haruki zaemon


Iatrogenics: Why Intervention Often Leads to Worse Outcomes

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. Jun 9, 2023
  3. 2 mins

(via Jason Cornwall some years ago now)

Iatrogenics has come to mean “any effect resulting from intervention in excess of gain.”:

Nassim Taleb calls [people who create more harm than good] interventionistas. Often these people come armed with solutions to solve the first-order consequences of a decision but create worse second and subsequent order consequences.

People tend to create harm through intervention for a number of reasons:

The first flaw is the inability to think through second and subsequent order consequences. They fail to realize that the second and subsequent order consequences exist at all or could outweigh the benefits. Most things in life happen at the second, third, or nth steps.

The second flaw is a distance from the consequences. When there is a time delay between an action and its consequences (feedback) it can be hard to know that you’re causing harm. This allows, even encourages, some self-delusion. Given that we are prone to confirming our beliefs—and presumably, we took action because we believed it to be helpful—we’re unlikely to see evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

The third flaw is a bias for action. Social norms make it hard for you to say, “I don’t know.” You’re expected to have an opinion on everything.

The fourth flaw is one of the incentives, they have no or little skin in the game. They win if things go right and suffer no consequences if things go wrong.

As leaders, we need to work hard against our bias towards intervention:

A simple rule for the decision-maker is that intervention needs to prove its benefits and those benefits need to be orders of magnitude higher than the natural (that is non-interventionist) path.


We must also recognize that some systems self-correct; this is the essence of homeostasis. Naive interventionists, or the interventionista, often deny that natural homeostatic mechanisms are sufficient, that “something needs to be done” — yet often the best course of action is nothing at all.

Inversion: The Power of Avoiding Stupidity

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. Jun 9, 2023
  3. 1 min

I’m a big believer in success-seeking rather than failure-avoidance (or as a friend recently put it, “professionals play to win; amateurs play not to lose”). However, pure success-seeking, bias-to-action behaviour often results in some perverse outcomes:

Despite our best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm. Thinking backward, call it subtractive avoidance or inversion, is less likely to cause harm.

What can we try instead?

Say you want to improve innovation in your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem by inversion, however, you’d think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things.

In my experience the smartest and most successful people I’ve worked with do this naturally, because:

Inversion helps improve understanding of the problem. By forcing you to do the work necessary to have an opinion you’re forced to consider different perspectives.

Extract the kernel | Irrational Exuberance

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. May 28, 2023
  3. 1 min

Will Larson:

The most frequent issue I see is when a literal communicator insists on engaging in the details with a less literal executive. I call the remedy, “extracting the kernel.”


The CTO’s point is almost always not about [the specific details]. Instead, their point is that [e.g.] the timeline feels too slow. If the team anchors on responding to the specific suggestion, they’ll miss the more important discussion entirely. Even if they convince the CTO that [their idea] is the better choice, the CTO will be annoyed that their real concern about the schedule wasn’t addressed.


You’ll make much more progress by focusing on improving how you communicate with them than by blaming them for their deficiencies.


When you get a question from an executive, focus on understanding the insight or perspective within the question. Then confirm that insight with the executive explicitly.


Ensure that the CTO’s feedback is addressed rather than getting caught up on the incidental details in their question.

Responsibility laundering

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. May 27, 2023
  3. 2 mins

Another great term I hadn’t heard of before, via the always interesting FLUX Review, Ep. 101:

What can organizations do in the face of challenging decisions, especially when the result may be unpleasant or unpopular? One popular approach is to insert a mechanism that makes the decision for them. This responsibility laundering is an abstraction layer that shifts the perceived responsibility for the decision from a person to a process.

Responsibility laundering is not always a bad thing: it can reduce some kinds of biases. Without it, decisions are likely to devolve into mere patronage.

Some examples of responsibility laundering include:

  • Data-driven decision making.
  • Committee-driven promotion and hiring decisions.
  • Formula-driven compensation.
  • Feedback surveys.
  • Goal setting processes such as OKRs.


One telltale sign [we’re not using it properly] is when responsibility laundering is used to wash our hands of the consequences: “I regret this outcome, but we followed the process…”

Look out for bias hidden within the process. If we are not examining the process critically, we might not notice when things are just a bit off.


  • Ask when responsibility laundering is the right choice.
  • Monitor the outcomes for signs of bias.
  • Make it possible (and preferably easy) to switch or remove these processes.
  • Take responsibility for the decisions that ultimately get made.

How to be a great leader? Don't make decisions for others - ColoradoBiz Magazine

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. May 23, 2023
  3. 1 min

The instinct to manage people causes us to solve their problems and make decisions for them. Blakeman urges us to instead:

train others to solve and decide, and then get out of the way. Leaders who figure out they shouldn’t make decisions can lead wildly successful companies devoid of command-and-control management.

When we make decisions for others long enough, we eventually erode their sense of purpose, agency, and motivation:

Ownership is the most powerful motivator in business, and the ability to make decisions is at the core of ownership. Stop solving and deciding for others. They are adults. They can do it themselves, and better than you could. Instead, ask questions, train others to make great decisions, and then get out of the way and let them do it.

We all need to make decisions; we don’t need to make all the decisions:

The art of leadership is to know how few decisions the leader needs to make.

Give people their brains back. Stop managing (making decisions). Start leading.

Alignment gets expensive. Don’t skimp on it. – Jessitron

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. May 19, 2023
  3. 2 mins

(via Ray Grasso)

In a recent post I talked about my personal experience with the effort and discomfort required to lead people and teams. Creating alignment can feel inefficient.

I especially appreciate Jessica’s distinction between alignment and collaboration. I value collaboration over (not instead of) individual contribution, and the nuance here is not that collaboration is bad, rather “We can’t collaborate with everyone, so it’s alignment that can give us the trigger and authority to communicate when we need to.”

Jessica Kerr:

How can we do our work well, together, as we get bigger?

  1. Accept coordination overhead. Document shared plans in a shared place (we use Asana). Coordination is for asynchronous work, and we can do a lot of the coordination asynchronously too.
  2. Collaboration is expensive. Replace it with coordination when you can, by decoupling. When you need collaboration, go all in. Get people in the same room if that’s a thing, or talking every day in Slack & Zoom. Build relationships to make communication smooth. Read Team Topologies.
  3. Do not skimp on alignment.

Alignment is not expensive, compared to collaboration. But it feels disposable, it’s easy to let slip. Alignment comes from leadership in our all-hands and all-teams meetings. It comes in 1:1s with our managers, and between our managers. It comes in documented company values and positions.

Alignment gives us the context to make good decisions in our scope. It also lets us question decisions outside our scope, constructively, because we can notice when we learn something inconsistent with our expectations. That catches discrepancies early, and gets us back on track together.

In a small enough company, alignment is mostly free. It happens in conversation, and via collaboration. As our company grows, our founders are more and more deliberate about reproducing it.

Evo AU #98 – Scaling A Development Team

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. May 2, 2023
  3. 1 min

It was lovely to meet and chat with such a great bunch of open, curious, and pragmatic leaders:

We discussed challenges, approaches, mistakes, and lessons we’ve learnt scaling teams.

Mostly though, I just enjoyed the conversation. It didn’t necessarily always stay on topic, in a good way.

Fast-forwarding engineering decision making

  1. by Simon Harris
  2. Apr 16, 2023
  3. 1 min

These scenarios certainly resonated with me as in many ways they speak to reducing cycle time.

All organisations waste a huge amount of time believing that they are making progress on decisions, when in fact they’re just involved in the theatre of decision making. This happens through indirect actions that feel like progress is being made, but in fact contribute nothing to it. Small changes can speed up progress dramatically.

Tangentially related, I often need to emphasise with my Aikido students the importance of reducing intervals between techniques. Reducing a 15 second changeover to 5 seconds could mean getting in another 10 practice runs.

If, like me, you believe in iterating to learn, reducing cycle time is critical.