In today’s post I will start with a question, “Do you know your edges?”
Edges are boundaries where a system or a process (depending upon your construction) breaks down or changes structure. Our preference, as the manager or the owner, is to stay in our comfort zone, a place where we know how things work; a place where we can predict how things go; a place we have the most certainty. Let’s take for a simple example your daily commute to work – chances are high that you always take the same route to work. This is what you know and you have a high certainty about how long it will take you to get to your work. Counterintuitively, the more certainty you have of something, the less information you have to gain from it. Our natural tendency is to have more certainty about things, and we hate uncertainty. We think of uncertainty as a bad thing. If I can use a metaphor, uncertainty is like medicine – you need it to stay healthy!
To discuss this further, I will look at the concept of variety from Cybernetics. Variety is a concept that was put forth by William Ross Ashby, a giant in the world of Cybernetics. Simply speaking, variety is the number of states. If you look at a stop light, generally it has three states (Red, Yellow and Green). In other words, the stop light’s variety is three (ignoring flashing red and no light). With this, it is able to control traffic. When the stop light is able to match the ongoing traffic, everything is smooth. But when the volume of traffic increases, the stop light is not able to keep up. The system reacts by slowing down the traffic. This shows that the variety in the environment is always greater than the variety available internally. The external variety also equates with uncertainty. Scaling back, let’s look at a manufacturing plant. The uncertainty comes in the form of 6M (Man, Machine, Method, Material, Measurement and Mother Nature). The manager’s job is to reduce the uncertainty. This is done by filtering the variety imposed from the outside, magnifying the variety that is available internally or looking at ways to improve the requisite variety. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety can be stated as – “only variety can absorb variety.”
All organizations are sociotechnical systems. This also means that in order to sustain, they need to be complex adaptive systems. In order to improve the adaptability, the system needs to keep learning. It may be counterintuitive, but uncertainty is required for a complex adaptive system to keep learning, and to maintain the requisite variety to sustain itself. Thus, the push to stay away from uncertainty or staying in the comfort zone could actually be detrimental. Metaphorically, staying the comfort zone is staying away from the edges, where there is more uncertainty. After a basic level of stability is achieved, there is not much information available in the center (away from the edges). Since the environment is always changing, the organization has to keep updating the information to adapt and survive. This means that the organization should engage in safe to fail experiments and move away from their comfort zone to keep updating their information. The organization has to know where the edges are, and where the structures break down. Safe to fail experiments increases the solution space of the organization making it better suited for challenges. These experiments are fast, small and reversible, and are meant to increase the experience of the organization without risks. The organization cannot remain static and has to change with time. The experimentation away from the comfort zone provides direction for growth. It also shows where things can get catastrophic, so that the organization can be better prepared and move away from that direction.
This leads me to the concept of “fundamental regulator paradox”. This was developed by Gerald Weinberg, an American Computer scientist. As a system gets really good at what it does, and nothing ever goes wrong, then it is impossible to tell how well it is working. When strict rules and regulations are put in place to maintain “perfect order”, they can actually result in the opposite of what they are originally meant for. The paradox is stated as:
The task of a regulator is to eliminate variation, but this variation is the ultimate source of information about the quality of its work. Therefore, the better job a regulator does, the less information it gets about how to improve.
This concept also tells us that trying to stay in the comfort zone is never good and that we should not shy away from uncertainty. Exploring away from the comfort zone is how we can develop the adaptability and experience needed to survive.
This post is a further expansion from my recent tweet. https://twitter.com/harish_josev/status/1055977583261769728?s=11
Information is most rich at the edges. Information is at its lowest in the center. Equilibrium also lies away from the edges.
The two questions, “How good are you at something?” and “How bad are you at something?” may be logically equivalent. However, there is more opportunity to gain information from the second question since it leads us away from the comfort zone.
I will finish with a lesson from one of my favorite TV Detectives, D.I Richard Poole from Death in Paradise.
Poole noted that solving murders were like solving jigsaw puzzles. One has to work from the corners, and then the edges and then move towards the middle. Then, everything will fall in line and start to make sense.
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Bootstrap Kaizen: