Four Scopes Of Advice

by namespace 2 min read23rd Oct 201711 comments

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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 https://namespace.obormot.net/Main/FourScopesOfAdvice. Special thanks to Oliver for helping me polish it up.)

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