It’s a mystery

There’s a scene near the beginning of the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love:

The theatres, we have heard, are all closed by the plague. And then:

HENSLOWE: Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business.The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a theatre.
FENNYMAN: So what do we do?
HENSLOWE Nothing. Strangely enough , it all turns out well.
HENSLOWE I don’t know. It’s a mystery

My life, my business, this project, your company: essentially they’re all mysteries too, a fog. How do our actions lead to outcomes, what could get in the way, what should we do then?

So what’s to do? Three approaches:

  1. Rely on principles: a codified set of actions that have always worked, patterns that match, rules that we’ve lived by, that our friends and loved ones use, which have gotten us this far at least.  Superstition can be a problem here, and I think in a complex world, this is working less and less often.
  2. Live life to its fullest, and recognize our essential powerlessness. Seth  Godin says:

    When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on.

    You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

  3. Do our very best to divine the inside of the fog, to get ourselves some special goggles, fog-cutting light, adventure clothing.

In the workplace, the third option is increasingly what’s expected of us. Yet it’s hard, and essentially unsolvable.

So how to stumble through?

  1. Bring along friends.  This can’t be solved alone.
  2. Open your eyes.  Vision is smarter than sound.
  3. Change direction often.  Different circumstances call for different actions.  Hypothesize, take action, evaluate, adapt.
  4. Carry lights:  Data, dashboards, beautiful visualizations.
  5. Use a brain camel. Whatever systems help you to process more ideas, to assemble a thousand curves, ten thousand data points, a dozen different opinions
  6. Be aware of time scales: most situations don’t have a single solution that will last forever.  They’re more like rivers, where today’s solution won’t work tomorrow, so best to do it fast, and well enough.
  7. Work by analogy: use related situations—along with data and expertise you learned from them—to bootstrap your understanding.

And don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “better”. Understand how much data is good enough, and how good your decision needs to be to get you to the next milestone.


Lorien Pratt

Pratt has been delivering AI and DI solutions for her clients for over 30 years. These include the Human Genome Project, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the US Department of Energy, and the Administrative Office of the US Courts. Formerly a computer science professor, Pratt is a popular international speaker and has given two TEDx talks. Her Quantellia team offers AI, DI, and full-stack software solutions to clients worldwide. Previously a leading technology analyst, Pratt has also authored dozens of academic papers, co-edited the book: Learning to Learn, and co-authored the Decision Engineering Primer. Her next book: Link: How Decision Intelligence makes the Invisible Visible (Emerald Press), is in production. With media appearances such as on TechEmergence and GigaOm, Pratt is also listed on the Women Inventors and Innovator’s Mural. Pratt blogs at

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