Coordination Headwinds

A rare, actually useful, management document

As a consultant, I read many corporate documents and pieces of management writing that are really good and worth sharing. Unfortunately, the stuff that’s really good usually cannot be shared, and the stuff that’s available to share is rarely any good.

I want to share and talk about one of the rare exceptions, an excellent management presentation titled Coordination Headwind by Stripe’s head of strategy, Alex Komoroske. I discovered it a couple of weeks ago, and it’s already made it into my list of top 5 things I’m likely to send to clients to help work through issues, alongside other classics like Steve Yegge’s famous Platform Rant. Don’t let the rather twee emoji-anchored style, slime-mold nerdery, or deceptively simple language put you off. This is one of the best expositions on the underlying subject matter I’ve ever seen, and does a better job than many ponderous management books and papers. If you don’t immediately see what’s special about it, chances are, you don’t have enough experience with management and leadership problems. If your first scan doesn’t grab your attention, set it aside and read the rest of this newsletter before returning to it.

I’ll explain why it’s Good Stuff, but first a little detour through one of my favorite shows, Burn Notice, which I’ve been rewatching lately. It’s salient, I promise.

***

Burn Notice is about a burned spy, Michael Westen, who is dumped in Miami by his handlers, where he turns into a sort of freelance spy/agent. He and his buddies (an ex Navy Seal, an ex-IRA operative, and another burned spy) use their spy skills to help ordinary people out of various kinds of trouble, while also trying to unravel the conspiracy that got Michael burned. Some of the digital tech bits of the show are a little dated (it ran from 2007-13) but otherwise it holds up really well.

The show features frequent voiceovers from Westen that begin, “As a spy, you learn….” or “As a covert agent, you are trained to…” followed by some little tidbit of contextualized tradecraft. Here’s a compilation of the tips. They’re extremely entertaining.

I’m sure your eyes glazed over a bit when I opened this newsletter with “as a consultant…” It’s a phrase I rarely use for precisely that reason. It doesn’t hook you the way “as a spy…” does, and sadly, what follows doesn’t usually feature exciting car chases or explosions.

Many as-a-spy Westen tips are about improvising spy shit, like explosions or surveillance devices. But many tips are also management tips that would be boring without the fun context of spy shit.

For example, “there’s a tradeoff between planning too much and planning too little.” As stated, it conjures up visions of a boring management meeting going wrong to the tune of banalities being spouted all around.

The Michael Westen version goes something like “when you’re kidnapping someone… plan too much and the target could get away, plan too little, and you could get yourself killed.”

What makes the tips fun is that the stakes are made extremely clear, and are compelling. There is a lot of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), and there’s also explosions and car crashes that make it clear what happens when you don’t handle the VUCA right.

Most Burn Notice episodes are not really about heroics or ingenuity, though the protagonists are professionally heroic and ingenious. They pull-off James Bond or Jason Bourne level heroics and MacGyver level ingenious hackery, but without making a big fuss about it. Their antagonists usually can do so too. That stuff is presented as taken-for-granted routine professionalism. These are people who know what they’re doing and do it well. It’s not about the individuals and their skills, special or otherwise. It’s not even about the team.

What the plots are about is coordination headwinds — the stuff Komoroske’s slide deck is about. Complex plans, requiring careful coordination among many people, running into various sorts of uncertainty and going wrong, forcing the gang to improvise and recover.

Burn Notice is heist-movie type plotting done right — instead of a complex Rube Goldberg plan working nearly exactly as planned with suspiciously few glitches (half of which turn out to be elaborate head fakes that aren’t really glitches at all, but part of the meta plan!), you have relatively simple plans going wrong for mundane reasons like traffic delays, cellphones being left behind, and so on.

What makes Westen and his team special is not that they can shoot, fight, stunt-drive, hack computers, mod electronics, and engineer explosions. That’s all apparently just routine skills in their world. What makes them special is that they have a superhuman ability to overcome coordination headwinds and still come out on top.

No real humans could overcome coordination headwinds that well, but it’s fun to watch fictional characters do it. This is management science fiction. Or perhaps we should call it management competence porn. Real humans are never this superhumanly good at dealing with coordination headwind. I detest heist movies, but this I can enjoy.

Of course, the stakes are rarely this clear in more mundane kinds of management where there is no exciting spy shit involved. It’s hard to see the stakes clearly when they are enveloped in a cloud of VUCA, but don’t explode.

In the non-spy world, things tend to go wrong with a whimper rather than with a bang.

Things going wrong with a bang make you sit up and pay attention, and switch into emergency action mode with the right level of urgency and clear priorities.

Things going wrong with a whimper drain you of energy and motivation and draw you into a spiral of demotivation and general suckage.

***

Back to Komoroske’s deck. It’s rather long, even though each slide is only about a tweet’s worth of text. You should read the deck, since there’s a lot of subtle detail (presented in a deceptively simple way) but here’s a short summary that will do for this newsletter.

  1. In any organization, things that work at small scale, where individual competence is the limiting factor, slow down and stall as you scale the activity and the systems/organization become the limiting factor. The problem occurs in two flavors — the slime mold flavor and the military hierarchy flavor. The latter is worse, so you should try to be like slime mold.

  2. There is no villain responsible for this. Coordination simply becomes vastly more difficult far earlier along scaling trajectories than people realize. Things get worse than you expect, sooner than you expect. This is coordination headwind. It’s an exponential snowballing phenomenon.

  3. There are many sources of coordination headwind — execution uncertainty, ambiguity of goals, effort fragmentation, cost of deconfliction through escalation, sensitivity to small misunderstandings, attribution errors, obstacles obscuring goals and timelines, negative network effects, and so on.

  4. All contribute to create a superlinear relationship between scale and coordination headwind intensity. This happens with mathematical inevitability via multiplication of long chains of numbers that are individually high (like say 0.95) but net out to a rapidly falling probability of accomplishing anything.

  5. People routinely and radically underestimate the massive size of this effect, and misattribute it to bad management, individual incompetence, or malice, and systematically under-react to it, doing too little, too late, and letting the problem grow to crippling, existentially threatening levels before even recognizing it.

  6. When things stall due to coordination headwinds, people predictably pull out a variety of responses that at best don’t work, and at worst, make things work. These responses include: excruciating process discipline (spreadsheets!) to control uncertainty, heroic dragon-slaying efforts, simply ignoring it, leaders “diving in” to “help out,” and of course, throwing more people at the problem.

  7. There are no easy answers, but one general approach is to replace big, brittle long-term goals that are fragile to coordination headwinds with a process of iterative retargeting (Komoroske uses the metaphor of “roof sighting”).

None of the individual ideas is particularly new, and many specific bits have been better articulated elsewhere. But what is impressive about this deck is that it integrates all these well known bits and pieces into a coherent and digestible overall ELI5 picture with the right proportions and pattern of emphasis.

I want to quickly point out a few connections to other ideas that get at the same phenomenology but in a more piecemeal way.

  1. Komoroske’s analysis is a generalization of Brook’s Law (adding people to a delayed software project delays it further) that accounts for many more sources of increased coordination load besides adding people.

  2. The idea of “iterative roof-sighting” is very closely related to the one articulated in a famous paper by Charles E. Lindblom, The Science of Muddling Through, where he calls it the method of successive limited comparisons.

  3. Not explored in the deck, but the popular heuristic that important problems have to be solved anew at every scale is basically an acknowledgment of coordination headwind effects. Each new scale boundary is marked by the collapse of the coordination approach used at the lower level.

There are many more interesting connections worth exploring, but it’s generally only useful to do so in the context of a specific management challenge. Much of what I do with clients is try to help cobble together a useful response to a concrete situation by combining ideas from 2 or more sources like this that we both like. In general it seems to take at least 2 ideas from different sources to triangulate the essence of a situation.

The deck kinda belabors the main point a bit, but with good reason — most people don’t appreciate any of this, but think they do. They need the i’s dotted, and t’s crossed to get it. And even when it’s laid out like this, younger people with less working experience are likely to at best appreciate the points intellectually rather than viscerally. At worst they’re likely to dismiss it as incompetent older people flailing around simple things (when they’re in charge, of course, they’ll do a lot better). This looks like obvious stuff, but actually isn’t. The devil is in the details.

But for those of you with some management or leadership experience, these problems will be excruciatingly real lived experience for you. And you probably have a long history of being part of failed responses to coordination headwind problems, and a much shorter history of successful ones.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking these are only big company problems. I’ve seen these phenomena emerge with as few as about 10-15 people and completely overwhelm organizations. That alone should tell you that people have false confidence in their ability to spot and respond effectively to coordination headwinds.

***

This isn’t a management newsletter, but I think the theme here is of broader interest. Coordination at large scales is increasingly the essence of many fascinating current challenges.

Many people in the Web3 crowd for example, seem highly enthusiastic about throwing that technology at coordination headwind problems, but going by what they say and what they appear to think is important, most have clearly have never developed any sort of appreciation for actual coordination problems.

When someone unironically says “bitcoin solves this” or “this looks like a DAO problem,” it is generally safe to assume they’ve never actually encountered any version of the problem they’re claiming bitcoin solves, or done any organizing, let alone decentralized autonomous organizing.

Usually, their proposed solution pattern is actually one of the pathological responses the deck talks about (a version of “more spreadsheets and dashboards!”). Guaranteed to make things worse rather than better, and with the added hassle of deploying complex technology.

You had a coordination headwind problem. You threw blockchains at it. Now you have two problems. You’re ngmi.

It’s a bit like discovering a difficult political problem and giving it to the US Congress to solve through regulation. Now you have two problems.

This is not to say there’s nothing there. There’s definitely intriguing possibilities to Web3 approaches. It’s just going to be far harder to actually engineer solutions out of the possibilities and go from one to zero problems, rather than from one to two problems.

The same sort of phenomenology rears its head in many other broadly important trends. Global climate action is a coordination headwind problem. Supply chain logjams are a coordination headwinds problem. Deploying machine learning in orgs is going to be a massive coordination headwinds problem (think of it as hiring a whole bunch of clueless new people into the org).

Everybody is talking metaverse thanks to Facebook’s recent announcements. If it takes shape at all, the metaverse is going to end up as the mother of all coordination headwind problems.

In one way or the other, I’ve been working on such problems for a decade now, and there are no magic bullets or general approaches. Every situation is unique and takes effort to analyze and respond to. Even with the best general principles and best practices at hand, your chances of solving such a problem are low.

Arguably, a large fraction of startup organizations failing to get off the ground is a result of coordination headwind problems rather than bad ideas or lack of a need. In larger organizations that already exist, arguably an even larger fraction of efforts at change fail because of these problems.

I’d estimate somewhere between 60% to 90% of all efforts to start new organizations or scale existing ones fail due to coordination headwind problems.

But having the right mental models, with the right labels for the right things, and a properly calibrated sense of proportions, significance, and urgency is at least a good place to start. It helps you stop being mad at (social) facts, and begin to craft a conscious response. It might help you increase your hit rate from say 10% to 15%.

At the very least, simply recognizing coordination headwinds as a real phenomenon, as real as the weather, is a big step forward. Most people never get past viewing it some sort of moral failure on the part of someone else, somewhere else in the system.

Here’s the link again. Read the deck, and if you feel you’re either not getting it, or that it’s obvious, maybe revisit it the next time one of your projects runs aground in a predictably doomed way.

And in the meantime, maybe watch Burn Notice.