The Inverse Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Maneuver

I don’t really care about winning; I’m not at all competitive. This also means that you cannot really motivate me by setting specific goals (with the one exception of doing Jack Shit, obviously). I’m a “journey man” — I mostly care about the journey, not the destination.

However, as the philosopher/baseball player Yogi Berra (not to be confused with Yogi Bear) said:

If you don’t know where you’re going, you may not get there.

What logically follows is: “...and if you have nowhere to go, you may not move at all. You lazy piece of...”

Therefore, for any journey to even start, you need a direction. So goals have a... goal, even for me. We have a starting point A, and we want to move to B. Whether we quietly move B a little to the left or right, move it a bit closer or farther away as we travel, doesn’t matter that much. We can course correct along the way.

Metaphor time.

I tend to think of an organization (a team, a department, a company) as a ship, mentally adjusting the size of the ship to the size of the organization.

An organization of 1 (some would argue the only sensible organization size) is like a little rubber boat, you can push it any which direction with a subtle paddle swish. If you’re a real blow hard, you may be able to adjust its course by doing just that: blowing really hard. On the other end of the spectrum, a giant oil tanker requires much more strategic steering, and we sometimes need to take dramatic action to adjust the direction in any way.

With a ship of any interesting size, the challenge is to get it moving in the right direction, to generate momentum.

There’s this amazing book (that I never read) called The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. While I’ve not read the book, I sat through the accompanying documentary twice (for science), and also saw the super weird movie The Secret: Dare to Dream, starring Katie Holmes. So I consider myself an expert.

Just so you’re aware that what I’m about to tell you about The Secret is not just a joke: this book sold many millions of copies and was featured on Oprah. So it’s not just some weird niche thing that I found in some dodgy section in the book or video store. This is top-shelf stuff.

The Secret is a recent reincarnation of the idea of the Law of Attraction:

The law of attraction is the New Thought spiritual belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into a person's life. The belief is based on the idea that people and their thoughts are made from "pure energy" and that like energy can attract like energy, thereby allowing people to improve their health, wealth, or personal relationships.

In other words: you can manifest things into existence. If you really want something to happen, just put your mind to it and it will happen.

Like magic. And you know I just love magic.

A little footnote:

There is no empirical scientific evidence supporting the law of attraction, and it is widely considered to be pseudoscience or religion couched in scientific language.

Such a shame. Bull Shit strikes again.

Or does he?

The Law of Attraction has a distant relative that is distant enough to no longer bare the “Shit” last name (this is what strategic marriages are for). That distant relative is named Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, but friends call her Selfu:

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true at least in part as a result of a person's belief or expectation that the prediction would come true. In the phenomena, people tend to act the way they have been expected to make the expectations come true.

The upside: this phenomena is actually real.

The downside: I have not yet found a movie on this topic starring Katie Holmes.

We cannot have nice things.

One of my favorite laws (and one of the few laws I adhere to, because I’m such a maverick) is Conway’s law:

Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Or, as it’s often rephrased: you ship your org chart. In any piece of software you can see the organizational structure that developed it. I’ve written about this in the past: “Guess the Org Chart.”

Now some clever folks came up with a neat idea that they called the Inverse-Conway Maneuver. The idea is simple.

If we know that our organizational structure is reflected in the product we ship, how about we hack this thing and work backwards? We decide on the shape of the product we want to ship, and then structure the organization in such a way that would naturally lead to that result.

Hypothetical example: if we would want our product to manifest as a certain funnel-style flow, how about we create a team for each stage in that funnel?

The Inverse-Conway Maneuver. Clever stuff. I wish we would invent something like that.

Let’s bring this all back to the topic of momentum.

My question is as follows: can we generate momentum by (ab)using the idea of self-fulling prophecies?


I’m just spitballing here, but analogous to the inverse-Conway maneuver, can we perform an Inverse Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Maneuver? That is: Can we get the effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy by forcefully injecting the prophecy we want to self fulfill?

I can’t quite figure out if this makes sense, but you’ll agree that it sounds impressive, so let’s assume that it does.

Actually, I realize that I already know that it does. Because I’ve done this before. It’s not just man-fi. We can generate (or at least amplify) momentum through “prophecies.”

Let me share my theory on why this is the case. Then let me give an example of how we’re applying it now.

Obviously, this only works to some degree. If nobody’s doing anything, I can attempt to convince (prophesize?) you that a lot is happening, but I will fail. I would hope.

So this does require a bit of a kick start. Some sort of initial movement. Luckily, usually there is some movement already. And this movement, in fact, is movement in the right direction.

However, and this is key: people may not see it, or interpret it that way.

So the trick is to create that visibility.

This week we organized our first meeting to achieve just that: momentum visibility. Except, nobody would join a session with such a name, so we framed it as a “Demo Party 🥳”.

Yes, the 🥳 emojum is essential. Everything is marketing.

The format is simple: we kick off with an overall picture outlining the group’s mission, our destination B. Then we look at data that outlines where we currently stand in that mission: our current position A. What follows are presentations from the various marketing, design and product engineering teams that visually show the work they’ve been doing in this area. Then we make sure this work is always framed with a clear: “and this is how what you just saw contributes to moving towards B.” Implicitly yelling “and we’re moving in that direction, can you see it!?”

The intention: give people the feeling that we have momentum, that things are moving in the right direction. Which, of course, is the actual truth. Then, let the self-fulfilling prophecy kick in.

Will it work in this context too? Time will tell, but I’m optimistic based on some of the early feedback I received.

One engineer on Slack:

I think we could have shown even more of the progress we made, but things came up last minute. For me it's sort of a good target to have as a motivation to have new things to show to the rest of the folks.

I’ll admit that I write a lot of fake dialogue to support my various agendas, but this one is a literal quote. For real! Ok, I fixed one casing issue.

Cynically you may think this may only lead to superficial changes like doing stuff that just looks good to demo. For sure, there is also work that is important to happen and makes for less of a flashy demo; there is no silver bullet. However, I still believe there is value in priming ourselves to think iteratively, and think for each cycle: ok cool, what do we want to be able to show on the next Momentum Visibility Mee... err, Demo Party 🥳? Because that will in fact be an actual step in achieving our target destination B. Others will see that result, and think of creative ways to contribute to that direction too.

And so, bit by bit we’ll get the momentum going. The oil tanker will slowly pick up pace, and before you know it will be unstoppable. Which may cause problems when we realize it’s heading for the coast, but as we say in Dutch: “zorgen for morgen” — worries can wait until tomorrow.

I have to admit. As I’m rereading this piece, I believe I may not have delivered on my goal to provide you with your weekly dose of Mind Fuckery (again, technical term, hence capitalized). And you know, I care about achieving my goals.

So, let me leave you with this thought:

I just spent over 1,700 words pitching you the Inverse Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Maneuver. Is it at all possible that, at a meta level, I’m going through all this trouble to make this maneuver itself a reality?

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