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Peak Paradox

In the world full of human bias, exploring paradox might help us explain our differences.

Kaliya (Identity Woman) and I wrote “Humans want principles, society demands rules and businesses want to manage risk, can we reconcile the differences? Have been noodling on that framework of linking purpose and rules with a few friends. This article explores how to look for a paradox within our known cognitive bias and how to identify and manage differences.


I follow the excellent work of my friend Rory Sutherland and Nir Eyal (Nir & Far) who are both leading thinkers in behavioural science and economics along with the great Daniel Kahneman. I reflected following a call with the most read man on the planet Robbie Stamp CEO of BIOSS (a company who can assess capabilities for complex decision making), about how to frame bias and conflicts. We are aware that there are over 180 cognitive biases of human behaviour, which because of differences between us; create unique tensions, alignments, conflicts and paradoxes.

The 180 cognitive biases of human behaviour create unique tension, alignment, conflict and paradox.

The famous infographic below from Buster Benson on Medium has become foundational in presenting the array of human cognitive bias. Buster is well worth following, and I am looking forward to reading his new book "Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement"

On another call with my friend, the insanely cleaver identity lawyer and polymath Scott David, we were noodling that we saw paradoxes within behavioural science, primarily when reflecting on the very long list of human biases. I love his quote “we have to find the paradox, or we are probably in a model.” On a similar call with Viktor Mirovic (CEO of KeenCorp - a company who identifies employee problems in real-time), we explored the gaps between our own bias and purpose and those biases/purpose that our companies have. Viktor and I reflected on what happens when there is a delta between you and the company and the (a)effects on teams and individuals performance. As you can imagine, this article and thinking are built ’the shoulders of giants and would not have come to be without those conversations and many others.

The drawing below is to explore how to frame paradox within our known biases (maybe beliefs). We will unpack the diagram, examine how we manage the differences, and recognise that mostly we don't; which leads to harmful stress.

On discovering Peak Paradox

The four outer extremes are peaks in their own right; at these individual peaks, you can only hold one single view at the expense of all others. Therefore there is no conflict at a peak, and no compromise as this is the only view that can be held.

The axes are set up that on the X-axis (horizontal) is the conflict of our human purpose vs a commercial purpose. On the Y-axis (vertical) it is the conflict of individual vs everyone.

Peak Individual Purpose. At the exclusion of anything else, you are only interested in yourself. Selflessness at the extreme. You believe that you are sovereign (not having to ask anyone for permission or forgiveness), your voice and everything you say matters and everyone should agree. You are all-powerful and can do whatever you want and have the freedom and agency to do it.

Peak Work Purpose. Work in this context is commercial or economic. At the exclusion of anything else, the only reason a company exists is to deliver as much possible value to the shareholders. Employees, customers, the environment does not matter in terms of exploitation. The purpose is to be the biggest and most efficient beast on the planet and able to deliver enormous returns; Shareholder Primacy at its most pure. Simple, straightforward, no conflict and no compromise. Even to the point that rewarding the staff beyond fair would be a compromise. Compliance is met with the minimal standard ensuring that nothing is wasted.

Peak Society Purpose. At the exclusion of anything else, we have to deliver and ensure there is no suffering and poverty for any living thing. Humans must have equal education, health and safety. There must be total transparency and equality. Everything is equally shared, and on-one has more power, agency or influence than anyone else.

Peak Human Purpose. At the exclusion of anything else, we are here to survive as long as possible and escape death, which we do by reproducing as much as we can with the broadest community we can. We also have to adapt as fast as possible. We have to meet our chemistry requirements to stay alive for as long as possible to adopt and reproduce at the expense of everything else. Whilst all the peak purposes might be controversial (even to myself), saying purity of human purpose is chemistry/ biology might not go down very well. However, this is a model for framing thinking, so please go with it as it needs to be pure, and every other human purpose has conflicts with someone.

These extremes as peaks articulate that there is no conflict, no compromise, no tension - they are pure when at the extreme. It is not that we have to agree with them but to recognise they can exist. My gut says right-wing politics (given the interpretation of capitalist today and not its original meaning) follows the top edge between peak commercial purpose and peak individual purpose. Depending on the specific view individuals can be somewhere along the line, whereas parties are more complex in their overall position. Left-wing political views (today's interruption more socialist) follow the bottom right edge between peak commercial purpose and peak society. Again individual views may hold the line, but parties are trying to find the right balance of majority votes, commercial activity, tax, redistribution and a fairer society. Applying the same thinking Cults are likely to be positioned along the top left boundary between peak human purpose and peak individual purpose, whereas more fervent religious movements will tend towards the lower-left boundary between peak human purpose and peak society. Like political parties, world religions need a mass following for a voice and therefore are positioned with more paradoxes, which they solve with paradoxes.

Peak Paradox. The melting pot that is the middle of all of the peaks, the place where you are trying to rationalise all the extreme purposes into one acceptable position for everyone, but there is no resolution without compromise that will suit no-one. Peak Paradox is likely to be unsustainable due to the conflicts and compromises required or may itself be a paradox in so much when there it feels like nothing is there, like the eye of the storm when there is complete calm. It feels that many great thinkers and philosophers may try to find rest or stillness in this calm at peak paradox. There is a battle to get into the place of calm fighting the storms of opinions, and if you lose that moment of mindfulness, it is straight back into the storm. The unstable nature of standing on the point of a needle. This said:

  • Just because we may agree on the same peak purpose, that does not mean we can also agree on how to go about achieving or maintaining it.

  • Different peak purposes can have the same principles and values. You come from different peaks towards a livable compromise; however, as individuals, you can have the same principles and values, making the acceptance of difference more acceptable.

  • If there is no paradox or you cannot find one, you are at a boundary edge, where there is the greatest order, or at an extreme peak view.

  • At peak paradox, there is the highest disorder, in terms of a variety of views.

  • It is evident that our long list of personality testing is to identify where you naturally identify with right now. You will change and adapt, but there is likely to be a natural affinity that tends towards one or more peaks.

  • There are over 180 cognitive biases recognised, from this diagram, we can unpack that you are unlikely to have them all at the same time, but a subset of them depending on where you locate yourself.

What is the relation between bias and paradox?

When there are no biases, surely we have overcome all our objections, and we can deal with everyone’s unique and individual views, and we must be at “Peak Paradox.”

When there is no paradox, surely we are at an extreme view where there are no tensions, no conflicts, and we have no biases that can distract us from accepting every position equally.

Most of us do not see the paradox in front of us. Still, we have many biases, suggesting that Peak Bias (number of biases), which means we reject most ideas accepting only a few, will occur early in a distribution.

As we can deal with more complex compromises, we can see more paradoxes in any position but can cope with the conflicts and tensions that arise, suggesting a long tail to peak paradox.

4 case studies

I wrote about how to uncover your purpose here, but I can now see that personal purpose maps differently to paradox and bias. Mapping a few personal or individual purposes.

Invent and Crete. “Necessity is the mother of all invention” and “Creativity is intelligence having fun” sum up rather well that part of our human make-up is to find ways to create or invent something that solves a problem we see or understand. Our personal purpose is to invent and create as we see what everyone else sees but can think what no-one else has thought. Irrespective of such a personal goal it maps all of the blue area on the Peak Paradox diagram as every paradox creates a problem that needs to be solved. Being creative as a purpose does not mean you will find anyone else on the same journey.

Creating Impact. Some individuals desire to have more of an impact whilst alive and some, because of what they do, have a lasting effect that changes our human journey, some good and some not so. This is the point about creating impact as a purpose; it is like all items that humans make: they can be used as tools for good or weapons for bad. Creating impact creates a paradox of how to create something that cannot be used for harm, but often we create something without seeing the harm. Our individual purpose is itself in conflict with the outcome we want. At every point under the blue area on the Peak Paradox chat, creating impact for good or ill is possible at every point.

Better ancestors. What changes when you consider governance for the next 1000 years is a post about how we have to become better stewards and ancestors. We have to be more considerate if we want others to walk our path and not burn the earth. As a thinking piece, I focussed on the paradox of high commercial pressure, being between citizens, giving our children life and enabling more individuals to have agency. Almost peak paradox. Perhaps this is the case with ESG as a conceptual issue, we have to compromise, and we are not in agreement on what we need to compromise on?

Perhaps this is the case with ESG as a conceptual issue, we have to compromise, and we are not in agreement on what we need to compromise on?

Being Useful. There appears to be a human need that presents as wanting to be loved, wanted or useful. Over time we go through these different phases on a cyclic basis throughout life. What we conceive as “being useful” is profoundly personal and therefore could be anywhere in the central blue area on the Peak Paradox drawing. Being Useful today can mean you want to do well in assisting, where you are employed, achieve its goals or mission, and help you achieve your personal goal of more agency. Equally, being useful can mean creating less poverty and suffering in the world. Anyone who describes themselves with a desire to be useful is unlikely to find a massive community who have the same idea of what that means.

Personal purposes are both aligned to all peaks, and also in conflict with all the peaks, it is why we should see the paradoxes in our own life's purpose and find we cannot rest on one. We have to settle for a compromise that we find acceptable and does not bring conflict, tension or anxiety.

Towards better performance, strategy and judgement.

Teams and Culture. We have one culture; this is how we do it. These are our rules; these are our processes. We have one team, and all our thinking is aligned. After reading this, you might be as sceptical about such thoughts as I am. In my article Humans want principles, society demands rules and businesses want to manage risk, can we reconcile the differences? I did not connect the dots between the delta or gap between where the company has decided to operate with its paradox, compromises, tensions and conflicts and how they would align to the individuals inside the organisation. I am sure there is a link here to transformation issues as well. KeenCorp is looking at measuring this, something I am going to watch

Philanthropy is a private initiative from individuals. Interesting Wikipedia defines philanthropy as for the public good, focusing on the quality of life. However, often we see that the person who is giving has an idea of public good and priority that is not aligned to mine, which creates friction. Philanthropy has an interesting dynamic about how much it is for PR and how much it is indeed the individual’s purpose. Might have to analyse the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and see what it says about what paradoxes they are prepared to live with and help understand the criticism and support offered.

Investors, directors and the company. As a group, you can imagine that they are one the closest to a peak purpose. Investors as equity investors believe, one would hope, in the purity of shareholder primacy and would probably be outright supporters of this single focus. However, since we have lived that view, we are now much more paradoxical. ESG and stewardship codes mean that the purity has become a complex mix of different personal compromises, which currently are not disclosed and may be in conflict to the culture or purpose of the company that they invest into. The relationship between investors and Directors is also changing. However, it appears that the capital providers are willing to embrace ESG and a watered-down version of peak Shareholder Primacy. However, Directos, KPI, remuneration committees and self-interested processes might be creating a level of friction to nobel ESG change that we did not anticipate. Organisational wellness should also now be a new measure and reported on, but how?

Governance. Governance of old did not have to embrace compromise, conflict or tensions. Investors and founders understood the simplicity of a very pure set of drivers. The founding team had largely sorted out the paradox and how they could work together. Indeed anyone who could not be soon off. Governance was then ensuring the right NorthStar, the suitable vessel and the right team. This model is no longer good enough. Suddenly, the directors are having to face up to conflicting peak purposes pulling in different directions by directors who have their own views and teams who also have a significant voice. Added to this is the dependence on the ecosystem who themselves will reach a different compromise which asks fundamental questions about your interaction with them.

Take away

  1. If there is no paradox, compromise or conflict, you are in a model pretending it is life.

  2. If it is too good to be true, you are probably at an extreme as there is no tension, conflict or paradox.

  3. Are we in a place where our compromises are good for us? Can we perform?

  4. We can identify stress that is probably harmful as we have compromised to someone else’s force, dominance, position and have ended up in a place where we do not naturally belong.

  5. Is there an alignment, understanding and communication between our compromises and those around us in our team? Can we see and talk about the paradoxes in the team's decisions?

  6. Neuro, race and gender diversity are critical for success, understanding our natural positions and compromises makes sense. Knowing the delta between our team is crucial.

  7. Being able to talk to and understand all positions means we will be in a less divided and divisional world.

Next questions for me

  • Does this model allow me to plot products and companies to determine alignment?

  • Ethics; is it our ability to deal with compromise and conflict and find a position we find acceptable?

@tonyfish Jan 2021

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