Why snipers have spotters

Imagine two highly skilled snipers choosing and eliminating targets in tandem. Now imagine I take away one of their rifles, but leave him his scope. How much do you expect their abilities to be decreased?

Surprisingly, there is a strong case that this will actually increase their combined sniping competence. As an economist would point out, this stems from specialization: the sniper sacrifices total situational awareness to improve accurate intervention, and the spotter sacrifices ability to intervene to improve awareness and planning. We can push out beyond the production possibilities curve.

It is also a result of communication. Two independent snipers pick their own shots, and may over-kill a target or miss a pressing threat. By explicitly designating roles, the sniper can depend on the spotter for guidance, and the two-person system means that both parties actually have more information than their cumulative, but separate knowledge without spotting.

There are also long-term positive impacts that likely escape an economist’s models from switching off in each role, or from an apprenticeship model. Eye fatigue that limits accuracy, and mental fatigue that may result from constant awareness, can be eliminated by taking turns. Also, if a skilled sniper has a novice spotter, the spotter observes the sniper’s tactics and can assimilate best practices–and the sniper, by previously working as a spotter, can be more productively empathetic. The system naturally encourages learning and improvement.

I love the sniper-spotter archetype, because it clarifies the advantages of:

  • Going from zero to one: Between two independent snipers, there zero effective lines of communication. Between a sniper and a spotter, there is one. This interaction unlocks potential held in both.
  • More from less: Many innovate by adding new things; however, anti-fragile innovations are more likely to come from removing unnecessary things than by adding new ones.
  • Not the number of people, the number of interactions: Interactions have advantages (specialization, coordination) and disadvantages (communication friction, lack of individual decision-making responsibilities). Scrutinize what interactions you want on your teams and which to avoid.
  • Isolation: Being connected to everyone promotes noise over signal. It also promotes focusing on competitors over opportunities and barriers over permissionless innovation.
  • Separate competencies, shared goals and results: To make working together worth it, define explicit roles that match each individual’s competencies. Then, so long as you have vision alignment, all team members know what they are seeking and how they will be depended upon to succeed.
  • Iterative learning and feedback: Systems that promote self-improvement of their parts outperform systems that do not. Also, at the end of the day, education comes from experimentation and observation of new phenomena, balance on the edge between known and unknown practices.
  • Establish ‘common knowledge’: Communication failures and frictions often occur because independent people assume others have the same assumed set of ‘common knowledge’. If you make communication the root of success, so long as the group is small enough to actual have–and know it has–the same set of ‘common knowledge’, they can act confidently on these shared assumptions.
  • Delegation as productivity: Recognize that doing more does not mean more gets done. Without encouraging slacking off, explicitly rewarding individuals for choosing the right things to delegate and executing effectively will get more from less.
  • Cheating Goodhart: Goodhart’s Law states that the metric of success becomes the goal. If you make the metric of success joint, rather than individual, and shape its incentives to match your vision, your metrics will create an atmosphere bent on achieving your actual goals.
  • Leadership is empowerment: Good leaders don’t tell people what to do, they inform, support, listen, and match people’s abilities and passions to larger purpose.
  • Smallness: Small is reactive, flexible, cohesive, connected, fast-moving, accurate, stealthy, experimental, permissionless, and, counterintuitively, scalable.

My most recent encounter with “sniper and spotter” is in my sister’s Montessori classroom (ages 3-6). She is an innovative educator who noticed that her public school position was rife with top-down management, politics, and perverse incentives, and was not finding systems to promote curiosity or engagement. She has applied the “sniper and the spotter” after noticing that children thrive best in either one-on-one, responsive guidance, where the instructor is totally dedicated to the student, or when left to their own devices in a materials-rich environment, engaging in discovery (or working with other children, or even teaching what they have already learned to newcomers). However, believe it or not, three-year-olds can often cause disruptions or even physical threats if left totally without supervision.

She therefore promotes a teaching model where there are two teachers, one who watches for children’s safety and minimizes disruptiveness. This frees the other teacher to rove student-to-student and give either individual or very-small-group attention. The two teachers communicate to plan next steps, and to ‘spot’ children who most need intervention. This renders ‘class size’ a stupid metric: what matters is how much one-on-one guidance plus permissionless discovery a child engages in. It is also a “barbell” strategy: instead of wallowing in the mediocrity of “group learning”, children get the most of the two extremes–total attention and just-enough-attention-to-remain-safe.

PS: On Smallness, Jeff Bezos has promised $1 billion to support education innovation. So far, despite starting before my sister, he has so far opened as many classrooms: one. As the innovator in the ‘two-pizza meeting’, I wish Bezos would start with many, small experiments in education rather than big public dedications, so he could nurture innovation and select strategies for success.

I would love to see more examples of “sniper and spotter” approaches in the comments…but no sniping please 🙂

The Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.