Emergent behavior and unintended consequences in social systems

One of the defining characteristics of Enterprise 2.0 implementation efforts according to Andy McAfee, among others, is the presence of emergent behaviors in the organization as participants interact with and adapt to new technology functions and features. The notion of ’emergent behavior’ is pretty well established in the study of complex systems. Yet it still seems to trouble many executives, particularly those with strong project management and operations backgrounds.

I was pondering this over the weekend and I think I’ve found a way to explain it in a more satisfying way.

Emergent behaviors are unintended consequences that make you happy.

We are social animals that have evolved to operate optimally in small groups (check out Dunbar’s number). As social systems get larger, they exceed our capacity to make accurate inferences and predictions. Complex organizations and political entities represent design solutions that compensate for these limits and allow us to take on tasks and efforts beyond the grasp of small groups. Technology adds to the complexity and increases the capacity of the system at the expense of making the system still more difficult to predict.

‘Unintended consequences’ is a consulting term for ‘oops.’ It’s a belated admission that it’s difficult to predict all the ways in which a system will react to its environment. A typical response is to work more diligently to lock things down, usually by squeezing out opportunities for human judgment and adaptability. This leads to the TSA and zero-tolerance policies that suspend six-year olds.

A better response is to stop treating people like interchangeable components in a machine and start designing with an eye toward integrating human limits and human creativity into our systems. Assume that the new system will produce unexpected results. Focus your design effort more on swinging the balance toward pleasant surprises and less on eliminating surprises altogether.

Eight years now at McGee’s Musings

Today makes eight years I’ve been posting here.

This is one component in a continually evolving collection of tools and practices that constitute my work practices. I’ve been thinking about how best to understand that constellation of tools and practices and about ways to make the path smoother for those who may be earlier in their efforts. We all want to get there in one simple step. That isn’t possible. On the other hand, it’s also not necessary to spend quite so much time wandering in the poppies, which is what it feels like some days.

If you have a moment and feel so inclined, tell us a bit about your efforts and experiments. And tell me about what you would like to see more of here. As always, I greatly appreciate all the people I’ve been able to meet and interact with as a consequence of writing here. Thank you.

On not being surprised by the future

The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed
                            William Gibson

A recent discussion about bad television science fiction versus what good science fiction can be illuminates the challenge of coping with today’s technology environment in everyday organizational reality.

It started with a recent speech by Star Trek writer Ron Moore:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that."

Moore calls Star Trek’s tech "meaningless"

This triggered an excellent rant by Charlie Stross, one of today’s best science fiction authors, on his blog about Why I Hate Star Trek. Here’s the key point for me:

…I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.


The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context…

Why I hate Star Trek
Tue, 13 Oct 2009 11:01:45 GMT

There are two common responses to thinking about how technology impacts today’s organizations. In Pointy-Haired Boss mode, the constants of human behavior and motivation are ALL that matter. The background sets might be shinier, but it’s still just a soap opera and being in tune with human drama and politics is what separates winners and losers. In technology singularity mode, there are no people to clutter up the shiny sets. Neither of these common approaches is very useful, although both have the useful property of not requiring a great deal of thought or work. Unfortunately, it puts pointy-haired bosses at the mercy of snake-oil salesmen and marginalizes technocrats.

The third way requires that you become more comfortable operating where technology and people collide. Depending on your own background and predispositions you may need to invest time in learning more about people or technology. Both benefit if you get your experience first hand whenever possible. Second hand experience can also make a difference. That can take the form of tracking down the better case studies of organizations succeeding and failing with new technology. I would also advocate adding a dash (or more) of good science fiction, if you have a taste for fiction in general. Here are some suggested starting points:

What have you found helpful? Either in terms of recommended reading or in terms of useful practices?

One entrepreneurial editor’s heuristics for today’s business environment: Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self, Webber, Alan M.

Alan Webber was the managing editor of the Harvard  Business Review and, wearing an entrepreneurial hat, was a cofounder of Fast Company magazine. He’s hung out with and paid attention to lots of smart people and he’s managed to acquire substantial experience in his own right. In Rules of Thumb Webber seeks to distill some of the lessons he’s learned for the benefit of the rest of us.

These kinds of books depend on whether the authors can tell a good story and whether they have any substantively useful insights. As you might expect, Webber has an excellent collection of stories, well told. More importantly, he delivers on the insights side. A few of his rules fall flat or feel clich d but the bulk reinforce and extend themes I find important and frequently open up new perspectives.

Here are the rules Webber presents; it’s worth your effort to see what he does with each.

  1. When the going gets tough, the tough relax
  2. Every company is running for office. To win, give the voters what they want
  3. Ask the last question first
  4. Don’t implement solutions. Prevent problems
  5. Change is a math formula
  6. If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture
  7. The system is the solution
  8. New realities demand new categories
  9. Nothing happens until money changes hands
  10. A good question beats a good answer
  11. We’ve moved from an either/or past to a both/and future
  12. The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is when you learn about it
  13. Learn to take no as a question
  14. You don’t know if you don’t go
  15. Every start-up needs four things: change, connections, conversation, and community
  16. Facts are facts; stories are how we learn
  17. Entrepreneurs choose serendipity over efficiency
  18. Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it
  19. Memo to leaders: focus on the signal to noise ratio
  20. Speed = strategy
  21. Great leaders answer Tom Peters’ great question: "How can I capture the world’s imagination?"
  22. Learn to see the world through the eyes of your customer
  23. Keep two lists. What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night?
  24. If you want to change the game, change the economics of how the game is played
  25. If you want to change the game, change customer expectations
  26. The soft stuff is the hard stuff
  27. If you want to be like Google, learn Megan Smith’s three rules
  28. Good design is table stakes. Great design wins
  29. Words matter
  30. The likeliest sources of great ideas are in the most unlikely places
  31. Everything communicates
  32. Content isn’t king. Context is king
  33. Everything is a performance
  34. Simplicity is the new currency
  35. The Red Auerbach management principle: loyalty is a two-way street
  36. Message to entrepreneurs: managing your emotional flow is more critical than managing your cash flow
  37. All money is not created equal
  38. If you want to think big, start small
  39. "Serious fun" isn’t an oxymoron; it’s how you win
  40. Technology is about changing how we work
  41. If you want to be a real leader, first get real about leadership
  42. The survival of the fittest is the business case for diversity
  43. Don’t confuse credentials with talent
  44. When it comes to business, it helps if you actually know something about something
  45. Failure isn’t failing. Failure is failing to try
  46. Tough leaders wear their hearts on their sleeves
  47. Everyone’s at the center of their map of the world
  48. If you want to make change, start with an iconic project
  49. If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards
  50. On the way up, pay attention to your strengths.; they’ll be your weaknesses on the way down
  51. Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much
  52. Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere

Resources for organizations developing social media policies

While my own preference would be for a policy of "Don’t be stupid," that’s unrealistic for most organizations. I’ve recently been collecting examples of policies from various organizations. If you know of other examples, please let me know in the comments

  • Online Database of Social Media Policies
    Here’s a site that has collected social media policies from a growing list of organizations. Looks to be an excellent resource
  • The FASTForward Blog – Eight Issues to Consider in Your Enterprise’s Internal Social Software Policy: Enterprise 2.0 Blog: News, Coverage, and Commentary
    Tech Republic recently posted on 10 things you should cover in your social networking policy. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic, including my prior post, Social Media Policy Guidelines Can Encourage Use Outside Enterprise and Adoption Within. Like most policy discussions I have seen, this one focuses on social software use on the Web. However, it remains no less importance for effective enterprise 2.0 adoption to have guidelines that also cover usage inside the enterprise. I think the ten points are very useful and eight apply to internal use, some more than others.
  • 10 things you should cover in your social networking policy | 10 Things | TechRepublic.com
    As sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook become intertwined with business uses, organizations need to establish guidelines for employees on workplace access and appropriate usage. Deb Shinder looks at 10 key considerations that such guidelines should address.
  • SAP Social Media Guidelines 2009 | SAP Web 2.0
    The following guidelines describe private, individual participation in social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, forums, YouTube, Flickr etc. for SAP employees. If your job requires you to be an SAP evangelist in social media channels and you have questions, or you want to establish social media channels on behalf of SAP or an SAP group, contact the SAP Social Media Group by sending a mail to [redacted]. For any other questions about social media at SAP, please visit the SAP-internal SAP 2.0 Community.
  • RightNow social web employee policy | RightNow
    These are the official guidelines for social computing at RightNow. If you’re an employee or contractor creating or contributing to blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds, or any other kind of social media these guidelines are for you. We require all who participate in social media on behalf of RightNow to be trained, to understand and to follow these guidelines. Failure to do so could put your future participation and employment at risk. RightNow has an open participation policy for all employees. The choice to participate in social media is yours. If you decide to participate, you are making a commitment to following these guidelines.
  • Intel Social Media Guidelines
    These are the official guidelines for social media at Intel. If you’re an Intel employee or contractor creating or contributing to blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds, or any other kind of social media both on and off intel.com these guidelines are for you. We expect all who participate in social media on behalf of Intel to be trained, to understand and to follow these guidelines. Failure to do so could put your future participation at risk. These guidelines will continually evolve as new technologies and social networking tools emerge so check back once in awhile to make sure you’re up to date.
  • Sun Microsystems Communities: Sun Guidelines on Public Discourse
    Many of us at Sun are doing work that could change the world. Contributing to online communities by blogging, wiki posting, participating in forums, etc., is a good way to do this. You are encouraged to tell the world about your work, without asking permission first, but we expect you to read and follow the advice in this note.
  • IBM Social Computing Guidelines
    In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice, and also to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM itself, as the company sought to embrace the blogosphere. Since then, many new forms of social media have emerged. So we turned to IBMers again to re-examine our guidelines and determine what needed to be modified. The effort has broadened the scope of the existing guidelines to include all forms of social computing.

Asking more relevant questions about focus and multitasking

I’ve been uncomfortable with the ongoing discussions about the promise or threat of multitasking without being quite able to articulate why. Stowe Boyd finally helped my crystallize my concerns with a nice dissection of the most recent wave of debate on the topic. Let me extract two paragraphs from his excellent analysis:

So, the war on flow continues. I liked the study from a few years back that equated multitasking with smoking dope in its effects, and perhaps the most masterful attack was leveled by Christine Rosen in her Myth Of Multitasking (see Christine Rosen Joins The War On Flow), or Nick Carr, who said the Web is making us stupid. They are all looking backward, and using old tools to measure, ineffectively, what is emerging.


If you judge a juggler by how many times the balls hit the floor and contrast that with someone throwing and catching one ball at a time, the juggler will lose. But the juggler is doing something else. You could argue that doing it that way makes no sense, that throwing one ball at a time is more efficient, leads to less sleepless nights, and doesn’t confuse the mind. But it isn’t juggling.

The War On Flow, 2009: Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point
Stowe Boyd
Sun, 30 Aug 2009 12:33:48 GMT

The current discussion around whether multitasking is good or bad flounders on a host of unarticulated and unexamined assumptions. The question is not about whether multitasking is a better way to do old forms of work; it is about what skills and techniques do we need to develop to deal with the forms of work that are now emerging. There is a complex interaction between an evolving environment and developing technologies. Much of the discussion to date is comparable to trying to understand the automobile as a horseless carriage.

I am reminded of an old observation by author Larry Niven; "good science fiction writers predict cars – great science fiction writers predict traffic jams." One of the useful things to be done is to spend a more time watching the juggling (to borrow Stowe Boyd’s image) and appreciating it on its own terms instead of criticizing it for what it isn’t.

Hacking complex knowledge problems: Van Halen and Brown M&Ms

I had never actually heard the story about Van Halen and brown M&M’s before I came across this Boing Boing entry. Of course, Boing  Boing is always a good for fun stories. Here’s one that also has a useful point about dealing with complex knowledge problems between organizations.


Spotted via Andrew Baron’s tweetstream, this fascinating — no, really! — snopes article on why Van Halen had that line in their concert rider about ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN M&Ms EVER.

Snopes.com: Van Halen Brown M&Ms. The actual 1982 rider was first published online at smokinggun.com in 2008.


Van Halen had good reason to ban brown M&Ms in their concert rider.
Xeni Jardin
Wed, 05 Aug 2009 23:49:58 GMT

Take the time to check out the Snopes article (Snopes.com: Van Halen Brown M&Ms). It presents a design problem of how to ensure that an organization you’re contracting with is exercising the appropriate attention to detail. It reminds me of a similar design hack/lesson I learned first back in the 7th grade. A version of that lesson is, of course, available courtesy of a moment’s effort with a search engine(Directions Test).

What makes this example important is that more and more of our work gets done through other organizations. That increases the problems of incomplete contracts where the tasks in question are sufficiently complex and the environment indeterminate enough that it is difficult, in not impossible. to specify all the relevant conditions in advance. "Brown M&Ms" provides an excellent reminder that the point of the contract is to ensure a successful outcome for all parties.

Geek And Poke: Gartner Hype Cycle Version 2.0

This was making the rounds at the end of the summer. I figure it will end up in a presentation or two.

via geekandpoke.typepad.com

Oh, so funny!

Geek And Poke: Gartner Hype Cycle Version 2.0
Tue, 25 Aug 2009 02:38:27 GMT

Of course, it’s always easy to poke fun at the perceived laggards. On the other hand, it’s always worth a moment’s reflection on why the timing might be appropriately different depending on where you sit.