Communication is signaling and vice versa, but signaling is more indirect. To me, signaling encompasses incidental communication of your organization’s intentions through purchasing agreements, real estate purchases, intellectual property registration and startup acquisitions. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that companies will go through to cover their tracks, sometimes. Then there are other instances where a major company is obviously signaling towards a major investment of their resources and I wonder why they wanted to make that knowledge public. I wish I could be a part of those discussions because I’m sure they have good reasons.
The best example of signaling I can think of is the great lengths that the US and UK undertook to surprise Germany with the invasion location for DDay, known as Operation Mincemeat. There were two major possibilities for DDay invasion. The UK conspired to have a cadaver available before the invasion and send it floating to shore at the alternate location. This was a day or so before the invasion in Normandy. This signaled to Hitler that Germany should concentrate its forces southward in preparation of invasion there and ordered much of their land forces away from Normandy. If it weren’t for this tactical use of signaling, the UK and US would have suffered massively larger losses in DDay. The story is even more fascinating when you hear all the details. Definitely worth it.
This story underscores the importance of understanding how your actions affect the behavior of others. Any great strategy must take signaling into account. Quite often, taking signaling into account sometimes significantly obfuscates an otherwise simple strategy. If you’re trying to throw off your opponent in chess, this could result in a several move delay before you position the piece you actually wanted. In order for it to be useful, you need to understand how your opponent plays the game, whether they understand a particular strategy and how they might react to such a strategy.
Then Reactions are Crystal Clear
Energy committed towards any action is a good measure for weighting an opponent’s intent behind an action. Here, energy implies cost of some kind: money, redirection of resources, utilization of assets. Gauging the opportunity cost in pursuing a plan of action is an even better measure of whether or not an opponent’s move can be read to imply associated intent. Because signaling is so important, everyone and especially larger corporations wants to mask their intent behind actions.
You can also gauge intent behind actions by attempting to place your opponent into a scenario where you hope their reaction will belie their tactics or overall strategy. Mastery of this technique confers almost psychic ability. It can also turn you into someone who appears to be a controlling asshole, incapable of trust. Yet, the potential for trust itself is often the unfortunate victim of success. People in high-stakes scenarios can’t leave themselves to fickle vulnerabilities like trust. There are some scenarios where the only acceptable level of risk is zero. Nothing is impossible.
For the same reason that it’s smart to employ a lawyer during trial, it’s smart to shield your actions behind a corporation. To the dismay of Bernie supporters everywhere, corporations have rights – which is ironic because apparently you can’t even read the Bill of Rights through everything smeared on it.
Quick sidenote: I have tried so hard to escape the rhetorical dead end of defending our rights, but honestly it seems that we have to choose between our freedom and our resilience as a society. It’s purely a result of technology’s unprecedented power and unpredictability. But IMO, it’s borderline criminal to maintain the illusion of freedom if we are not free, simply because it’s useful. The American Dream – the promise of freedom and opportunity – is not a tool. No hard feelings. Moving on… . .
In business, purchasing a company or real estate could signal your intentions to your competitors. Furthermore, prices of stocks and commodities can signal the reactions of entities in a particular industry. If you know that industry and you understand the decision making process for the players in that game, you can understand how actions which weren’t initiated by one of those players could indicate changes in their behavior. Public companies are at a much greater risk of being “read” because so much more information is either available publicly or to stockholders.
As for founders and great leaders, they seem to prefer to not signal at all – which would be boring in my opinion. For founders of companies, it’s smart to generally turn down the volume on your emotional reactions. For people in other industries, the opposite could be true – 24/7 poker face is a bad thing. For many people, it’s just their personality and it’s sad because they’ve succumbed to the game. They have literally become the game they play. But it’s smart.
In general, I’ve noticed that founders and other greats tend to dull their emotional response during long form interviews. They don’t want to signal anything at all. This could be because of the risk of sending the wrong message. Confusion can be more difficult to quell than it is useful, especially if you want to convey a uniform message. For some roles and industries, it seems more important to remain reserved, though not withdrawn. Higher volume emotional responses could detract from the important pieces of your message, if it’s an intellectual one. Some people will latch onto anything you give them that they can contort to attack you. Sometimes it’s better not to give anyone anything at all.
If you’re someone who has a considerable amount of influence, you really have to watch your words and actions because you can create more of an effect than you expect. This is especially true if other people want to use your words and actions for their own purposes or without your knowledge.
No Dali, You Can’t!
If only Dali had known…
So you’ll see these founders and especially celebrities will restrain their words and actions simply because of that. It is a gag, where you are bound by fame. Isn’t that crazy? You obtain influence and then choose to bind yourself out of fear. It’s crucial to understand why it is important to do so. The wrong tweet or the wrong post could really hurt someone, even if that’s never what you meant at all. The solution to this is to maintain some level of anonimity with your actions. If you are an angel investor or celebrity who’s scoping out new talent, find someone close who you trust to help do this for you. Another advantage to this is that the person you’re scoping out is much more likely to be themselves. As long as the person you’re delegating to is someone with a sharp eye and you know you can trust that person, then you are more likely to get an accurate picture of someone else’s behavior and character.
And the Corollary:
For those of you who want to be “discovered” – it is paramount that you not only stay true to yourself, but also be sure to develop into a version of your true self who is approachable, ethical and remarkable. How would someone describe you to your heroes? I have failed so many times here…
Founders need to prevent people from resolving and deducing more information based on their reactions, especially if they’re involved in a competitive space. Additionally, when a founder has established business partnerships, unintentionally signalling the wrong thing can adversely affect your partners. Someone could prompt you with a seemingly harmless question and a founder needs to know how to respond, while taking into account their own interests and the interests of their partners. They need to take these factors into account a priori and know what questions could be asked. Situations like this, even when someone didn’t intend harm with their reaction could cause significant problems for other people or partners.
This coordinated signaling is incredibly important in politics, where individuals need to adhere to a party platform. It’s vital to be yourself – I have sacrificed so many opporuntities in pursuit of this – but it’s crucial to understand that there is nothing truly great that you can accomplish on your own. It’s by comprimising with others that our energy can be combined and we can accelerate towards a destination that would otherwise be impossibly remote. This is another phenomena where one must find the right balance. It’s also frustrating when group motivation to resist change derided as “outlandish” results in the dismantling of any dissenter. Standing up for what you believe in isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. When you realize how much someone has to give up to do so, you should respect that person, in spite of whether you agree with what they stand for. It’s very hard to be that person.
Keeping business partnerships in mind when talking about signaling from a organizational perspective is more complicated. Agreements with business partners may require that you coordinate signalling in a market – though the text of such an agreement wouldn’t call it that. This could be unethical, depending on how it’s used and how you coordinate.
Businesses may pursue strategies employed solely to see how a competitor reacts to better understand how signaling affects their competitor’s behavior. From this, they can make inferences about their competitor’s strategy. While I specifically mentioned solely, this isn’t true – no strategy is employed for a single explicit purpose in business.
Great people with no small plans have a clear distinction b/w what info can be shared and what should remain private. The understand what inferences can be made with each new piece of info. This is incredibly important because any great project requires great plans. Everyone, or almost everyone, would love to build something great. So have you to conceal your intentions, your strategies and your motivations. Because, at best, someone else will end up building what you had planned. Or a competitor will sidestep and adapt to your strategy, rendering it useless. Or just a massive waste of time.
This is why signaling is so important. The kind of people who end up being truly great have an intimate understand of signaling. They understand how to read the actions of others and what message to send. They know what questions to ask and what not to ask and the implications of making particular statements. They understand motivations behind their own actions and their colleagues actions.
Signaling Overcomplicates Everything
In a world where you’re passionate about getting from A-to-B to accomplish whatever goal you have, it’s disheartening that signaling, far more than any other facet, obfuscates that path from A-to-B. Signaling is overcomplicated – honestly anything involving other people is – and it is very perplexing for someone with Asperger’s. For someone who intellectually understood so many things and often clearly outperformed competition, my lack of social understanding and especially that of signaling precluded me from being capable of accomplishing much of anything until my late twenties. I’m still dealing with the consequences of those mistakes, but everything that has held me back has taught me so much. And the harder people hold me back and refuse to acknowledge the significance of what I discuss or work on only drives me to work harder.
It’s humourous, IMO, when people tell me I’ll never succeed with a startup. For some of those people, all roads lead to Rome: that is, they refuse to do anything that would contribute to my success, which is bullshit. It’s like that logic paradox, where you know that one person always tells the truth and one person always lies. There are some people who I can know to always drive me away from my goals. For them, it is a foregone conclusion that I have failed or will fail, when I have never even had seed funding. Again, it is absolute bullshit.
And then I look bad when I’m not cordial with someone like this? Now that is a fucking challenge. However, in my position, it’s a serious mistake to judge anyone who’s giving me a hard time, as they are usually someone who should be a friend and ally, but is acting towards me after being misinformed or led to utilize a fallacious perspective. Honestly, I don’t get it. I would invest in me. I would cofound a company with me if I thought my skillset meshed up. That is what is so confusing: everyone around me acts as though my fate is a foregone conclusion, without ever discussing why … and why is that?
Trust me. I Know!
And it also sounds really lame that I would complain, especially when there are so many people who have presented me with opportunities that I would complain, but there it is. The trouble is, people will only lend you a helping hand for so long. People often want to help because they want to be able to tell a story about how they were involved in someone’s situation and exhibited positive influence. If you fail several times when someone was only trying to help you, they’re going to want to steer their efforts to someone else. For someone that needs help climbing out of a hole, it’s important to remember that there are plenty people out there who want to help, but if it appears that you’re just screwing around, then they’re going to want to help someone else. Again, it’s irritating for me to find myself in the position where I’m isolated and a handful of people control which pieces of information are shared and how that info about me is shared.
Also, those who exhibit the greatest strengths in spite of great difficulties are great examples of heroes in the kind of stories we should be telling. In other words, if someone is just handed success because they bitched loudly about things, that’s not a great story to tell. At the same time, I don’t think it’s right to preclude someone from having a shot just because a few things went horribly wrong. I don’t really know what to say about it. Some people tell me I haven’t worked hard enough, without actually understanding the crap that I’ve been through in the past decade. I can’t drive, that’s just a recurring theme in my life. So, yes, there are opporunities in front of me, but I just end up spending all my energy figuring out how to physically travel somewhere. And usually when I try to take advantage of these opportunities, I often have to involve one of those people for whom all roads lead to Rome.
When I have a cofounder or a team of three that works on a project with me from begining to miserable failure, then I will concede that I cannot build a startup. Until then, I will continue to laugh at those who say I’m crazy or incapable. It’s hilarious to see the lengths to which this handful of people will go and, at the same time, the rules to which they seem to be willingly bound. They can doall that, but not a single person can partner up with me? LULZ
The other thing I find equally amusing is that certain happenings, shall we say, seem to preclude me from ever reaching success or renown. Really? David Conner can’t gain notoriety or influence? Hmmm…. Rule #1: don’t present me with a challenge.
They also understand how important it is to acquire information, even though directly asking the question would signal elements of their own strategy to their opponents. So they know how to work through other people to acquire information, so that competitors aren’t tipped off by the desire to obtain particular information. That is, they understand how to destructure and restructure the acquisition of knowledge to satisfy appearances and other rules of the game. They also know how to destructure and restructure the steps of someone’s plan of action or business strategy, as well as their own. Or of someone’s actions within their own organization.
They also understand that this kind of destructuring and restructuring is very expensive, in terms of time and energy, but that it is invaluable to security and risk mitigation. They understand this and are capable of acquiring the resources required to be capable of this kind of orchestration.
Signaling is a subject on which I could expound ad infinitum. It’s something that business analysts can easily miss. To produce useful or novel insight on signaling, it often requires intimate knowledge of several years of closely watching a corporation or industry. That these entities produce so much misinformation with advertising and publicity only complicates analysis. Fortunately, I spend tons of time reading news and staying on top of current events. It’s a shame that I can’t get a job for lack of a degree. That is also hilarious.