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Avoiding the Traffic Jam
This week's question comes from Rebekah Rius at Sidecar Solutions. She writes that she's curious about "how to zig when others zag."
We have to play the game in some ways, but as someone who plays on the fringe of "this is how we do it," I often see things piling up and not working earlier than others. Yet, it's too soon to see where else to go. How can we train ourselves to see the way around when the status quo is a snarl of a traffic jam?
A traffic jam is often the first sign that some strategy is reaching its expiration date. Early on, a successful strategy has few proponents because the strategy isn't successful yet. There are few people on the highway because there is no way to know yet whether that highway is going to get you where you want to go.
But as it becomes more apparent that, yes, this is a good route, the traffic gets heavier and heavier. Even before vehicles start to jam up and grind to a halt, that strategy is past its usefulness. But cars keep flooding in from the on-ramps because it seems like everyone else is going where they want to go.
Some of the very first cars on the highway end up getting lost. They were cruising—but they missed their exit. But many others do manage to get to their destination with relative speed. The next group takes dramatically longer since traffic has gotten heavier, but they get there, too.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of cars entering the highway get stuck. They stay on the road because everyone else is—and because the people ahead of them did get where they wanted to go. But that last group just isn't going anywhere. They're burning fuel idling in the middle of an enormous traffic jam.
So, to sum up:
The earliest movers often get lost
Some early movers get where they're going fast
A larger group of first followers get where they're going slowly
And a huge group of late followers just get stuck
To extend this metaphor just a little farther, the key is being early and not missing your exit.
Or, to put it the way Rebekah did, you've got to zig when others zag.
Of course, that's a lot easier to say than to do.
Our penchant for safety and certainty will cause us to opt for "proven" strategies rather than crafting our own. Our busyness and sense of urgency—constantly stoked by the political economy we exist within—make it difficult to step back and even consider new ways to achieve our desired ends. And add to all of that the way profit and power tend to flow to the people giving directions—rather than those blazing new trails—which means the loudest voices are often encouraging people to get on the highway rather than take an alternate route.
Last week during Work in Practice, I taught C. Thi Nguyen's concept of value capture. And I think this idea helps explain a lot of what's going on—and provides a solid framework for finding your zig when everyone else is zagging. Rebekah had mentioned to me that she assumed some of learning to zig when others zag is pattern recognition.1 And I couldn't agree me!
Value capture is an incredibly common pattern, and once you’re familiar with it, it's very easy to spot.
I've shared about value capture before in the newsletter and in my book, but the basic idea is this: (1) We value something that is hard to describe, measure, and track. So (2) we come up with a way to simplify the thing we value so that we can quantify it, track it, and compare the results. And then (3) we adjust our behavior to exert control over the new simplified value rather than the hard-to-measure thing we originally valued.
Nguyen uses social media as an example. Well, specifically, he uses the platform formerly known as Twitter—but I don't want to talk about that hellsite right now. So, let's use Instagram instead.
Currently, Instagram's About page offers the following headline:
Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.
I'm going to take this as a statement of what they value (even if it's the same thing every social platform claims to value). (1) Is this value something that's hard to describe, measure, and track? You bet it is. There are a million different definitions of community, and bringing the world closer together doesn't lend itself to any clear metrics. So Instagram, building on Facebook and the social platforms that came before them, (2) substitutes simple actions and corresponding metrics for that nuanced value. Community becomes followers, likes, and comments. And now, we can measure whether we're bringing the world closer together by tracking and comparing those metrics.
The value is captured and simplified. And once that happens, the simplification becomes the focus. We stop asking whether the action we take on the platform is actually connecting us with people. We stop considering whether what we share is building community (however we define it). Instead, (3) we plan content designed to attract followers, likes, and comments. We define activities as good when they improve those metrics and bad when they don't.
Value capture naturally leads to a sort of strategic and tactical homogeneity.
Everyone starts to define the same activities as good—and other activities as bad. Those activities are legible as the "that's just how you do it" ways to improve your metrics. In turn, the environment of those activities gets boring. Everyone is doing the same thing with increasing effort to get mediocre-at-best results.
In the case of a social media platform like Instagram, that means the environment has to change to encourage new and different activities. They roll out video, and direct messages, and Stories, and Reels. But the same process of value capture inevitably takes hold. Activities change and then homogenize, and the cycle repeats itself again and again.
Okay, so that was more than a brief definition of value capture. How does knowing all this help you zig when everyone else is zagging?
If zagging is a product of value capture, then zigging might be a process of value liberation.