In data analytics, teasing out1 the effects of explanatory variables on a response variable is the name of the game.
But sometimes there’s a delayed reaction (response lag) and for some period of time you don’t see the effect you’d expect to see.
Enter Cut Flowers Theory™2, a useful little mental model / framework I’ve been thinking about recently that seemingly pops up everywhere and conveniently works in different contexts.
In a nutshell: freshly cut flowers at first look just as beautiful and smell just as fragrant as when they were planted in soil, but in fact they’re beginning to wither and die the moment their stems are severed from the roots. So, too, with certain phenomena that are dependent upon and sustained by other external and often invisible forces or beings: in the short-term you don’t notice any degradation, but in the long-term you do.
A few examples:
Last week Brian Chesky announced Airbnb’s plans to go to a fully-remote work model.
Today, we’re announcing that Airbnb employees can live and work anywhere.— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) April 29, 2022
Our design for working at Airbnb has 5 key features:
I’ve certainly enjoyed the comforts of home throughout the pandemic, but admittedly, the physical office environment creates myriad opportunities and serendipities for relationships to bloom and grow organically, and we’re starting to learn about the costs and drawbacks of a Zoom-only approach3. So the question is: for whom will a Zoom + Slack + quarterly meet-up model be enough to maintain culture? Presumably established, successful companies like Airbnb that can exploit their existing vibrant culture with its existing web of relationships…at least for a certain period of time. But how long?
And that’s for companies that built culture the old analog way. What will be interesting is to see if companies built remote from the get-go can successfully build good culture. My guess is that the most elite start-ups with the most talented, motivated, digitally-disposed (Gen Z+) employees can do it, but many other companies won’t be able to swing it so easily. Time will tell.
There are several corporate spend categories where the effects of a cutback don’t show up so clearly in the short-term—or at least are hard to quantify—but the negative effects do manifest in the long-term:
Because the Constitution, Man!. Aren’t we often wondering why the public square is so cacophonous and polarizing? Why the shouting and polemics and absence of reasonable arguments? I won’t pretend to have a complete answer as there’s plenty of good expert thinking on this topic, but I submit that at least in part it’s that we’re not operating from the same moral framework. I see a fair number of Twitter debates reach a “because the Constitution says so” roadblock and get stuck. If one can’t go past the Constitution to it’s modern philosophy and natural law (first) principles, one is de facto constrained to Jefferson’s words, and then it’s a difficult game of interpretation and trying to apply to novel situations.
Fides et Ratio. (This is where Will Herberg’s “cut flower culture” comes in.) We find people have been disaffiliating from churches and religions for quite some time, which you may think should be of no consequence other than their own spiritual well-being and state of grace. But then we try to discuss the relative morality of this thing or that, and there’s no shared language, and so it devolves to de gustibus non est disputandum. Faith without reason may lead to superstition, but reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism, which then (Bishop Barron is wont to argue) leads to voluntarism (a contest of wills) (i.e. if we can’t have a reasoned argument then I’m left with no other choice but violence). Alexis de Tocqueville maintained that faith underpins society: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” More recently, David Perell’s The Book You Need to Read argued for reading the Bible not because you are or aren’t Christian but because of its influence on the culture.
At the end of the day, causal inference is difficult stuff (because the world is complex and there are confounding variables, etc.), so when there’s a situation in which:
…then you can casually (smugly) offer, “Well, this certainly sounds like a classic ‘cut flowers’ dynamic.”
There you have it. A well-cultivated worldview must include Cut Flowers Theory.
— ᴘ. ᴍ. ʙ.
Technical data analytics terminology. ↩
First published: 2022-05-06
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