Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Positive feedback.

As different elements in a system aggregate, they can do together what neither could do alone. In a tropical forest, trees and parasites such as Spanish moss, collectively retain nutrients in a way that neither tree nor parasite could do separately. A study of ants demonstrates that following a small number of very simple rules can lead to extremely complex behaviors. A dozen simple rules (such as if an ant finds food, it lays down a scent) followed by every ant produces an ant colony that looks intelligent as it puts out probes to exploit its environment, defends itself, and lives far longer that any single ant. Similarly, neuron cells following a few dozen simple rules can create a human brain.

There are no general rules or principles in business because living organisms (organizations) are medium-sized objects which are not governed by the simple rules of physics. Rather, they're a connected series of a large number of weak forces. When an organism stops being the interaction of a large number of weak forces and instead becomes dominated by a single force, biologists say that object is sick.

Chaos refers to the behavior of a system - like the weather - which is governed by simple physical laws but is so unpredictable as to appear random. Consider an irregularly dripping tap. As each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart. Non-linear systems are governed by this kind of positive-feedback mechanism. In a linear relationship, any given cause has one and only one effect. But in a non-linear relationship, a single action can trigger a host of different effects. The interactions become so complex that the links between cause and effect disappear causing the future of non-linear feedback systems to be inherently unknowable.

A double-glazing company installed patio doors for the editor of a national newspaper. The doors didn’t fit and the company refused to remedy the defect. The editor publicized the situation in his newspaper and his article triggered hundreds of letters from other dissatisfied customers. As a result, the company’s business collapsed.

Long-term business strategy can only be planned if each business action has a limited number of predictable outcomes. Most strategies fail, not because they’re badly conceived or poorly implemented, but because in today’s world, the outcome of many actions are unpredictable. Tiny events can lead to fundamental changes. Forecasting is no longer possible when non-linear, chaotic processes govern the world and small changes produce large, unanticipated outcomes.

Unpredictability is the result of the system’s extreme sensitivity to initial conditions so tiny variations are amplified into huge consequences. Much of human life is governed by positive feedback. The actions that we take result in experiences that inform our understanding and so feed in to the choices we make.

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