Beware the meso-facts! (Mental Models V)

Sam Arbesman is one of my favorite writers. Clear prose, unique perspectives and urgent insights – what is not to like, right? His book on complexity – Overcomplicated – is a tour-de-force in thinking through what it means that information systems increasingly are better described as biological systems than mechanical systems – and how this will change the way in which they fail. I have recommended it ceaselessly to anyone who wants to understand why this factor – the complexity of the systems we are studying – is severely undervalued in everything from tech-policy discussions to general politics.

Arbesman is also the author of another book – The Half-Life of Facts – that is equally important. In the book Arbesman makes the point that facts are unstable – they degrade over time, and this is part of how we need to understand truth in our societies. But, he notes, different facts degrade at different rates – and this gives us a real challenge.

The first layer is the macro-layer, where we have big picture, deep and entrenched truths like physical laws or as Arbesman suggested the number of continents (which is interesting, because that degrades too).

The second is the meso-facts, or Hans Rosling facts – and these are the dangerous ones. These are facts you learn once, and never find the time or inclination to update. Like the list of countries with the highest infant mortality, or the average income in China. These are the facts you think you know, but where you are most often wrong.

The last, third layer, is the day-to-day micro-facts where you know they are always changing and so you update yourself on them – stock market quotes is the obvious example here.

So, the meso-facts are the ones that get you, which suggests that it is a good habit to list them occasionally. And meso-facts appear in the different shapes and shades. The Rosling-facts are easy to list and examine – and reading any stats book regularly is a good way to update yourself. Even just browsing the CIA Factbook helps. But there is another category of meso-facts that are even more devious, and these are what I would like to call “organizational meso-facts” – things the organization has learned once and never updated or changed.

These meso-facts often get stuck as frames through which we see the world and they become invisible to us in the organization. Take for example the tech companies that have learned that privacy is important and that people care about their personal data being under their control. This is an organizational meso-fact, and further development of this insight has a tendency to stall. A lot of good efforts are organized around this meso-fact, but it is rarely challenged. What if the reality is that people care about their personal data not because they want to control it, but fear that it can be used to control them? What is the real core, root concern is really autonomy and not confidentiality? You can see how the meso-fact of privacy concerns being about control will skew efforts to address people’s concern.

Meso-facts are extra dangerous in organization because they have a tendency to degrade into tenets of faith. It is really hard to unlearn them. But a good thing to do is to list them, and then ask how the organization arrived at that fact. Why did we once believe that this is true? Why did we come to this position? What where the steps that formed this meso-fact?

Diligently examining meso-facts is a good way to retain some turnover in organization learning, to almost ensure that the meso-facts degrade as the world changes. While I think no organization will do this, listing the meso-facts that everyone agrees on and challenging them yearly would probably not be a bad idea.

What are the defunct meso-facts that hold your organization hostage?

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