Active vs. Lazy Thinking

How to not suck when you get big

This is a memo I sent to the Scale team earlier this year—I think it is critical to maintaining efficacy as organizations get big. I hope you find it helpful.

The overwhelming evidence is that most large organizations invariably fall prey to lazy thinking. Organizations become large due to success, and successful companies rest on their laurels. Large organizations don’t start losing because they don’t want to win—they lose because they forget how to win.

Lazy thinking is making decisions through broad, imprecise beliefs which are either impossible to test, or one is too lazy to adjudicate. Lazy thinking is assuming statements that are intuitive are true without properly assessing if data backs up the claim. Lazy thinking is believing the convenient “truth” because it conforms to the path you are already marching along.

For example, a CPG company could say: “Consumers are all beginning to care about healthy foods. To remain competitive, we need to create a new brand for healthy products.” That might be true at the macro level, but the specific reason the CPG company could be suffering is due to poor marketing and branding to a newer generation of kids. The prescribed solution might have no impact on turning things around.

The symptom of lazy thinking is repeated, chronic failure. In the laziest of thinking, you do not even realize the failure.

The antidote to failure is active thinking. Force yourself to think in clear, verifiable hypotheses, and obtain data that validates or refutes those hypotheses. Ensure to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and identify where the real bottlenecks and constraints are. It is the only way you will be able to sort through the noise to identify the reasons you failed. On the other hand, lossy information transfer (see more: Information Compression) results in unchecked assumptions being propagated.

There is a misconception that you can fight failure with just sheer force of will. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Force of will without active thinking will still result in failure. If you are not rigorous, you will learn nothing from failure. People often assume they fail because of a single reason, but things often fail due to a myriad of reasons. Without a scientific approach to properly diagnose each cause of failure, you might try again 100 times and never succeed.

Science is active thinking. Religion is lazy thinking. There is a reason why most human progress and quality of life improvement is derived through the scientific method.

In the fullness of time, lazy thinking will always lead you to be wrong, whereas active thinking will lead you to be right.

Archetypes of Lazy Thinking

There are a number of crutches in organizations which reinforce lazy thinking. At Scale, it is our job to constantly fight these artifacts of the physics of large organizations.

The first is that people tend to be polite in large groups (“nice syndrome”). There’s nothing wrong with being polite, but failing to challenge others’ beliefs—because you believe they will find it rude rather than righteous—is lazy thinking. On important matters, it is imperative that you uphold others to be precise and verifiable in their thinking, and raise the flag when it is not true. A failure to be open-minded also represents lazy thinking; it is imperative to be receptive to challenges in active thinking. It’s important to say this isn’t about pedantically correcting others every time you notice an error—but for the ideas that matter, lazy thinking is fatal.

The second is that people often become shielded from outcomes and therefore do not see any data. Otherwise sensible people, when isolated from data, will fall prey to lazy thinking (“philosopher syndrome”). When organizations get big, functions become siloed, and it is no longer automatic for every individual to be in the feedback loop of a metric which enforces active thinking. The core to active thinking is the Dalioan (of Ray Dalio) credo to “embrace reality and deal with it.” The solution is to always, bar none, understand the metrics, understand reality, and better yet, hold oneself accountable to change.​

The third is that “someone else is thinking about it”, which implies you can be lazy in your thinking. While it is a comforting thought to trust that others that are smarter or more focused can think about all of the problems, this often leads to a tragedy of the commons where nobody is thinking about it. I can assure you, the value of independent and critical thought is alive and well, and it is very dangerous to assume that all the hard problems are being implicitly thought about by some nonspecific other person.

The fourth, and perhaps most hidden, is that organizations believe in clean abstraction layers, and confuse them for reality. Most things are illustrated by clean system diagrams or state machines which uphold a pure view of the world. The world is, in fact, extremely complex and convoluted, and almost every abstraction layer has an edge case which breaks it. Believing in the purity of abstraction layers in your mental model is lazy thinking. You cannot and should not trust that the black box will work, because when it invariably does not work you will not be prepared to deal with it.

The last form is incrementalism. It is easy to fall into the trap of making changes which are too small to yield large impacts, but convince yourself that you are making meaningful progress towards goals. In technology, progress is yielded through meaningful changes that leap forward the power of the product. Lapsing into small, incremental changes as one’s primary contributions is a sure way to fall into mediocrity. Incremental changes are necessary for the success of a product, but also mean certain death if there are no big leaps forward.​

When we are successful at Scale, it is usually the result of active thinking. The great victories are all due to deep active thinking coupled with force of will. The periods of failure are rarely due to lack of will, but more often lazy thinking.

The necessity to be an active thinker is the core of our credos: Intellectual rigor, open mind. We think in clear verifiable hypotheses and continuously obtain data that validates or refutes them. We ask questions and challenge assumptions to get consistently to the truth.

Do not be a lazy thinker. Be an active thinker.

Thanks to my Scale teammates, Tim Junio, Sam Altman, Jeff Wilke, Victor Lazarte, and Pedro Franceschi for reading drafts of this post.