There was an interesting series of tweets from writer Ben Sauer that discussed two types of problems based on a theory outlined by Karl Popper. Popper provided a framework that divided problems into either clock problems or cloud ones.
“Clock problems,” as Sauer describes them, “are ones that have a discernible end state that’s easy to identify. You make a clock, and it tells time, job done; you know you’ve fixed it. Engineering is mostly like this. Cloud problems are the opposite: there’s no end-state, and for any problem-solving you try, it may not be easy to understand if you’re done. Relationships, politics, design. They’re messy, indefinite, you may have an effect but not really ‘fix’ anything...”
The trigger for this tweet thread was Elon Musk taking over Twitter and then promptly embarking on the hara-kiri of firing close to 50 per cent of the workforce. It seemed to be a textbook case of a brilliant engineer — the maker and seller of electric car and spaceship dreams — applying clock skills to a cloud problem.
Twitter clearly isn’t an engineering problem to solve. As Sauer puts it: “Twitter is a cloud problem (with some clock stuff behind the scenes that fools you into thinking it’s a clock).” In neglecting to diagnose the problem right, this leader risks destroying what could have been a bright new start. How do leaders avoid the same mistake when solving problems?
People vs profits
Air India now faces an enormous challenge and opportunity. The new team of leaders have embarked on an ambitious integration of assets with promises to turn around the customer experience and business results. Much of their success will hinge on whether they see the challenges as clock challenges or cloud ones.
Given its robust execution record, it’s quite likely that it will get most of the clock parts — process, technology, and new planes, right. But, the struggles will be with the cloud part — changing culture, really listening to its customers, and handling the smorgasbord of employees’ expectations and aspirations.
Musk looks at Twitter’s lack of profitability as a clock problem but that’s really a symptom and he’s rushed right into solving for symptoms. Is it symptoms or root causes that we are solving for? A clue comes when a leader can assess whether she’s biased on the side of process and profits to the exclusion of people.
Numbers and metrics are easy to throw into the clock leaders’ hands — they provide an instant high that a problem has been solved, and a result has been achieved but it often hides people’s fears and hopes — clouds that hang over the horizon — storm clouds that will wreck those very perfect looking clocks.
Edtech start-up Byju’s is grappling with some of the consequences of its aggressive growth. As large numbers of employees are being laid off, I was impressed with the CEO’s apology mail to employees about the lay-offs. But the fact that the mail was to retained employees and not the ones let go, left me scratching my head a bit. A clock approach to a cloud challenge?
Logic vs imagination
We saw this play out in Former UK’s Prime Minister Liz Truss’ hold-your-breath reign. She saw the economic problems as clock problems. She and her ‘clock’ Finance Minister rapidly rolled out clock solution after clock solution and then watched in bafflement as the cloud problem exploded in their faces. They failed to read the interlocking nature of the series of problems they were solving for. They applied logic where imagination and empathy where required.
Many outsourcing arrangements in business, for example, fail because the outsourcer and sometimes even the client team believe they’re solving a transactional superset. They roll out clock solutions with clever logic. But suddenly they find walls of resistance. They are stunned by why their users are cursing not applauding.
Change management fails when it sees the switch as a transaction and technology transformation whereas very often it is first about changing beliefs and behaviours — quagmire-soft and deceptive. Clock leaders love to deal with the hard visible results that logically driven solutions and projects provide. But often what is needed is imagination and creativity.
Author Nassim Taleb draws a striking parallel when he writes in Fooled By Randomness: “In Pharonic Egypt…scribes tracked the high-water mark of the Nile and used it as an estimate for a future worst-case scenario. The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse — and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent.”
Morgan Housel, in the book The Psychology of Money, refers to this and is bang on when he writes: “This is not a failure of analysis. It’s a failure of imagination.”
Big Bang vs ripples.
In the movie The Core — old movie, so hopefully these are not spoilers — the team has to grapple with an unexpected problem in the final leg of their mission to restart the earth’s core. They’ve underestimated the nuclear power required to kick-start the sleeping core. They’ve brought along five nuclear bombs — turns out the 1,000 megatons that would generate, won’t do the job.
So applying some cloud and clock thinking one of the leaders devises a risky solution. Don’t drop and trigger the bombs all at once for the big bang explosion. Instead, stagger them and that would create a ripple effect of explosions whose compounded power would exceed 1,000 megatons and therefore hopefully get the core spinning.
The point is that ripples often have a much larger effect than a single large big bang. Leaders must ask themselves whether the solution or initiative they’re rolling out is one that would create a big bang or spin-off ripples that would lead to unintended and sometimes damaging consequences.
A great example is the disaster that demonetisation was and continues to be. The leader made the triumphant drum-roll announcement. The whole country anticipated the magical overnight big bang — the end of black money, the death of corruption, the punishing transformation of loot by politicians and debauched businesses into worthless paper.
Instead, what resulted was wave upon wave of unplanned consequences, unthought-of repercussions that brutally damaged the economy, upended ordinary people’s lives even leading to some losing theirs, and eventually, looters and black money continue to thrive. A typical clock approach to a cloud problem.
When leaders get their clocks wrong they are still deluded because they see the clocks right twice a day. When clock leaders solve cloud problems, they must learn to look up and look beyond. Clock leadership is critical to the solving of many problems but the expert clock leader risks falling into the trap that Abraham Maslow described — when you’re good with a hammer, everything you see is a nail.
So, leaders must pause before charging into a problem-solving mode to ask if they’ve got a clock or cloud on their hands. Getting the time right won’t cut it if you’ve read the weather all wrong!