(Team Building) Holonic Care and Feeding: the Fovea

Fovea; I just love the metaphor of the fovea.

As it pertains to eyesight, the fovea is the pin-point focus which boasts the greatest visual acuity and color depth.

Saccades. Also a great metaphor, which is complementary to that of the fovea.

Saccades are the many leaps your eyes make, directing the fovea at and around a certain object as the brain attempt to make sense of the world it occupies.

Of course, this composite picture is informed by peripheral vision, which in terms of visual acuity is merely an approximation, and the brain does an incredible job of ignoring what’s not pertinent so we can focus on what is.

All of this is performed seamlessly, and we have come to believe that it is smooth and flows like water, when in fact, the best we can actually pull off are a series of ragged snapshots in formed by less than perfect peripheral samples.

Think about a memory which you hold most dear. In my case, it’s the first time that my youngest twin smiled, because the PICU doctors had told us that she would likely not, due to her meningitis, yet there she was.

Like the sun, she shined.

And I basked in the illumination of her radiance.

I remember it as if it had occurred yesterday, the scene replaying what is actually a false memory, if you think about it.

In fact, as it occurred, my eyes darted about her face and greedily drank in countless samples of the fovea, informed by less-than-perfect peripheral samples.

Is it a false memory? Not really, but what is truth?

My wife was not present for the event, so her memory is limited to a single photo I barely managed to take with my phone.

And yet…

The photo, coupled with my retelling of the event, helped her create a complementary composite perspective, which is likely as true as the one I had formed.

Of course, this anecdote pertains to my daughter, so I wonder.

As she grows older, she might sample from both perspectives in the creation of her own narrative, which would likely subsume and eventually transcend our own perspectives as she carries her story forward upon our shared tapestry, even after my wife and I pass.

So where is the most accurate fovea, as it pertains to this story?

Again, this is metaphor. At this point, the metaphor refers to the imagined and remembered focus of a memory which might direct or define a narrative.

Is it somewhere between my temples? Is it somewhere between the skulls of my daughters’ parents?

Is it somehow centered above and between the three of us, augmented by complementary composite representations of this event by various family and friends?

We are not all the same.

The story is told by many voices, and they sound different, are different, and (properly orchestrated) their respective pitch and timbre can coalesce into a complementary voice which transcends the contributions of the individual.

You might be thinking, OK. Cool topic, man. A single clap for the guy who uses a lot of big words, and leverages adorable anecdotes which might engage fellow breeders. Hooray.

This would be a marginally interesting discussion to your ordinary pothead if this were not deadly critical in the context of product design and collaboration.

Let’s switch contexts for just a moment.

Let’s imagine that we are designing a solution on behalf of, no…

Let’s wait on that a second. I don’t want to go from adorable anecdote to 1,000% nerd right out of the gate.

Think about a time when you have fallen into synchronicity with another person, and it gets to the point where you can finish each other‘s thoughts, you share a sense of humor, and it’s almost as if you occupy a shared complementary existence that just so happens to be occupying two separate bodies.

For those who have experienced love between friends or romantic partners which have achieved this level of synchronicity, the experience is truly enrapturing.

We spend a few years with our odd thoughts rattling around our brain case, comparing our insides with other peoples outsides, so to speak, as we construct and perpetuate the illusion of loneliness even as we are surrounded by literally billions of people who are more like us than not.

This disease of perception, this belief that we are chronically misunderstood and lonely, is extremely pervasive. It really is nothing more than an illusion, but it’s really, really sticky, and people become trapped in that particular place for a very long time, even if it is an imaginary paper bag.

The great irony becomes that that which precludes a person from connecting to another, in the creation of a shared experience, is a demand that somebody else meet them on their terms, versus the other way around.

As my friend Jon told me when I was in the military: Kent? Quit your whining. If you want friends, you should spend some time trying to be one first.

This works.

And sooner or later, you might experience this as well, beginning with a humble bid to simply pay attention to somebody else in exchange for them paying attention to you, and who knows? Your affinities might align, and there’s an alchemy. A chemical reaction, so to speak.

My friend Steve is a chemical engineer for Intel, prone to sitting in geothermal springs in the desert and yelling words like thermoclines!

Although a grown ass man, he maintains a childlike fascination with the world, and will eagerly tell you that all the energy necessary for a truly incredible inferno is already in the forest. All that’s necessary is a catalyst and proper conditions.

He’s absolutely correct.

I’m from Oregon. The west side of the mountains to be precise, and the range. Let me tell you something about the rains.

In some parts of this world there are people who die because they don’t have access to safe drinking water, but in that part of the world it falls with such volume and frequency that we get moss on our cars, and I’m not talking about the vehicles that are broken down.

Nonetheless, we get truly dramatic forest fires, because in the summertime, the conditions are sufficiently dry that the periodic catalyst of lightning or lava will spark infernos, and millions and millions of acres burn.

But it’s not like anybody carried the fuel into the forest. That fuel was already there, and it is likewise true for a friendship, romance, or a collaboration between two or more people who have committed to a single shared purpose.

Singleness of purpose.

In my experience, this is one of the basic prerequisites for a functional holon.

You will see that I talk a lot about holons. If the term is new to you, substitute holon with the word circle, and imagine it being occupied by two or more people who have agreed that their shared singleness of purpose transcends any other issue or topic.

This is important, and alludes to a single value shared by those within the circle/holon.

Eventually, disagreements will arise. In fact, there is nothing more tedious and horrible than a circle dominated by a single voice. In my professional experience, those teams who have been staffed and structured to serve as an echo chamber to the voice of a single contributor are best dismantled and set to the wind, because the quality of their contributions is ultimately abysmal.

Some argue but if you staff a team with multiple dissimilar personalities, conflict will arise, and that’s totally true.

The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave, so says Thomas Jefferson, and he’s totally fucking correct.

In fact, evidence of a healthy social organism is this boisterous contention between parties who agree to disagree, and are nonetheless still committed to protect the shared garden of ideas.

I simply refuse to manage or support an organization that doesn’t take pride in such values, for the simple reason that intolerance towards diversity of opinions is an aberration, and should never be tolerated within professional environments, because the aggregate quality of team contributions plummets dramatically.

I’m not talking politics, assholes.

I fucking hate politics. Don’t drag me into your stupid shit, for real.

I would rather talk about football, and I fucking hate football. As mentioned elsewhere, I am a participant, not a spectator.

Granted, I really suck at football, probably because I’m really short, I have really small hands, and I’m afraid of the ball, which is why I picked up skateboarding in the first place.

But I digress.

I’m talking about teams. Small circles (holons) of two or more contributors aligned to a singleness of purpose.

Technically, my wife and I form a holon.

We have values we share, some of which may be considered old-fashioned to others, and would probably be more at home during the Great Depression or whatever, but pertain to hard work, stoicism, self-sufficiency, meritocracy, and so on.

That’s one example of shared value, but actually our singleness of purpose is centered around the fact that we run a school in the perpetuation of these values to our five children, plus orphans that we have informally adopted.

My wife and I are both complementary personalities, which is a really diplomatic way of saying that we are peers. Two alphas, and we would have it no other way, for it is in this manner that we teach our daughters and our sons the value of a pure meritocracy.

As you can imagine, this can result in frequent significant contentions, because we both have extremely dominant personalities.

We are athletes. Educated and experienced, and we operate without fear, which facilitates great alchemic creativity within our holon.

This is precisely how I staff high-functioning teams.

Individual contributors to a particular holon come and go. We all know that. Attrition happens.

In the context of a relationship, people fall out of love. People die. Individuals are inherently inconsistent and fallible.

Yet a characteristic of a high-functioning holon is that maintenance of the shared value transcends the loss of individual contributors.

It is in this manner I can make a fairly credible case that the traditional American family is insufficiently staffed, for there are not enough contributors to maintain continuity in the wake of inevitable attrition.

I’m not talking about divorce, really.

I’m talking about the fact that we no longer honor the values and wisdom which inspired the statement It takes a village to raise a child.

At the tail end of the dust bowl, during the Great Depression, my grandmother was three months old when her father was killed in an automobile accident, in Meadow, Texas.

Nonetheless, the family persisted.

Cousin Dewey came out from Arkansas and served as a surrogate father-figure as their mother and my grandmother’s many sisters rallied, eventually moving that part of my family to Oregon.

The family was a holon, and the individual contributors were committed to the maintenance of the shared singleness of purpose, which enabled the family to survive, relocate, and thrive in the wake of the loss of individual contributors.

This should be a goal in the creation of your professional or grassroots political collaboration.

It’s not enough to talk about it. People have to demonstrate those values, but as with all things it’s a balance. People cannot be expected to drop all personal considerations in the maintenance of a holon. That would be another aberration, and one which would, ironically, begin to become threatened by the values of adjacent circles.

Individual contributors should be expected to care for themselves in a sustainable manner, and this seeming discontinuity creates another dimension of contention that should be embraced.

Which brings us back to the fovea.

The team responsible for the holon’s maintenance, care, and feeding must respect a metaphoric fovea which is not centered around a single contributor, because that is unsustainable.

It’s helpful for me to visualize that there is a slippery blob, a jelly-like balloon, which floats somewhere over our heads, and all of us have our hands up sort of pushing it this way and that to keep it from hitting the floor.

We will need to curate a trust in the others who are likewise trying to keep the blob from hitting the floor.

This necessitates faith, by definition.

Faith is a belief, plus action which demonstrates that belief, often in absence of evidence which would 100% justify the belief.

This gets us back to the metaphor of forming a relationship with someone else

You might feel chronically lonely and misunderstood, but eventually you’re going to need to take a leap of faith and believe that someone else shares a complementary point of view.

So you might have to take a leap. Maybe begin by listening to them and validating their point of view, and trusting that they will reciprocate.

As a parent, we frequently sit back and allow our girls to tumble and get hurt as they master the use of their evolving physicality to navigate to the world.

As a manager, I have to sit back and allow the team to fail, and then help them succeed so they feel the victory and gain a sense of ownership, because they did it. Sure, things got weird, but they did it. They fixed it. They are the heroes that save the day, not me.

The slippery little balloon bounces above our heads, and those who are on hand to keep it from hitting the floor cycle in and cycle out.

This is a fovea. A shared perspective that we curate. We invest in and we trust the contributions of others.

Obviously, it’s tenuous, but it’s totally worth it, because the aggregate and deterministic quality of these collaborations is off the fucking charts.

But it’s not for everyone.

I spent a lot of my career in the private sector, and the methodology I just described is absolutely not the norm.

Usually an executive comes in, arbitrarily fires two or three people, brings in a couple of members of his echo chamber, makes some big announcements, hangs around for two to three fiscal quarters, hires sycophantic administration that tells them everything they’re doing is brilliant, claims the accomplishments of others as their own, and moves on to do that same cycle elsewhere

This is the corporate norm, and the results of their execution is evident. Non-deterministic, highly variable, and essentially corrupt, dishonest.

I had a boss named Pat. Back when I was in the manufacturing industry, and he used to pitch koans to me as little prompts for Socratic lessons.

One day he said, IBM is expected to file three patents a week.

He didn’t say anything else. Pat being Pat, he just walked away with a smile on his face, the weirdo

But I really troubled at what he said. How do they do that? Three patents a week?

That’s hard to pull off. That’s really fucking hard to pull off.

In order to patent an idea there, you had to come up with the idea in the first place, and then it had to be an idea that was novel and nobody else had yet innovated (what lawyers call prior art).

I really began to study how they actually did it, and guess what? They do it by following a rough version of the methodology I just described above.

Part of pulling this off is allowing the team to fuck around, trusting the team to execute, getting outside your comfort zone and letting the team carry that slippery little ball as they try to keep it off the floor.

Anybody with a voice can talk. Bypass that and look at the results, and really, really press people to demonstrate execution, because that’s where the rubber meets the road.

Within a publicly traded company there’s an expectation to deliver results within a deterministic, low variability manner

If the plan is to deliver 3.3% organic growth quarter after quarter, then the team needs to do so, which ironically means embracing a little bit of non-deterministic chaos as the team takes turns keeping the greasy little ball from hitting the floor.

Creativity is inherently messy. You can’t grab the nape of anyone and force them to be creative on your terms. That shit just does not work

While it is possible that a high functioning team might collectively innovate an idea, which might then deliver dramatic organic growth for one or two fiscal quarters, if that’s followed by four or five fiscal quarters of negative growth, that’s actually very bad

Likewise, if your grassroots advocacy group has two to three months of dramatic innovation followed by two years of almost no contributions, that is a catastrophe.

Imagine having a really engaging friendship, and then that person ghosts for six months.

It kills trust. It erodes faith. It sinks the holon.

Seek out a widow whose children have grown to adulthood and left the house.

Ask them to describe what it was like to pack up the children’s things and put them away without the companionship of the other parent.

The shared fovea.

The holon.

Want more info? Contact us at www.214alpha.com



Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”