With many Thinking Toys, it’s helpful to start with a specific problem. Yet, some are especially useful when you don’t know what you want. Rather than starting with an issue, begin by examining your resources. Who are your friends, what are your hobbies, and what skills have you mastered? What kinds of levers can you pull? Combined in different ways, these represent the set of affordances available to you. The actions you perceive yourself capable of taking in any moment. Effectuation is the process of exploring these affordances without knowing what they’ll lead to.


Rather than trying to create a causal, step-by-step plan to get from point A to B, we begin by experimenting. By trying new things, we uncover interesting destinations (goals). So interesting that we may decide to reorient towards them. Or we may fall on our ass and look silly. That’s a good sign, though — if you’re succeeding too often, you’re not learning. What are some low-risk, cheap actions you have available to you? Especially focus on ones that don’t seem useful, or may look weird. These are types of actions you wouldn’t normally try. They tend to lead to the most learning and surprise.


For the past few years, I have avoided having a permanent home. I’ve been staying in short-term rentals as I move from place to place. I’m not quite on vacation as I end up doing similar “productive” things wherever I am. It also may not be obvious why moving around would be helpful rather than annoying. But it’s not especially costly for me, so it seemed worth exploring. I’ve learned that changing how and where I live and work has a tremendous impact on my ideation process. By changing contexts, both physical and social, I’m growing quicker than before. Unexpected benefits include being less attached to physical objects and experiencing less neuroticism over living conditions. This has been tremendously valuable to me but was not a specific goal that I set out with.


Effectuation is useful even when you do have a particular goal in mind. It can be vague and open-ended, like “live a good life” or “make money”. It can also be specific, like “increase sales in Q3”. All that’s necessary is having an open mind about how you will achieve your aim. Perhaps you have the semblance of a plan but want to explore other options. Or, you may not even know what your first milestones are and can’t granularize. When you’re not super confident in your goals or your plan, you want to be in exploration mode. Follow paths of least resistance (be like water) and try cheap experiments (control your downside, the upside is harder to predict). In this exploration, you will be shaping your goals. Your desires will be shifting as you learn more about the world and yourself!


This makes effectuation especially useful when feeling stuck or overwhelmed by a problem. You can adopt the mindset that any new action will lead to more learning and information. This gives you more insight into the situation and makes taking future action easier.


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Also published on Medium.

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