Embracing your Inner Performance v-Meme for New Years

Steak Florentine Mercato

On to becoming Steak Florentine, the Mercato, Firenze, Italy

I don’t much like to write solely about personal empathetic development.  The reason is simple — I’m a systems guy, and writing about how one person can move up the Spiral seems to be counterproductive.  There are lots of self-help books out there.  On top of that, I also personally feel that one of the largest problems with SD is that it easily lends itself as a tool for hierarchicalization — my v-Meme’s better than your v-Meme — with higher being necessarily ‘better.’  You go to work on yourself, you evolve, maybe — but the larger structure just doesn’t change.

That said, we NEED more evolved people.  And yes — it’s been a universal problem forever.  Various cultures and religions have been working on this for thousands of years, using different aspects of empathy.  My favorite example has to be Tibetan Buddhism, which places all its money on an enlightened, Global Holistic v-Meme leader (the Dalai Lama), magical thinking, and mirroring behavior.  Realizing that there’s no way the resources exist to pop everyone out of the magical v-Meme, where so many poor Asians reside, they formed a system where everyone looks up (and copies) the head honcho, whom a select elite makes sure grows up to be one of the coolest dudes on the planet.  Add to that a pipeline through which many young men and women pass through (many young people become monks for a couple of years, then go back to more normal lives) that teach meditation and self-reflection — pretty unbelievable.

In that spirit, there’s nothing wrong with a little thinking, especially with the approaching New Year, on how the various v-Memes actually work, knowledge-structure-wise.  Most of us would like to improve our Performance-based behavior.  Performance-based behavior is the first v-Meme where real New School Design Thinking becomes emergent.  So it’s worth a little time pondering over the holidays.

Let’s start with a little deconstruction from our basic empathetic social/relational structure background, and see if we can’t reason through this together.

Here are some principles that govern all of the v-Memes:

  1.  As we evolve, our temporal, spatial and energetic scales necessarily increase.
  2. We increase our agency (capacity for independent action) and responsibility toward ourselves and others.
  3. As we increase our agency, we increase our awareness of timescales, and our ability to affect them.
  4. We transition more and more toward data-driven thinking.
  5. As our empathy increases, we also increase our receptivity toward grounding our thoughts in larger and larger circles.

The transition from Legalistic/Absolutistic thinking to Performance-Based thinking is one of the most important of the transitions. When we make the transition, we are now opening ourselves up to independently generated, trust-based relationships — meaning that we will evaluate/perceive people not just on WHAT they are, but WHO they are.

The line that divides this portion of the Spiral is what I call the Trust Boundary, and starts a very important transition from primarily belief-based thinking to rational, data-driven analysis.  At this point, it’s important to remember the nested, emergent nature of the Spiral — we don’t just throw away all our lower modes of thinking — beliefs still matter — but we incorporate them into new modes.

For Performance-based v-Meme development, here are some good vectors.

  1.  Develop authentic mastery of a given area.  Authentic mastery develops the empathetic relationship to self — if you want to have  independent, data-driven relationships with other folks, you first have to have one with yourself.  Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, insists in his book that he never felt comfortable hiring someone who couldn’t do real work with their hands — an implicit endorsement of this authenticity principle.
  2. Reflect on your level of mastery and expertise — use data and examples to accurately assess where you are on your journey toward expertise.  Looking at what others have done gives you metacognition — making you aware of what you don’t know, and how much further the journey will take you.  For example, I am a woodworker, and participate in Internet groups that have lots of other work displayed.  This lets me see how far I’ve come, as well as how far I have to go — and also gives me people whom I can ask for advice and consent while seeing the real results they’ve produced.
  3. Be aware of your own impulsive thought — slow down your timescales and pause before making decisions.  One of the books I’ve discussed, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, exhaustively catalogs the benefits of slow thinking.
  4. Practice engaging in multi-solution thinking, preferably with a partner that you respect and trust.  Brainstorm multiple solutions to a given problem, and then list the reasons why or why not you think the solutions might be good (or not so good) ideas.  A fun book that shows this (especially if you like the Beatles) is Powers of Two by Joshua Schenk.  He details the paired interactions of some of the most creative people in the world.
  5. If you’re given a problem, assemble multiple paths that could be followed to arrive at a solution.  Write down what you’re trying to optimize, and then judge those paths based on your criteria.  Think of this as being similar to finding your way across town during heavy construction.  There are many roads that you can travel — but which one you’re interested in is the one that suits your temperament.
  6. Iterate, iterate, iterate!  — This word was a gift from a new friend, and is the key toward becoming a Performance-based thinker.  Iterating naturally puts different timescales in your process, and starts you on the path of decoupling your emotions from your process, and focusing on getting results.  Modify the path, and perhaps, modify the goal as new data becomes available.  Make fewer parts of your final state set in stone, and adopt a fluidity of mindset.
  7. Ask someone (or work with someone) outside your normal group cohort for their opinion, and then actively work on incorporating that person’s ideas into a synthesis of your work and their ideas.  Nothing beats a diverse workforce, or a strong customer ethic, for growing this part of your brain and empathetic profile.
  8. Understand your own path as a heuristic — a series of assembled steps that you control, that have inherent potential for good outcomes as well as bad.  Estimate the risk in each step, and in your overall path.
  9. Understand that there will always be factors you can’t control — the other side of metacognition — while at the same time, work towards defining these and exploring them so they become more and more concrete.

That’s a start.  And maybe one more.  Practice saying ‘I don’t know’ if you really don’t know.  Change this from “I don’t know, and so therefore I must be stupid” to “I don’t know, and now that I know I don’t know, I’m going to find out!”  It’s the sign of real expertise.

Takeaways:  Here’s a Powerpoint Slide I use to describe Performance-based thinking and data structures.  Worth a read!



Quickie Post — ID this writer’s v-Meme!

Braden on the Lochsa River, Lochsa Falls, Idaho, with Pops as his bow-man.  Braden is 13 in this picture.

Read this post on mathematics — it’s short.  It comes out of the Common Core curriculum.  Now — ponder it, and scribble down what are the dominant v-Memes in the writer’s head.  I’m gonna fill up the space below with another picture, and below, I’ll put my answer.

bradenkayaking photo

Braden again, this time kayaking, in Blue Canyon, Salmon River, Idaho.  The deal I made with the kids was basic — learn to kayak, or always be forced to row that big orange raft around!

So what’s going on with this post?  The writer is, of course, exactly right.  Exactly.  The kid shouldn’t have, if you were trying to teach a particular principle, written out three 5s.  And then he wraps up with ‘Respect the teacher!’  So the answer is very clearly — he’s yet another Legalistic Authoritarian in the educational system.  And he doles out all the usual warnings about leading kids astray.

If the teacher had some Performance-based v-Meme in them, they’d tell the kid that he was right.  And if they were Communitarian, they might gather up results from across the class and show the student that got that wrong that they weren’t alone.

Whether the lesson is appropriate or not is a developmental question.  At some level of school, you want your kids to transition to being more legalistic and less authoritarian, and maybe hammering that transition with examples like this is appropriate.  And the Laws of Commutation and Equivalence are good things to know — they are a staple of higher mathematics.

But younger kids (3rd grade and below) are just never going to get this.  They don’t have the circuits.  And, you know, I just never liked trick questions — you can also see how, especially on the young, that they get you back to Power and Control.  Which is how this guy wraps up things.  Listen To Your Betters…. sigh.  Do remember that this guy posts this as a Trick Question for adults — that’s the premise of the whole piece.  So what does that say about actual information retention in the audience?

Knowledge Structures and Scaffolding — How to Fill in the Stretch Marks as you Evolve


Braden at Loon Lake, outside of McCall, ID

One of the big problems when reading posts like the previous, about empathetic ladders and knowledge structures, is it looks like it just might exist to make fun of your authoritarian friends.  That’s not the intent, because really successful messaging, or social/relational structures, have a diversity of both v-Memes and ways that knowledge is represented that reinforce each other.  It’s nice to come up with a magic ‘super bullet’ that creates all the meaning anyone could want.  But it’s not often easy.

Now what does THAT paragraph actually mean?  What it means is that if you’re working at a Communitarian level, and you’re not wallowing around recognizing everyone as an individual all the time, you’ve also leavened in some Performance-based, Goal-oriented thinking.  And you probably have a good Legalistic rule set that governs your operation, as well as appropriate Authority, and some Tribal knowledge.  And there’s also likely a bathroom on every floor of your workplace — because to Survive, we all have to go sometime.

I call this v-Meme Scaffolding, and without it, evolutionary philosophies often run astray.  Let’s talk about how this works on a practical level.

In the Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), the program I run for students, the main thing I’m trying to do is evolve them socially so they can be solid, goal-based thinkers.  Since the students work on mechanical design projects, we follow a very standard Design Process.  It’s actually a heuristic — a rule of thumb path that most of the students follow in order to complete their projects.  And it goes like this:

1.  Scoping (myself and the company).

2. Specification writing, including development of a House of Quality/QFD.

3. Preliminary Design Development, and Review.

4.  Final Concept Selection and Development.

5.  Manufacturing/Benchmarking/Testing.

6.  Customer Delivery and Celebration.

A graphic of this process is below:


At some level, this looks like an algorithm (Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme), but it’s really a Performance-based heuristic — students roughly follow this trajectory through completing a project.  At the same time, they have to select, mix and match various algorithmic ways of knowing (calculating entropy, or enthalpy, etc.) as well as develop independent relationships with people both inside and outside the university who can actually help them — like our staff machinist, or a technical sales person who might sell a particular kind of specialty adhesive.  Trust me when I tell you the students don’t like getting on the phone — but they have to practice that relationship development, or they won’t get the project done.

So under this heuristic are those algorithms.  As well as lots of engineering specifics (Authoritarian v-Meme) — we can’t reinvent the strength of steel every time we need to do a calculation.  And then there are the important parts of Tribal knowledge — students are, for example, expected to understand the Guest-Host relationship concept (read about xenia here — the ancient Greeks live in my class as well!)  so that everyone has an enjoyable lunch.  Sponsors and students both need to have fun, as well as not commit unforgivable sins.  Finally, students need to know how to deal with the university motor pool if there’s a car accident.  That’s part of their fundamental university Survival knowledge.

At the same time we’re making sure to fill in the scaffolding with all the appropriate levels, I also make clear to the students that all of it is subject to update — that’s the beauty of getting up to the heuristic level.  Procedures and algorithms may change.  Specific knowledge of what hotel to stay in when visiting a particular client also may vary.  Knowledge isn’t always in flux — but sometimes it is.  We keep track of this on a class Wiki, so the students always know how to fill out the relevant university travel forms.  We do work in a bureaucracy.

Scaffolding inventories are great things to do to improve messages or organizations.  For example, with organizations, one could start with understanding what are your rules that govern various functions in your organization.  Do your rules follow accepted ethical standards?  Are there ways to change the rules?  Does it devolve to one person’s singular authority to change them, and is that appropriate?  Could someone with performance or community considerations tell their supervisor and have them listen?  What are the actual channels for empathetic communication in your organization?  Is all communication meaningful, or is it simply pro forma because HR is worried about getting sued?

And on and on.  No matter where you start, however — your organization can evolve.  Scaffolding inventories help make sure that as you evolve, you fill in the stretch marks.

Empathetic Ladders and What People Can Understand — Matching Knowledge Structures for Messaging (Part I)


Rainier Rapids, Main Salmon River, Idaho

Empathetic ladders are fun to find — enlightened leadership has been using them since the beginning of time.  I’m sure, if we could find some sequence of caveman paintings on the wall in some cave somewhere and looked with that in mind, we could find an empathetic ladder with lots of wooly mammoths and dudes with spears running around, painted by the local mensch attempting to get his or her tribe to up their game.

At the same time, any person who’s trying to grow has been stuck in a meeting with a leader who insists that everyone has a chance for ‘input’, while doing a seemingly endless round-robin around the room, with the same people saying nothing, and the same people doing some weird humble-brag about their area of interest.  Communitarian on the surface, but eh — not so much.  Really just the same authoritarian assertion of status.

And after a while, you might find yourself, with certain empathetic ladders, picking them apart.  What do they really mean, after all?  Your own level of sophistication will start to pick apart these kinds of things.  And I think there’s few people that really like those pithy sayings on the bottom of motivational posters.  In fact, I’m sure most of you have seen these anti-motivational posters, with the same beautiful picture, but tagged with an ironic punchline, like this one:


Since I’m writing this blog with the intent of turning it into a book, there’s also a natural tendency to want to list quick ‘how-tos’ Internet-able memes.  These would inevitably be used to torture workers in as-yet inconceivable ways by the percentage of psychopaths who buy business books.

At the same time, there ought to be a way to discern between sound-bites of pithy wisdom, and things that can revolutionize cultures and societies.  That’s where understanding what knowledge structures are used by the evolving v-Memes come into play.  One of the next big concepts in this blog is the idea that social structures create design structures — Conway’s Law.  And the breakthrough concept that comes out of that is that in between social structure and design structure is knowledge structure.  I have named this principle The Intermediate Corollary. And it starts the process of unlocking the idea that social/relational structure, all dependent on empathetic level, creates different ways of thinking for people in those social  structures.  


I’ve found that this concept is very difficult for people to grasp.  There’s a part of our fundamental humanity that wants to believe that even though there may be different cultures, or surface level structures, that all humans process information the same — same organic matter in between the ears, after all.

But that’s a pretty hardware-oriented view of the brain.  Every day, we are reminded that we don’t all think the same.  This worldview discounts the role of software in the brain — that programming the brain is not just assembling surface level knowledge.  As we move through life, our brains actually function differently.  And the strand that runs through all of that is empathetic development, and the social structures we operate in.

Takeaways:  Conway’s Law says that social structure produces design structure.  In order to produce a design, though, we first have to produce the knowledge.  That concept — The Intermediate Corollary — directly implies that different social structures will produce different knowledge structures — and that means that different people in different social structures will fundamentally think differently.

All this links back to empathetic ladders.  The next thing I’ll discuss is how we can identify the knowledge structure of our empathetic ladders, so we can get down to real ‘guiding principle’ evolution, instead of just one more annoying motivational poster.

Elephants, Rhinos, UAVs and Interdisciplinary Teams — Does Any of this Empathy Stuff Really Matter?

Liverpool (1)

Liverpool, England, in front of the Hard Days Night Hotel.  Not surprisingly, Liverpool has a thing for the Beatles!

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I know by looking at my statistics,  that you likely have not read all the posts.  After all, I am aware that while a lot of my readers are fond of me — I was the professor that helped get them ready for the work world, or a business associate with my Industrial Design Clinic, and we enjoyed educating students together — I also know that I am not an internationally recognized expert on organizational development, or empathy, or philosophy.  I haven’t cut it yet in the status-based lower v-Memes.  I’m not bothered by this —  those that know me personally know that I’m not much of an Authoritarian or Legalist.

But you’re probably thinking — “well, Chuck, that’s nice.  But why should I really care?  And how does this really matter?”

Here’s some insight.

Last week, I was in Liverpool, England, at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) at a conference for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — think quadcopter or fixed-wing drones) applied to environmental science and problems.  The breadth of application of UAVs to problems in the environmental arena was immense.  The keynote speaker, Tom Snitch, talked about his program, which involves using relatively low-cost drones to monitor elephant and rhino poaching in Africa   Others talked primarily about the use of LiDAR mounted on a UAV, which is basically using light like radar waves to map vegetation and landscape features.  Others used UAV-mounted regular cameras to create high-resolution photo mosaics of landscapes that are much more high resolution than available from satellite images.  And so on.

But in such a potentially synergistic, systemic world, those connections were few and far between.  The key element in all this was the structure of the combined UAV – sensor system.  In a room full of passionate, sophisticated people, the basic structure of a UAV system was ‘take a store-bought UAV and mount a camera on it.  Figure out how to trigger it and capture the location of the image and bring that back to the ground for post-processing.’  The design structure of any system that does that — regardless of the complexity of the design of either the UAV, or the measuring instrument (like the LiDAR unit) — is three fragmented, non-synergetic blocks in a row.  Learn how to fly the UAV, bring back the pictures, make your map.

It’s pretty obvious that this maps to the non-empathetic structure of researchers in the academy.  Three blocks put together, basically in what we call open loop feedback (read ‘no feedback at all’) .

What is interesting as well is to see how this social/relational structure will attempt to solve their problem.  How will they evolve?  In a fragmented social structure, the first (and likely subsequent) iterations will likely involve more pictures (read more fragmentation) and more detail.  More computer processing, with more sophisticated on-the-ground mapping algorithms for more complex assemblages of images.  Greater accuracy in the GPS units used.  Paying more money for UAVs with greater flight stability.  And so on.

Notice how NONE of these things engage in any meaningful feedback between the elements.  How could they?  How could the people engaged in the task develop any synergies at all, given the social structure of the typical academic enterprise?  Synergies with this given social structure are likely to come (not surprisingly) when the resolution of pictures taken on the ground get down to pebble size.  Fancier cameras.  More stable UAVs.

And that’s exactly what is happening.

What would be required for synergies?  The short answer is a different social/relational structure.  We might start with the old ‘multidisciplinary teams’ axiom.  Perhaps if we added someone who was an expert in flight control and dynamics, they could stabilize the UAV better.  Someone in cameras could invent a camera with greater resolution.  And so on.

What’s the takeaway? If we pursue a similar, fragmented non-empathetic structure, we can see that multidisciplinary teams approach doesn’t really add much to the synergies of the device.  At first blush, the different component providers don’t need to do much understanding of each other — knowledge can be passed in fragments, like ‘well we’d like finer resolution.’  And things would march down exactly the same path.  Perhaps a little faster, but likely much more expensive.  More people on the project definitely means more dollars.  Higher resolution equipment is going to climb up that marginal cost/performance curve that every product possesses.

What happens, however, if we pursue a different structure — where we now have a multidisciplinary team, with pairing between different components of the entire UAV system?  The mapper says to her partner, the camera designer ‘I want finer resolution.’  In an empathetic exchange, the camera designer would hopefully ask ‘why?’  The mapper would then explain that things aren’t going so well on the boundaries of images, and she figured that finer resolution was the answer.  The camera designer then might say ‘well, you can get finer resolution, but if you still can’t improve the auto-stabilization and orientation of the UAV, any more pixels are just going to get lost in the noise.’  So after understanding the problem with perhaps a little math, they make a decision to engage the flight control person.

The flight control person goes through an empathetic exchange with both the mapper and the camera person.  It turns out that the real problem with getting the pictures to overlap is that the UAV turns a little in the wind, and that makes the photos not line up on a nice, even grid.  So the real answer is to put two GPS units on the UAV, separated by a meaningful distance, so that the UAV can be flown with both a static coordinate, as well as an angular direction orientation.  Then mapping can commence so that you don’t have blurred pixels on the boundary, and so on.  The social structure, as well as the degree of empathetic connection, all has to change.  And in the world of empathetic connection, there’s going to have to be a whole lot more of it.

Or if nothing else, it gets discovered that we can’t yet orient the UAV at a given angle.  So we don’t waste money on more and more expensive cameras, or mapping software — because we really can’t do better than the fragmented system.  Either way, the performance of the system goes up.  Money is saved from not pursuing something not feasible (or too expensive), or mapping accuracy is improved.

And we can also see how trust is brought into the picture.  If one component expert doesn’t know the other component expert, how does one know whether they can believe them?  Only through an evolved working relationship can the mapper be sure if the flight control UAV expert is telling the truth — whether it be that you can orient a UAV, or you can’t.  Empathetic connection is the primary tool for assessing someone else’s metacognition — if they know what they know, as well as what they don’t know.

The non-empathetic, multidisciplinary effort yields results similar to the fragmented academic social structure.  Just as Conway would have predicted.  And the understanding of the level of empathetic connection leads the project manager on the same path as has been discussed in this blog.   😉

Takeaways:  Sophistication of individual knowledge doesn’t do you that much good if you can’t work at the boundaries (or even in the guts of these systems) with other experts to optimize and synergize shared results.  And empathetic connection between teammates is the pathway toward getting a better shared result, without having to go outside and pay a ton of money for experts who may or may not know what they’re talking about.  A little bit of empathetic relational development goes a long way.  Change the social structure if you want to change the performance.

Further reading: This piece on Tom Snitch’s work in South Africa regarding using drones for prevention of poaching elephants and rhinos shows, better than anything, that it is often social factors and trust that limit all our efforts.  It is indeed all about empathy.

What Do We Do in Absence of Specific Data?


Powell Plateau, Utah, Escalante/Grand Staircase

In the last blog post, we talked about externally defined relationships, and how, because of their belief-based empathetic characteristics, they shape the belief-based mind.  But how does it work, anyway?  Why do we have beliefs?  At some level, beliefs protect us and serve in many ways.  And the other fact is that they don’t burn up nearly as much valuable brain time or brain energy in their processing.

Let’s say you’re in a situation in a crowd, where someone has just had a heart attack.  He’s lying on the ground, and you’re trying to remember how to do CPR.  What’s the first thing you’re likely to do?  Get out an interview sheet, with 100 questions about individual backgrounds and experiences?  Gonna create that independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship?  By that time, the poor dude with the heart attack would likely be expired.

Or are you going to yell ‘Is there a Doctor in the house?’   In the words of Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow — a Nobel Prizewinner in Economics — this would be considered fast thinking.  Not much data processing — just a survival level call for help, for an authority that would hopefully know what they’re doing.  And it’s coming out of the limbic system.  You might look at the person stepping forward quickly and evaluate, especially if the potential patient is your friend.  Do they appear competent?  What’s their affect?  Are they lying to gain attention?  But beyond that, you’re probably pretty happy (think limbic system/ emotional empathy) and relieved (think emotional empathy again!) that someone stepped forward.

Do you have a thing for brunettes?  Love at first sight?  Another emotional empathetic, belief-based relationship, if not completely externally defined.  Or maybe it is?  Mom a brunette?  And hey, you know those engineers — always thinking this way or that.  Sometimes, we call these things stereotypes, if they’re negative.  Yet the vast majority of us use these constantly in navigating our society.  We don’t have time to do otherwise.

With many externally defined relationships, we cede authority or status based on institutions — and those institutions are either authority-based, or legally grounded.  More group, process-based decision-making.  Police have specific authority, granted by law, to detain you if they think a crime has been committed.  Physicians are granted a license to practice based on receiving a degree from a university, serving a residency, and taking a test.  All these mechanisms, once again, serve to maximize the reliability of your instant assessment — your belief — that this person knows what they’re talking about.

People with such titles also are often bound by executing certain algorithmic processes — step by step, agreed modes of doing things that have received scrutiny from experts/authorities.  Such institutions and processes are a necessary part of the scaffolding of modern society.  One of the more interesting examples of authorities generating an algorithm occurred at an oil refinery I was associated with.  A committee of engineers from across the industry had developed a code for welding on a pipe for gasoline while the pipe was still flowing gas.  Well-defined certification and algorithmic thinking allows a total stranger to cut open your chest if you have a heart attack and save your life.

At the same time that these institutions maximize reliability, we also find that they can be notoriously hard to change their ways when what they do doesn’t work any more.  And changing culture?  Not so simple.  Why that is so will be explored in the future — and believe it or not, it has to do with a fundamental hypothesis of this author on how empathetic development shapes the brain.

Takeaways:  Our lives are filled with relationship labels, based on beliefs, that function with a low level, or non-existent level of empathy.  These relationships are scaffolded by institutions, cultural perceptions, and faith in them rests primarily in the limbic part of the brain.  They utilize fast thinking, and enable us to navigate complex, modern society.  Their dominant social order is either an authoritarian power structure or a legalistic hierarchy, and they are heavily status-based.

A Few Probabilistic Odds and Ends

bradenowlA few of the problems with writing about anything in the realm of social physics are what scientists might label ‘quantum effects’.  First off, there is a fundamental probabilistic nature to any theory — humans being a diverse lot and all.  For example, one of the things I’ll write about is my experience in China.  But while it is possible to write relatively concise things about how large hunks of the population in China think, it is much more difficult to write about a specific individual.  Here’s a short preview statement — ‘the One Child policy and its empathetic implications will fundamentally change Chinese society.  As people shift from dominant family structures to individual friendships, the way the entire society processes information will change.’

At the same time, large forces will often guide the path in life of an individual, and give you a good handle on why an individual person in a certain generation does what they do.

The other huge problem is that people will structure their view on how all this is written dependent on their own level of psycho-social development.  Stuff that will seem outrageous to some will make perfect sense to others.  Things like egocentric projection come into play, as well as personal experience, which doesn’t always mean egocentric projection, but can.  Like the old wave/particle duality thing, as you view this stuff, it will change.  And then you will change.  Sooner or later, you get to the truth that you can get to.  Maybe.

At some level, it’s supposed to be brain candy — the chewy kind.  You have to nosh on it a while.  Sooner or later, you get to the truth that you can get to.  Maybe.  As for me, I’m still chewing.  Delicious!

Conway’s Law — How empathy structures knowing

mfkellycreekAlmost 50 years ago, a famous programmer — Melvin Conway — coined what is known as Conway’s Law: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” This one statement has led me on a merry chase for the last three years.

A little about me — I’m a professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and I teach design — whatever that means.  Turns out there’s about a thousand different ways humans define design.  But for the initial purpose of this blog, what I mean by this is that I teach the design process — or rather, a design process for engineered products, to undergraduate seniors in engineering.

And I do it in a very realistic way. I go out and solicit projects from industry requiring some level of technical content.  These projects have to have value to the industrial customer, and the customer has to pay.  Why this is important, believe it or not, actually has to do with empathy — money, at some level, connects the customer’s attention to the students and facilitates motivation for information transfer.  No dough involved, the kids don’t get the information they need and can’t successfully complete the project. Now, I’ve been doing this for 21 years — over 280 projects.  So I’ve had a lot of time to think about design — particularly ‘why do designs look like they do?’  Are there any deeper truths about design, other than good specifications and individual creativity?

Enter Conway’s Law — designs look like communications structures of organizations.  Huh. And so I reasoned — if that’s true, then the coherence in an information channel inside an organization is likely to profoundly influence the structure of a design.  What does that mean? Take the childhood game of ‘Telephone.’  You know — the one where 20 of you line up, and one word whispered into one ear then gets passed down to the end.  And here’s a key rule of that game. You only get to whisper in someone’s ear once.  So you start out with ‘cafeteria’ and you end up with ‘Snuffleupagus’.  And then everyone laughs.

But anyone who’s worked knows that we play that game of telephone every day of our working lives.  We tell someone something, and then two days later, we hear what we told that person come back to us.  And it’s very often something that sounds nothing like what we originally stated. But not always.  Sometimes it’s what we said.

How does that happen? The short answer is empathetic communication.  When you have an organization where repeating back what one is told is standard practice, the error rate drops tremendously.  The practice is called ‘active listening’ and there are whole books written on variations of the practice.  And it’s a whole lot easier to get it right if you’re in the same room with someone, staring them in the face.  Why?  Because of the old rule “80% of communication is non-verbal.”  That’s empathetic connection.  The bedrock of coherence.

So I took this one step further.  If design structure mirrors social structure, don’t you have to know what you’re making before you build it?  And that led me to a fundamental breakthrough in my thinking.  Social structure maps to knowledge structure, which then maps to design structure. And so different social structures produce different knowledge structures.  In other words, social/relational structures directly dictate the way — the mode — that people learn and understand.  And that is characterized by empathy.

Takeaway thought:  Social structures and their level of information coherence and exchange (dependent on empathy)  dictate the knowledge and its synergies they can manage. Further reading (about Conway’s Law):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_law