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Beyond Black Box Management

An Exciting Way to Make a Living

Alex Honnold is an adventure climber. He specializes in free solo ascents, which means he climbs tall things with no ropes. If he falls, he dies.

He’s perhaps most famous for being the first person to free solo Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan wall (see above).

Not long ago, at a live event at the USC Performance Science Institute, Honnold described an interesting technique he used to help prepare for his El Capitan ascent:

“For the full month before I soloed El Cap, I erased all social media off of my phone…I [also] stopped responding to email so much that I stopped getting emails…”

Free soloing turns out to be an endeavor that’s as cognitively demanding as it is physically demanding. Honnold’s distraction-free month was about getting his mind into shape for the big climb.

Alex Honnold’s feats are clearly awe inspiring, but I’m mentioning him here for another reason: his cognitive training provides a hint about a major transformation that might soon upend the world of knowledge work.

A Cursory History of Modern Management Theory

To understand the transformation I predict is coming, we must first (briskly and incompletely) review some management history.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford independently developed the concepts that came to be known as scientific management.

The basic idea of this movement was that experts should study a given production system, figure out the most efficient way to run it, and then pass down these empirically-validated instructions to a largely de-skilled group of workers to execute.

Both Taylor and Ford also experimented with using salary and bonuses to help motivate workers to operate at their maximum efficiency.

As the 20th century progressed, the knowledge sector became more prominent. Despite some early attempts to adapt scientific management-style ideas from the factory to the cubicle (c.f., this unintentionally dystopian monograph), it soon became clear that “knowledge work” was too amorphous and dynamic to reduce to a set of optimized instructions.

It’s here that Peter Drucker enters the scene.

Emerging in the 1940’s as a forward-looking business thinker, Drucker popularized (among many influential contributions) the idea that knowledge workers are best managed by objectives.

Instead of providing knowledge workers precise operating procedures, he argued, it was more productive to get them to buy in on important objectives, and then allow them flexibility in figuring out how to achieve them.

This management by objectives (MBO) strategy proved enormously effective. Though it has evolved over the years, its theoretical descendants are still deployed to great success today (c.f., John Doerr’s fascinating new management book on the topic.)

Black Box Management

Though different in their details, both scientific management and management by objectives build on the same general foundation: the worker treated as a black box.

In more detail, both philosophies conceive of workers as opaque vessels that receive instructions and incentives as input, then produce valuable artifacts as output.

The key is to figure out which types of instructions and incentives produce the best output:

  • Scientific management used step-by-step procedures as the instructions, and bonuses as the incentives.
  • Management by objective, by contrast, uses shared objectives as the instructions, and commitment to the organizational mission as the incentives.

Neither approach, however, is interested in the internal processes within the black box that actually perform the messy work of producing the output.

Attention Capital Theory

Modern black box management theories are important, as there’s no doubt that instructions and incentives are crucial to run an effective organization. People need to know what they should do and why.

But as knowledge work becomes more complex and more cognitively demanding, I’ve come to believe that these black box approaches are insufficient by themselves.

To obtain the high cognitive performance required by modern knowledge work will increasingly require that we open the knowledge worker black box and actually confront the reality of how human brains take in input, process it through complex electrochemical circuits, and produce valuable output.

Which brings me back to Alex Honnold.

His “job” is cognitively demanding. Unlike most cognitively demanding jobs, however, the consequence of operating below his maximum is gruesome death — leading Honnold to care quite a bit about getting the most out of his brain.

The result is his willingness to deploy seemingly extreme strategies — such as quitting social media and abandoning email — to ensure his brain is producing at full capacity on the things that matter most.

I strongly believe that more knowledge work organizations should follow Alex Honnold’s lead.

What I mean by my above claim is that knowledge work management cannot stop at the boundary of the black box: providing workers only shared objectives and the tools/information needed to act on these objectives.

It must also consider what occurs inside the box — setting up cultures, workflows, and environments optimized to help the human brain act on these objectives with maximum effectiveness.

To put this in (admittedly dehumanizing) economic terms, in knowledge work, the largest investment and most valuable resource is the attention capital latent within each worker’s brain — that is, their potential to process information into something more valuable.

To optimize the return on this capital requires that you care about what helps the human brain best pay attention to what matters and think deeply about it.

And yet, almost no one does this.

Both organizations and individuals in knowledge fields tend to prioritize increasing convenience and avoiding small losses over supporting Honnold-style states of maximum cognitive production.

For example:

  • Constant, unstructured communication delivered through email and IM tools is the standard in knowledge work organizations mainly because it makes life easier for everyone — not because it’s helping people produce tighter code, more impactful research or smarter strategy.
  • Similarly, creative entrepreneurs tolerate concentration-shattering social media use because they fear they might lose some small benefit if they leave these platforms, even though this behavior might be significantly reducing the value of what they produce (c.f., Tammy Strobel’s recent article on this topic.)

My conjecture is that this reality will soon shift. Simply put, knowledge work organizations that prioritize helping brains operate at peak effectiveness over other priorities will be more profitable.

These organizations will be a massive pain to run (imagine how much extra overhead will be introduced into your daily routine when you can’t simply email someone when you need something), but they will also produce a much better return on their investment in attention capital.

Once the market realizes this truth, embrace of these ideas — which I loosely call attention capital theory — will spread swiftly.

At least, I hope this is true.

If ten years from now the average highly-trained knowledge worker is still compulsively checking their inbox, I just might have to switch my career to adventure climbing.


(Hat tip to Mark for pointing me toward the Alex Honnold interview.)

51 thoughts on “Beyond Black Box Management”

  1. Hi Cal..

    Everything about this observation will probably be true except for one parallel development, The return on capital in knowledge era will be knowledge itself rather than the application of it due to the speed in duplication and breaking down of structures, a reality true to the Industrial era, money and patent economy. Once the value and premiums of additional attention is evened out, all knowledge becomes a transitory post in a ever expanding scope of infinite knowledge or the info-industrial era, where the speed of industry is directly proportional to the information input in it.


  2. It would probably just be better to have fewer managers, spread salary around more evenly, and have shorter and more flexible working hours. Some commentators from the companies that form WPP, the giant of adertising and marketing, say this, and it’s very difficult to disagree with when some execs and managers get paid far more (sometimes millions more) than the creatives and other workers despite not actually creating that much value.

  3. That is so true. Social medias make it harder for us to concentrate on a single task until its completion. On a personal note, I have found that a regular meditation practice is tremendously helpful: by focusing my attention on my breath for a couple of minutes, I came to realise how hard it actually is because so many ideas come to our mind and the social media environment stimulates this uncontrollable flow of thoughts. And the sense of peace I experience right after meditation made me aware of how distracted we have become.

  4. Inspiring Cal, thanks. My takeaway from Alex Hannold, perhaps tersely put, is that if you want a life then give up on distracting technologies.
    –Especially if you want an extremely valuable life.

    • Hi, carl, can you comment about what you think is a valuable life made of?
      I’m just asking because it is nice to see other points of view. Thanks in advance.

      • What I meant to be implied, and I did a lessor job with that, is that the extent of one’s life as happy, vibrant, attentive, and expressive person may well become marginalized through the misuse of, or addiction to certain technologies.

    • I agree with this sentiment in the sense that it meshes with my theory (detailed in DEEP WORK) that a professional life that better optimizes your attention capital tends to be more satisfying.

  5. For students, what would you suggest for them to better improve concentration? especially, if say that going into a lonely spot to work isn’t enough (as your mind constantly wanders) and that social media & email have become more addictive.

    • To better improve concentration? Daily meditation, read Deep Work (also by Cal) at least twice, then apply what you learn there. From personal experience, that combination has a massive impact on many areas of your life, particularly concentration and social media addiction.

    • Learn to love what you do. If you love what you do then everything else becomes irrelevant. You shouldn’t have any problems concentrating once you become obsess with your work. Not an expert but it’s the only thing I keep coming back to.

    • In my experience, exercise, especially just before studying, can help empty the mind of chatter and keep it sharper. I have also found, depending on your area, studying outside at a park picnic table is easier, more relaxed, and enables better focus– refer to attention restoration theory on that.

    • The concentration interval training I suggest in DEEP WORK (in the section about Teddy Roosevelt) is actually a strategy I first developed working with undergraduates to increase their ability to focus. We typically would begin with 20 minute hard concentration blocks (0 glances at a phone or inbox for it to count), and increase them by 10 minutes every 1 – 2 weeks. By the end of the semester, most students could comfortably do 90 minutes of distraction-free concentration, which seemed to be the sweet spot for studying, reading and paper writing.

      • Hi Cal,
        Is 90 minutes is your new suggested time frame for concentrated work rather than the 50 minute blocks you suggest in How to Be a Straight-A Student? Does the break at the 50 minute mark create a distraction for students who have honed their ability to concentrate and are truly locked in and focused? Just curious to hear your opinion on difference between the 50 minute vs 90 minute recommendation.

      • I’m actually a Year 12 student, and it’s a really busy year. But would this also increase speed of getting amount of work done. I know this is late now, but I’m trying to sort of increase my concentration rapidly, so would productive meditation be ideal?

    • Personally I’ve found daily exercise (running or lifting), meditation (improving self awareness), nutrition (whole grains, lean protein, vegetables, and fruit), leaving my phone at home when I go to the library, and disabling all phone/email/computer notifications and dings have all been immensely helpful.

  6. “Both organizations and individuals in knowledge fields tend to prioritize increasing convenience and avoiding small losses over supporting Honnold-style states of maximum cognitive production.”

    … Poetry.

  7. “These organizations will be a massive pain to run (imagine how much extra overhead will be introduced into your daily routine when you can’t simply email someone when you need something), but they will also produce a much better return on their investment in attention capital.”

    Because of this, organizations will never move to maximize cognitive production. It might work with a small team or group but larger organizations (corporations) will never do this. All other things being equal, people will tend to support the easier and more comfortable option. It is a nice idea to think about and experiment with implementing though.

    • I’m more optimistic for a simple reason: if companies that embrace attention capital theory become more profitable, the strategy will spread.

      Most management/production innovations are something that makes peoples’ lives within the organization less convenient. The assembly line, for example, was a massive pain to deploy and keep running properly. The old way of building cars — one team per car, build the car in place on the factory floor, have common bins of the needed parts that all teams share — was much easier and much more intuitive and much more flexible for everyone involved. But the assembly line produced cars at a rate of 10 – 100x faster, so it spread to all relevant industries.

      Constant unstructured communication through email and slack is the knowledge equivalent of the old method of building cars.

    • Structured competitive pursuits with a serious cognitive component — athletics, chess, go, etc. — are way out ahead of knowledge organizations in figuring out attention capital theory.

  8. The delivery of many products often involves assembly of small sub-products. That covers also knowledge products. Managers and communication channels ensure that these sub-products align together in one cohesive product that makes sense. Alex is more like an artist who crafts his work alone. Delivering large software project requires highly specialized people to come together to deliver a holistic solution. Using Graham “makers” vs “managers” analogy, attention capital is very important for makers. But even makers need to interface with the rest of makers to ensure that they are delivering value.

    • The goal is not to eliminate communicate between makers and managers. The goal is to think about how to structure this communication in a way that optimizes the maker’s attention capital. As it stands now, we’ve given very little thought to this — we just use the tools that arrived in the easiest possible configuration.

      The way we structure this communication now — emails and IM messages delivered on demand throughout the day — is just one of many, many different ways one could think about communication channels. Attention capital theory forces you to ask: but is this the best way?

      For example, it’s true that developers cannot work in complete isolation. But does this mean that giving each developer an email address through which everything flows unpredictably is the best way to connect them? These are they questions to ask. In the developer case study, for example, what if each team worked together in their own small space (enabling easy collaboration between them using in person conversation), with a dedicate team manager who handled all electronic communication from the outside world toward the team — eliminating an inbox that the developers can/need to check.

      I don’t know if this better, but it’s the type of thing we should be exploring.

      As I like to say, we sent a man to the moon without the benefit of email. I’m sure some managers would have found life much easier if every one had an email inbox, but it’s unclear that the project would have completed sooner.

      • Cal – The statement about sending man on the moon without emails is spot on. Von Braun designed a very ingenious method of written communication. Search for the Von Braun weekly notes online, they are all available and interesting. They even discussed minor stuff such as janitorial staff (Von Braun’s famous handwritten reply to janitorial staffing issues was: “bring me a broom!”).

      • “… with a dedicate team manager who handled all electronic communication from the outside world toward the team”…

        I think this could lead to a revaluation of both secretaries and librarians roles in organizations, since secretaries protect their employer’s attention, filtering communications and managing the schedule, dealing with most of the shallow work; and librarians discover, select and share relevant information, according to the needs of the user, “saving the time of the reader”, as Ranganathan… well, ‘ruled’.

        • Interestingly, it strikes me, both professions were considered “traditional women’s jobs”, after all “anyone with a minimal training can perform those tasks” and women “were” cheap hands… since you mentioned Taylor.

          It would be nice to read your opinion on this, Cal. I don’t think they are neither easy or should be cheap – specially in an information society and attention capital economy.

          For instance: I recently went to a big IT company that had no receptionist (another “women’s job”…). So some developer had to stop everything that he was doing to help me! I really thought about sending them Deep Work…

          “I think it is only fair to warn you that I am, almost, a librarian” – that is from a children’s TV show. I rarely have a chance to use it, but I think it fits here 🙂

  9. Cal – great article. I have a question on another side of the same die: entertainment. Yep, you read it right. We all know – you also wrote it – that our brain need some down time to recharge the same way our body needs it. Now that I have Moviepass I noticed the amount of ppl that can’t stay without checking their phone every 15 mins even during action-packed movies (I can’t imagine them reading books). I mean, even during Ready Player One! In your opinion, what is the cost, the opportunity cost, and the long term problem we face because as a society we are not resting our brain from this constant self-centered input even during activities that are high in “distraction” value already (such as movies at the theatre)?

    • I’ve been researching this question for my new book. High quality leisure is immensely important for human thriving. It’s also hard work to introduce into your life. Historically, you were forced to do this hard work because otherwise you literally had nothing to do. The algorithmic attention economy has given people a way to avoiding needing to do this hard work, but much to their detriment.

      I think it’s quite similar to how processed food allowed people to avoid the work of learning how to master their family’s cultural cuisine. But this food was terrible for people and made them really unhealthy. They would have been better off putting in the work to develop a higher quality relationship with food.

  10. Good read. I’ve been in and out of FB and Instagram for for the last couple years (thanks to you.). Just his week I finally deactivated my FB account. It’s hard because of the value it does bring. But as you show, the negatives seem to outway the positives for me.
    I am deactivating for an undisclosed time. We shall see

  11. Focus is the main key here. Alex did it with only one thing in mind to go over El Capitan. Sometimes we need to set ourselves away from Social Media to gain our focus.

  12. Cal,

    Here’s two trivial questions for you: where do you see the attention economy taking our society in the future? Do you think legal restrictions should be placed on companies (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that hijack our attention?

    What I’ve found so interesting is how the engineers of these companies have designed these systems to hijack our weak spots and make us addicted. What’s even more interesting is that the creators are aware of this and thus force their families to unplug at certain times. However, there’s hardly anyone informing the public how harmful these platforms can be in excess.

    Cool article:

  13. Hi Cal,
    Thanks for inspiring us.Perhaps you should also check about Reinhold Messner[first man to climb Mt.Everest without supplementary oxygen].Just asking, could you write a book about how to become a good professor.

  14. The Idea of focus to one objective by a single person does not compare to the dynamics of collaboration of knowledge workers in group. Studying ‘group-as-a-whole’ and the concept of autopoiesis (meaning auto=self and ‘poiesis’=reproduction’) by Luhmann, in his work Social Systems(1984,1995) in groups you will judge differently.
    My point: do not project concepts useful in psychic systems into organizational perspective which is a social system
    And at the same time do not confuse the perspective of allopoietic systems – focus of scientific management and autopoietic systems

  15. I’ve been researching this question for my new book. High quality leisure is immensely important for human thriving. It’s also hard work to introduce into your life. Historically, you were forced to do this hard work because otherwise you literally had nothing to do.

    Thank you so much your post made my idea clear now….


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