Venkatesh Rao’s book Tempo, Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making (boy that’s a mouthful) lays out Rao’s insight on decision making. It’s an approach that is based on narrative rather than purely rational decision-making processes. Although a relatively short book, and in theory, a quick read, it’s dense with ideas and concepts. This is the type of book I will probably re-read several times to synthesize the concepts and figure out how they apply in the real world. But even on the initial read, I came away with so much. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in organizational change or decision processes.

Tempo Alphabet

Tempo is a set of characteristics of decision making, primarily rhythm, emotions, energy. Changes in tempo mark critical turning points in decisions and in a broader sense, life.

One interesting tool is the tempo alphabet. Using simple circles, you can depict the tempo of a conversation. The darker the circle, the more negative the emotion, the larger the circle, the more energy. The distance between circles reflects the rhythm. This was a fascinating way to analyze a huge amount of informant about an interaction in a simple visual form.  

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For example, the above diagram could depict the typical call center interaction with the top row being the call center agent and the bottom row being the customer. Haven’t we all felt this way on a call? 

Situational Awareness Asymmetry

During a context switch, moving from one situation into another, and from one tempo to another, you must assess the new situation using your existing mental models and based on the limited information you have, or through random experimentation, you can develop a mental model for the new context. What’s interesting is that this process is asymmetric. Leaving an existing context is easy but entering a new context is hard. This can explain why it’s so often the case that people look for ways to stay put rather than make a move into a new situation, even when the status quo is unsatisfactory.  

When trying to change an organization, for example, it’s not uncommon for people to simultaneously complain about the current situation and fight movement into a new situation. This seems irrational on the surface, but understanding it as a narrative arc it makes much more sense. Moving into the new context is an unknown and requires experimentation and fumbling about in the dark. Most people don’t like fumbling around in the dark. And we also know, it can always get worse. 

Pace Setting

Pacesetting is the art pushing the natural tempo of your environment away from the current tempo and toward your preferred tempo in a nondestructive way. Organizations have a performance envelope and can operate within that envelope fairly consistently. There are limits, however. Some organizations can increase tempo greatly but for a short time, Just like an engine, you can run it at high RPMs for some time, up to its limit, but if maintained at that speed for too long and you destroy the engine. The reverse is also true; you can slow down the tempo to such a degree that the engine stalls out. Same for organizations. This is where boredom can be an advantage in change efforts since humans crave some change. Even those who are comfortable in the current envelope may be open to a pacesetter if they’ve sat at that low end of the performance envelope for too long.

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Deep Stories

Deep Stories are described as the most significant scale in which we enact meaning. Liminal passages are the space between the deep story. A deep story being something that is large enough in your life to transform you. Things like college and careers are deep story arcs, but you can also view organizational change as a deep story. Rao uses a modification of the Freytag triangle of dramatic structure to show the narrative arcs.  

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In the standard Freytag triangle, there is an introduction, rise in action, a climax or turning point, followed by falling action and finally the dénouement, resolving the arc. Rao uses what he calls the double Freytag triangle as the canonical deep story. 

Liminal Passage: Experiences between the narrative events.  

Exploration: You’re unsure of the situation. You’re entering a new context and therefore need to develop a mental model for this new environment. This can include random activity as you feel around in the dark.  

The Cheap Trick: The exploration phase generates a great deal of information, so much that you begin to form patterns that can be exploited. Like any model, the pattern won’t be correct in a clinical sense, but it might be useful, but you’re not done. The timing of the cheap trick plays an important role here. Enter this phase too soon, and you may not get enough benefit and get stuck refining a poorly constructed mental model or simply lose momentum on this arc. I considered if this is what happens to so many organization’s transformation efforts. They get stuck at this cheap trick stage where the mental model seems to make sense because some outside methodology has been applied, but the real work of pushing through the narrative arc hasn’t happened, so people get stuck, or abandon the change. It’s just a thought at this point.

Sense-Making: As the cheap trick allowed you to organize the data you gained earlier, you can begin to refine your mental model into something manageable, and as Rao puts it elegant. This refined model will still be imperfect, and new information may invalidate it. Rao makes the case that until your new model “has weathered reality, it is indistinguishable from delusion.”

The Valley: The valley is the point of generating a return on the action from your model. Because the model hasn’t been tested and it’s imperfect, you will encounter diminishing returns on effort.

The Heavy Lift: As the valley continues and the effort increases eventually, it will force a heavy lift. It becomes impossible to maintain the tempo, and a decision is made for a final push. This can be initiated by a deadline but doesn’t have to. 

The Separate Event: The point your new mental model is released into the wild. Your change is externalized. This is also called the moment of truth since it can validate or invalidate the assumption for the change.

Retrospective: Based on the narrative arc, the deep story is set down in its final form. I think of this in some ways as lessons learned. Just like any change effort, the lessons learned can be great wisdom or a convenient fiction. 

Hierarchical Dynamics and Decision Making

It’s obvious in hindsight, but I hadn’t thought of it in this particular way before. Hierarchies are naturally organized to operate at lower tempos at higher levels. In most organizations, the higher up, the lower the frequency. In some cases, this is just a natural consequence of the transitional nature of decisions at lower levels in an organization. This does open up the idea that since lower levels operate at a higher tempo, they can disrupt the higher levels. I see this playing out by middle management manipulating inputs to the higher levels in the organization to push a strategy or disrupt a strategy they dislike. If the higher levels in the organization are not aware of this, they can be manipulated into a course of action.  

As I said in the beginning, I highly recommend this book. I’m certain I didn’t synthesize everything Rao was communicating and will need several more rounds to feel I have a good grasp of the ideas. I do, however, love the way these concepts approach decision making and change arcs in a way that is less clinical and more emotional, and therefore more realistic to real change, be it in life or organizations.