Can You Improve Hindsight?

While we’re busy making progress, we’re inevitably screwing stuff up. We just don’t know it at the time. Our projects, our kids, our retirement plans – they’re full of mistakes to be discovered in hindsight. All we’ve got are our motivations, and the ability to make them altruistic and not selfish.

The recent Meltdown and Spectre stories are excellent teachers, and Ben Thompson’s analysis over at Stratechery (the blog) or on Exponent (the sister-podcast) is worth your time. For the laymen, we made computers really fast to give people more and more of what they wanted (extreme example: “we want cat videos on our smart phones in remote locations!”). That quest for speed opened up some security problems that were recently exposed. The motivations to get us to this point were mostly altruistic (“we want our videos to load and play NOW!”), but Intel’s CEO selling $24 million worth of stock AFTER he was informed of the security flaw certainly looks selfish.

Don’t look back with hindsight without also considering intent. That goes for your projects, your kids, and your retirement plans too.

Thompson is worth directly quoting, “Power comes from giving people what they want – hardly a bad motivation! – and the benefits still may – probably? – outweigh the downsides. Regardless, our choice is to move forward.”

This is the hard thing about playing the long game. We have to keep moving forward, and we have to occasionally put ourselves (and others) in check to make sure they’re doing it for the right reasons.

As Facebook updates your News Feed to include more “friends and family” and less “brands,” we all know they are trying to reset the optics around what happened with the 2016 election and the topic of fake news. The profit seeking that led them to accepting ad payments in Rubles was selfish, and this is their attempt at moving forward with more altruistic seeming motivations. Facebook has power, they just need to make sure the benefits outweigh the downsides, for both shareholders and society. Welcome to the real world.

In the coming days, we will do some more exploring around the idea of motivations, incentives, value chains, and what it means to give people what they want, for the right reasons. We can improve hindsight by understanding how intent influences these ideas. Instead of looking for perfect information, we can look for guiding principles that can dynamically respond to what reality throws at us.

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