Four Scopes Of Advice

by namespace2 min read23rd Oct 201711 comments


Planning & Decision-Making

There's a very common failure mode people fall into where they'll ask for 'advice on doing something', receive excellent advice, and fail to follow it. For a long time this was mysterious to me. Then a friend provided a possible explanation that completely changed how I look at it. As I explained to my friend, the problem isn't that the person giving advice isn't trustworthy, quite often the person asking wants the advice and trusts the opinion of the person giving it. So why don't they follow it? My friend hypothesized that people let their identity get mixed up in how they wanted to do the thing, and then can't bring themselves to do it another way. Essentially his hypothesis is that they're being asked to change too much. This seems plausible enough, but it got me thinking more broadly about what scope of advice people are looking for when they ask.

To start we can imagine four modes of planning, divided thusly:

  • Mission - What you are trying to accomplish.

  • Strategic Planning - What broad goals you intend to satisfy to get there.

  • Tactical Planning - Concrete near term objectives which will let you satisfy the strategic goals.

  • Operational Planning - The absolute lowest levels of getting the work done, who will do what, what needs to be done to make tactics work, etc.

The hierarchy of willingness to take advice then is basically a mirror image of this.

  • Unwilling - The zeroth level. The one receiving advice is willing to change nothing based on what counsel they are given.

  • Operational Advice ("Use this kind of bolt.") - The one receiving advice would like to hear suggestions on how to accomplish the task they've already set for themselves, but aren't particularly interested in hearing what tasks make sense in the service of what goals. This is probably what most people asking for advice actually want.

  • Tactical Advice ("The car should have four wheels.") - Given a set of broad goals, the one receiving advice is open for suggestions on how they should go about trying to accomplish them. This might mean for example that significant deviations from the original plan are allowed as long as they better serve the goals which the action is going towards. Most advice I give is on this level whether it's asked for or not.

  • Strategic Advice ("You should build a car.") - Very close to being the most open to radically plan changing advice. Here the one receiving advice is willing to accept that the goals they've decided on to pursue their mission are flawed, or perhaps not the best goals they could set for accomplishing the mission. This kind of advice is usually only solicited at the outset of a project, at least for a while. Once a project is in motion the inertia to change these becomes much higher, as a consequence people can persist in doing stupid things for essentially rational reasons even after it's been laboriously pointed out to them why the thing is dumb.

  • Mission Advice ("You should build a high speed transportation machine.") - Here the one receiving advice is open to the idea that the thing they are trying to accomplish, may not even be the right thing to go after at all. This is probably the rarest kind of advice to be followed, and the rarest to be solicited once a project is in motion. Examples might include certain kinds of Effective Altruist activism that tries to convince people to quit their mediocre job and become an investment banker so they can donate the money to charity. Or maybe if in the course of trying to accomplish strategic goals an organization falls so far below what it hoped to accomplish that it begins to make more sense to 'pivot'.

The takeaway for you dear reader is that you should try to be cognizant of what kind of advice you're looking for. To get better advice it may help to explicitly communicate your preference to the person you're soliciting from. You're liable to make your peers quite angry if they give you solid strategic advice and you persist in the same basic inoptimal tactics towards your goals.

(This post was originally published at Special thanks to Oliver for helping me polish it up.)


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You get to deal with this a lot in engineering, and it's also notable that the level of advice people ask for is often correlated with their skill level, with the least skilled people most often asking for operational advice on up to the most skilled people most often asking for mission advice, though this largely seems to be a matter of where the frontier of skill is for them. Part of the role as a more experienced engineer is to notice when less skilled engineers are asking questions at the wrong level and gradually help them move up to the right level of advice request.

For example, I work in software, so a common question from a new engineer might be to come to me and ask me a question about how to write a code that does something concrete like detect a string matching a pattern in the larger goal of converting data from one format to another. It usually makes sense to answer their initial question ("here's a regex you could write" or "here's a fast way to match to this based on prefix"), but then usually there is more to be considered. Why do you need to match this string? Could you use a library to do this conversion instead or at least do most of the heavy lifting (tactical advice)? Why do you need to do this conversion anyway (strategic advice)? And what customer value are we trying to deliver with this code (mission)? It's not all that surprising to find that the operational question really points to a larger issue that needs to be addressed that will solve the operational question by replacing it with something entirely different. The intuition then becomes if you're having to work really hard to make something work maybe you should step back and see if you're sure you're working on the right thing.

I find people are pretty open to this line of questioning as long as you come to listen and not to judge. If you're going to ask why, even at the operational level, people are generally much more receptive to advice if you come fully open to the possibility that they are already doing the right thing and just needed confirmation. This turns the situation around to something the advice giver can do something about, namely how can you give your advice such that you can encourage the asking to consider the question at what you consider the right level while fulfilling their need for advice at the level they are asking for.

Every part of this comment is excellent, thanks.

Failing to follow good strategic advice isn't even the worst failure mode here; unless you're lucky you may not be given any strategic advice at all in response to a tactical question. If nobody notices that you're committing the XY Problem, then you may be given good advice for the tactical problem you asked about, follow it, and end up worse off than you were before with respect to the strategic problem you should have been asking about instead.

This is true.

The converse problem also exists, however.


Alex Papadimoulis brings up an analogy to a carpenter building a shelving unit asking, “Which is best to drive nails? And old shoe or a glass bottle?” Advice at the operational level would be to compare and contrast the characteristics of shoes and glass bottles and try to determine which would be best to drive nails in this circumstance. Advice at the tactical level would be to say, “Go the hardware store and buy a hammer.” Advice at the strategic level would be to ask, “Why are you using nails here?” And finally, advice at the mission level would be, “Why are you even building a shelving unit?”

My friend adds the following addendum:

Sometimes, someone asks you for advice of level N. However, what you know, and what the one who asks you either does not know or does not want to acknowledge, is that no advice of level N will suffice, for their situation; the flaw in their approach is on level N+1.

(Example: “The wheels aren’t holding the car up; what sort of bolt should I use to ensure that they hold?” —when the problem is that the car has three wheels instead of four; no kind of bolt will fix that problem.)

Such cases are difficult. You know that no advice you give on level N will work, but no advice you give on level N+1 will be accepted.

Being open to being told that this is the case, is, I think, a critical part of being rational.

I was thinking about this the other day, and to me it seems that the problem with much advice is that words don't have intrinsic meaning. The sorts of things you say when you've had life-changing experiences often don't communicate the experiences - so apparently meaningless platitudes like 'believe in yourself' isn't that the advice-giver doesn't believe them, and isn't that they don't correspond to his internal understanding, it's just that they don't convey the right internal models to the listener. The words you say when you understand something, and the words you need to hear when you don't understand it yet, are not the same.

If you try explaining the insight several different ways, in my experience, you will eventually work out a way to explain the insight that conveys the insight to other people.

I appreciate the point, and think this is true for a large class of insights (e.g. explaining how to do quadratic equations, or how to use a new online editor). However, when people use phrases like "You can't teach someone to have emotional awareness" or "You can't teach someone to be a good father" I think that those statements are false, but it's the case that communicating the S1 experiences to teach those things is very hard.

I think that many fundamental truths of rationality are in this reference class, which is why I think HPMOR and the Beisutsukai are so valuable - for conveying the feeling of rationality. And so I think that the inferential gap in things like this ends up plugged with platitudes, because it's not easy to turn these insights into words. There's a sense when I talk to someone who has had a significant personal revelation and solved some significant bug, that they say "I realised I just had to care about the truth" and I'm like "That sentence is used so much, that everyone listening will nod their heads but nobody will understand exactly what you meant". And it's often used to mean different valuable insights.

From being on both sides of trying to give and get advice that affects S1, the only consistent thing I find works is what Ozy says, except you don't work out one way to convey the insight, you work out many ways that might convey the insight, and different people will need different explanations. That is, you generally have to phrase the same idea many different ways, sometimes using different metaphors, to find a way to present it that will click for somebody (assuming the inferential distance is short enough that this is even possible).