investors that end up taking the biggest losses.

Complex Systems do NOT "obey the rules." They don't behave "as expected," and expecting them to do in the future what they're done in the past is a surefire way to blow yourself up.


Because Complex Systems are dynamic.

For one, they tend to have many interacting elements, all of which share a set of dynamic, shifting interconnections. Some things affect other things, but that may change over time. The nature of the relationship can invert (from a positive correlation to a negative one, for example), or break altogether. Patterns are only ever "semi-stable" - they're there for a while, and then they fade, or expand, or intensify, or die out.

Secondly, Complex Systems are more than the sum of their parts. This means that behavior can emerge from a complex system that would not be predicted simply by looking at the individual pieces. Take the bits and pieces of the early internet - web pages, a small number of avid computer hobbyists, telephone lines - and then try to use those things to predict TikTok.

Because Complex Systems change, and show emergent and unexpected behaviors over time, accurate prediction is all but impossible, particularly over a long period. Like the weather, you will have some visibility into the future over a short period (say, the next 2-3 days)...but even then, there are no guarantees. As you try to guess the weather further out - a week, a month, a year - your likelihood of accuracy diminishes to zero.

Complex systems, then, are dynamic, unexpected, and unpredictable. This is why brilliant investors lose money in the stock market, why some movies work and some don't despite both having talented directors, and why small groups organized on Facebook can suddenly swell up and overthrow governments...

...And why not everyone who does online advertising will see an immediate return.

Since you can't predict the future, and since you can't guarantee that taking one action will get you a particular result, you can't plan your way out of complex problems. The more specific your plan, the more assumptions you're making about the system, and the less likely it is to work.

So, no:

There is no plan...and having a plan would be one of the worst things we could do.


If we can't plan, what can we do?

Instead of a plan, in complex systems we use a framework:

Probe, sense, respond.

Probe: perturb the system to get a sense of how it responds. Take a small, safe-to-fail action to learn more about how things work. Be open to the fact that things might work for a while, and then stop working.

Sense: get real-time feedback about what's happening. Try to measure the things that matter, and be aware that variables will interact and confound one another. The world isn't a laboratory, and isolating variables isn't possible.

Respond: Do more of what works, and back out of what doesn't. Incorporate what you've learned and continue the process. Try to make progress, but be aware that your path will include detours: there are no straight lines in nature.

And that's it.

If you're a planner - like me - letting go of your ability to plot out your every future step will be difficult.

What you're left with, however, is a freer, more useful way of moving through the world: one that's open to coincidence, surprise, and the unexpected, one that allows you to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and one that enables you to make mistakes without blowing yourself up.




A reminder: I've been sending a few short messages a week to folks on my Telegram channel. I'll be announcing an upcoming course here as well, so if you're interested, join us! It's free.

Mimetic Traps.

Great introduction to the concept of mimesis, and how it can steer your entire life in the wrong direction.

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