Hierarchic Span

Hierarchic Span

Or: The joys of being a Big Picture Guy

As a young engineer, I was persistently frustrated by the antics of my resident “Big Picture Guy.”

BPG oversaw one of my projects at the engineering design firm where I worked. It seemed — to early 20s me — that his business-focused mind could *only* dilate at the higher level. The details to execute escaped him.

Back then, I found BPG’s abstraction infuriating and ignorant. From my perspective, BPG didn’t understand the details it took to make things happen. Operating at the bigger picture afforded him an ease and release from what really mattered, a chosen disregard for details. To me, lover of art and observation and design, details were important! How rude of him to ignore.

So of course I woke up one morning a decade later to discover that *I* had become a Big Picture Guy.

WHAT?! What the hell happened to me?! Me? A BPG?!

Over the past couple years I’ve found myself gravitating towards the bigger picture. Frustration overcomes me when that higher level view is not sought, nor found. “How do we know if we’re prioritizing the most important efforts? How do people work towards the same goal, without knowing how they contribute to the larger vision?” These are the questions I’ve been ruminating over recently.

It was Herbert Simon’s essay on hierarchic systems, percolating in the back of my mind while doing a Turkish Get Up on my favorite Xinjiang rug, that made things click. As Simon explains: hierarchic, nearly decomposable systems are composed of interrelated, stable subsystems, in which the interactions *among* subsystems are weak but not negligible.

Said another way, by Donella Meadows in her book Thinking in Systems:

Hierarchical systems are partially decomposable. They can be taken apart and the subsystems with their especially dense information links can function, at least partially, as systems in their own right. […] However, one should not lose sight of the important relationships that bind each subsystem to the others.

And with that… I realized my previous notion of Big Picture Guy was all wrong! Accepting the big picture doesn’t make details obsolete. Rather, the big picture allows prioritization and focus on what matters most. Details are the high frequency subsystems within more stable, low frequency layers. Details, while important, are decoupled from breadth.

It is well known that high-energy, high-frequency vibrations are associated with the smaller physical subsystems and low-frequency vibrations with the larger [read: big picture] systems into which the subsystems are assembled. —Herbert Simon

Hierarchic span, according to Simon, is the extent to which structures “use up” their capacity to interact.

Now what happens if we have a system of elements that possess both strong and weak interaction capacities and whose strong bonds are exhaustible through combination? Subsystems will form, until all the capacity for strong interaction is utilized in their construction. Then these subsystems will be linked by the weaker second-order bonds into larger subsystems. —Herbert Simon

Why does this matter? Focusing on the span, rather than the details, reduces cognitive burden. Its low frequency nature allows for longer time horizons. Non-negligible connections allow for shared lessons among diverse industries and over different time periods. For those of us who love to jump head first into the details — oftentimes with diminishing returns — hierarchic span serves as a good reminder of our effective limits.

For example, when I reflect on the current opportunities and challenges of my company, the span of subsystems I consider hasn’t changed much over the past couple years. How do we: source, build, distribute, implement, maintain? Ensure connection to the right end user? Understand where value accrues? Take full advantage of network effects? Prioritize efforts contra our most suppressing bottlenecks? And— how do we make sure our communication and organizational structure map well to this strategy? These patterned chunks haven’t changed. The details within them certainly have.

Daniel Kahneman’s theory of the experiencing vs. remembering self serves as great analogy for this volatility of detail change behind a smooth surface. Our experiencing selves recall moments continuously; we experience continuous ambiguity. And yet, our remembering selves are in “an act of memory and construction,” they are projections of simplified certainty. According to Kahneman: “The past makes more sense in hindsight than it perhaps actually did. This gives us an illusion, as we move through the world, that the world in general makes sense, even when it didn’t make sense and hasn’t ever made sense.” [Check out thispodcast for more.]

It seems to me that our experiencing selves are those tightly wound subsystem layers: High frequency. Continuous ambiguity. Overflowing detail. It’s our remembering selves that allow for a more simplified, certain construction. Our remembering selves reflect hierarchic span, the stable, weak but non-negligible connections that ultimately hold all the craziness together. In wise, seemingly astute reflection.

(Thank goodness for that.)

So what does this mean for my fellow BPGs? Paying attention to the big picture, the span of necessary ideas and concepts, is a tool that will take you far. It’s these long-standing frameworks that we can apply to new problems, new organizations, and new industries. Details are important. But knowing when to pay attention to span, vs. the details, is an art. And understanding which elements are span, and which elements are details — just might be a science.