Sunday, 29 August 2010

How we see networks: the view from the node

The theory

I'm currently involved in the efforts of an organization to draw up their constitution. I have no idea if the efforts are going anywhere, but there are a number of questions that are hotly contested, and I thought it would be useful for other people to post my take on those questions on this blog. The first question is: "Should the organization have a chair?" Most people are interpreting "chair" here as "a central authority figure". There are ongoing discussions about the exact job description of the chair, but what is clear is that the question isn't so much about what the chair does as about having some kind of central authority.

This question takes us again to the subject of networks. Organizations are networks of people. Each of us sees the network from a different point of view. At the same time, there is often (but not always) some kind of "official" view of the network, some way of looking at it that is considered the standard view. In many organizations, they have some kind of "organization chart" that shows what's supposed to be everybody's place. What this "organization chart" shows is usually the view from the vantage point of the CEO. On the other hand, a receptionist often has another completely different view.

From the point of view of a CEO, there are usually a number of managers underneath, each of them with a number of underlings, all the way down to the "little people". From the point of view of a receptionist, there are a number of people she contacts regularly, whoever needs to meet people at the door often, maybe a contact in human resources, another one with the cleaners, another one in sales, etc. Each of them will take matters to somebody else as and when needed. The receptionist may be quite hazy on what happens with people after they cross the door, or may be very well informed, it really depends on how intelligent and curious she or he is.

The important thing to realise is that both the CEO and the receptionist actually have a lot of power in a company. The CEO may have the formal authority, but the receptionist gets to decide who can go through the door. That's a hell of a lot of power! And both know a lot of key people within the company.

Similar situations can happen in any kind of network, and not just networks of people. For example, think of food webs, the networks that represent which living creatures eat which. Usually, they are drawn with the biggest predators at the top. But not always. Compare these two food webs of marine life:

They both represent the same ecosystem roughly, but the first one has the biggest predator at the top, humans. The second is a food web drawn around krill, which is what's called a keystone species. A keystone species is any living creature that has such a critical place in the ecology, that if their numbers go down, the whole ecosystem could be in trouble.

This is a very important thing to realise. You can look at any network from the point of view of any node, and it will look different. And when you look at it from some nodes, it may become immediately clear that this node is very important for the whole network, but you may not see it until you think about that particular node.

There are several keystone species in any ecosystem, and there never is a single central authority figure in any organization that has more than 12 or so people. As soon as it gets any bigger, chances are that there will be several people in key positions of power, that if they went or refused to do their work properly, could cause endless trouble to everyone else (unless the network has a rather unusual structure - and in most unusual structures you would find it impossible to work anyway).

So the question becomes rather: "Should we only recognize one of these positions as an official position of power? Or do we make it clear that we realise there are several key positions?" Different situations call for a different answer to this question, but at least you need to be aware that this is the real question.

The practice

Experiment 1

Find a patch of wildlife that you have easy access to. A garden will do, but wild is best.

1. Pick a common plant and try to draw the food web around it. What animals seem to eat that plant? What eating connections can you identify between these animals?
2. Pick a common bird or bird-sized animal and try to do the same. What does this bird eat? Does any other animal eat this bird? What other eating connections can you see around these animals?

Compare the two. Could any of the two be a keystone species? If you can't tell, what would you need to know to be able to tell?

Experiment 2

Think of an organization you work in. If it has an organizational chart, get a copy of it. If not, try to draw yourself what it would look like.

Now, have some fun and draw it from several unusual points of view: a receptionist or administrator, the person dealing with your IT systems, or a person dealing with marketing and promotion. Try any other interesting point of view that you can think of. Can you start to see that there are several key positions?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

What to think about second-hand information

The theory

A commenter on my last post about how information spreads pointed out the difficulties in deciding what to think about second-hand information: how much should you trust it? This is a very tricky part of the problem of doing good thinking.

There are a few questions that can help you decide how much to trust second-hand information.
  • Does this person know what they are talking about firsthand? Do they know about the facts they are talking about because they personally witnessed them or discovered them? The more hops there are between you and the original facts, the more degraded the information will be.
  • What is the nature of the information? Some things are harder to fake than others. Anybody can make up a story, even on the spot. A photograph can be easily retouched, but it takes time and effort. Retouching a video takes a lot more effort, and few people can do it.
  • Is the information anecdotal or statistical? "Anecdotal" means that somebody is telling you one story about one person, in one place, at one time. "Statistical" means that somebody has collected data from a large number of people or situations, and added up the numbers. If you are interested in a general picture, rather than a single story, statistical information is always more reliable.
  • How long ago did the facts happen? The longer it's been since it happened, the more chances that people have forgotten or twisted the facts since then.
  • How much of what this person is telling you is about their feelings? The more the person talks about their feelings, the more they are likely to be mixing feelings up with facts, and altering facts in their mind to match their feelings about them.
  • Who is this person trying to reach? People always tell things for a reason and with a specific audience in mind. Do you know why this person is telling you this? Does this person have reasons to try to deceive you or whoever they are talking to? Is this person trying to "sell" something? (literally or in the general sense). Is this person likely to want to hide something about this from their audience?
  • Can you compare the facts this person is giving you with other independent sources? "Independent sources" means that you think it's unlikely that this person has talked with the other source and compared notes. If you can be sure that the sources are independent, this can be a powerful way of finding out the truth, because it's very likely that they're both telling the truth if they both say the same thing. This is why the police are very careful to interrogate suspects separately, and attempt to catch them before they have had a chance to agree on a story. They know that their suspects are usually the kind of people who lie often, but the chances of two liars coming up with exactly the same lie are slim.
If you ask yourself all these questions, you should have a clear idea of how trustworthy is this information.

The practice

Apply these questions to the following statements. Please research and find your own sources.
  • Solar and wind power are the best sources of energy for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions.
  • Using renewable energy will reduce our dependence on imports from countries that currently have very different interests from ours.
  • Using more renewable energy will create more jobs locally.
  • Electric cars will substantially reduce demand for oil.
What are your conclusions?

Monday, 16 August 2010

How information spreads

The theory

I'm going to continue with the theme of communication to help the reader that has communication issues in her organization. What I'm going to touch on today's post is how information spreads. This is something I touched on when I talked about kinds of networks, but it deserves more detail.

The first thing to understand is, information often doesn't spread. This is, in part, because not all links are equally strong. We tell lots of details of our lives to our closest family and friends, but we don't speak a lot with acquaintances. Information spreads much more certainly, and with more detail, to the closest people. The message will spread through weaker links only when it's important enough or interesting enough, and there aren't any barriers to telling (for example, if it's in your self-interest to keep it secret).

Even if somebody does the job of telling, it doesn't always mean that the other side will do the job of listening. Again, we pay closest attention to things that the closest people to us tell us, to things that are important to us, and things that are interesting to us. And even when something hits all the right buttons, there are all sorts of reasons we may be distracted with something else and not listen.

It's a well-observed fact that bad news tends to spread faster and wider than good news. There are several reasons for this. Bad news is often more useful to more people than good news. Bad news for others are often a warning that allow you to prepare so the same thing doesn't happen to yourself. Also, spreading bad news about somebody you don't like is a way you can have your revenge on them without any consequences to yourself. It also has the nice side effect that it can make you look good in comparison.

When you think about it, it isn't surprising that most news in the media are bad - they are what customers want to hear! Every time that a media outlet tries the "positive news" angle, readers or viewers start yawning.

When information does spread, it still degrades. The more hops the message had to do before it reached you, the more degraded it will be. There are three ways that a story will degrade:
  • Flattening: When people re-tell a story, they eliminate all the details from it that they think are less relevant to the story, or that may contradict the main story they want to tell.
  • Sharpening: People add details or elaborate on parts of the to the story (sometimes with a liberal use of imagination) to make sure that the point reaches all the way home.
  • Assimilation: People will make the story fit within their existing mental framework and pre-conceptions.
Put this together with the lightning-fast spread of bad news, and you can get a deadly cocktail, of a horrible rumour getting completely out of hand and becoming worse and worse with every re-telling. That's why it's important that communication channels in an organization are as direct, open and transparent as possible.

The practice

Experiment 1

Play a game of "Chinese whispers" with five or six people. When you compare the original story with the last one, remember that this is what happens all the time in real life!

Experiment 2

Make a diagram representing all the communication channels of an organization you are part of. If there is any kind of information that takes three or more hops to reach destination, there are high risks that the information is too degraded when it arrives. Can you find any cases when information takes three or more hops? Can you find ways of reducing the number of hops, or preserving the information as intact as possible?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Why do some people turn a deaf ear?

The theory

I've recently received an email from a reader that is looking for positive solutions to deal with communication problems in the organization she's in. The problem, as far as I can tell, doesn't seem to be that people don't get informed of what happens - the problem is that some people are turning a deaf ear to some things.

This isn't so much a problem with communications as it is with influence. The best way of looking at this problem is turning the question on its head: Why do some people listen attentively and carefully? Looking at it this way, these are the characteristics of the ideal listener:
  • Commited to the issue you want to talk about. If the people you are talking to don't seem commited, the simplest approach is asking where are the people that really care about this matter.
  • Confident. Anxiety makes people distracted and unable to hear what you are saying, they will hear instead what they are afraid to hear. If you get the impression that you are talking to an anxious audience, you have to try to reassure them before you say anything else.
  • Questioning. Somebody who isn't able to question what they already believe makes a very poor listener. If it looks like people are having trouble questioning their previous beliefs, you'll have to be very careful about providing solid evidence to support what you are saying. A very difficult situation can arise when somebody is starting to doubt previous beliefs, but still furiously clinging to them. Then you will have the extremely difficult combination of somebody who is unquestioning but anxious at the same time. I have never found out what is the right way of dealing with this - any suggestions are welcome!
  • Clued up. It isn't strictly necessary to talk with people that already know well the issues you want to talk about, but it helps a lot. If it looks like you are talking to an uninformed audience, be very careful to explain everything from scratch.
Everybody notices when somebody else is turning a deaf ear, but you never notice when you are turning a deaf ear yourself. To give a personal example, a friend of mine was going through a painful relationship. He said: "I don't understand why my wife is always shouting at me. What is her problem?" My friend said: "I'm sure she's telling you all the time. Come on, what is the most common complaint she's always shouting about?" The unhappy husband couldn't say. Clearly, he wasn't listening!

It's a good rule to remember: if something isn't working, there are good chances that somebody has already told you what's wrong. And you weren't listening.

If you cultivate the qualities of a good listener, this should happen less and less.

Update: I got the following comment from somebody who receives updates about this site by email: "Ecology as a discipline had its chance to be relevant in 1960-1970 but all those who focused on single populations and their models and evolutionary ecology undermined whatever chance Ecology had to be relevant. It is irrelevant now, give or take a conservation biology issue or two. (As per your "who I am -- and Ecology's deaf ear)". It's a pretty good example of somebody who clearly didn't pay much attention to the contents of this site, and such things are very common. Lots of people that we talk to simply aren't commited to the issues that we're talking about, and put what you tell them through the filter of the issues that they are commited to.

The practice

Think of the last instance when you could tell that somebody was turning a deaf ear. Which qualities of a good listener were missing? Can you find a way to make this person into a better listener? If not, can you find a person that will be a good listener for this particular issue?

Sunday, 1 August 2010


The theory

My post about death got a lot of reactions, not surprisingly. In one of the meetings of the writing group I go to, somebody said once that death and love are the two things guaranteed to get the interest of everybody. Especially if the story is true and personal, as mine.

But my latest posts have been a tad too dark for some people, and I should compensate by going to the other great theme that everybody is interested in: love. But, because I'm trying to stick to stuff useful to eco-activists (even though I sometimes digress), I will be a bit broader than "boy-meets-girl" or "person-meets-person-of-appropriate-sexual-orientation". So, instead of talking about romantic love, I'll tackle the more general issue of influence. This is something that can happen whenever there is a link between two people.

There is a popular view that says that it's impossible to change somebody else. That's so patently untrue that I can't understand how some people can think that. People are changing each other all the time. For some obvious examples, think of anything that you've picked from friends or lovers that you didn't do before.

If you are an activist, it's almost sure that you want to influence other people to see things your way, and you've tried all sorts of things, with varying success. You probably have some ideas of what works and what doesn't, or maybe you have concluded that it's all a big mystery. The good news is that a lot of people have dedicated a lot of time to study this subject, and by now it's pretty well known what kind of things are most likely to influence people.

The fundamental thing that you need to know is that people have been social for millions of years, even before they could be called "human beings" and were just apes. This means that when somebody is influenced, it's almost always that some deep instinct is telling them that it would be a good thing to change in this way. And instincts can be wrong sometimes, but they are right a lot of the time.

Some of the instincts that play a part in influence are:
  • Avoiding difficulty: That's an instinct that all animals have - in fact, humans are exceptional because, with our big brains, we sometimes actively look for complications, for the sake of entertainment... But as a general rule, people, like all animals, prefer the simple, safe and familiar. Between several options, if one is presented as simple, safe and familiar, it's always going to be popular. This is especially effective when we are distracted, nervous or confused, because all these things interfere with the hard thinking needed to realise that maybe the complicated or new choice is better in some way. That's why advertisers and propagandists often deliberately confuse people.
  • Curiosity: Because we're so damn clever, we just can't help ourselves wondering about all sorts of things. Anything that looks new and interesting is going to attract our attention, and get us in the right frame of mind to consider doing something different, as long as it all seems safe enough and good clean fun.
  • Looking for number one... and for number two: Like all living beings, we have a survival instinct and we'll always look for things good for ourselves. We all know that. But in our capitalist individualistic society, it's seldom mentioned that we are also very much social animals, and often number two is as important or more than number one... You know who is number two, the person or the small circle of people closest to you. Ordinary people die and make noble sacrifices for their loved ones, not just heroes. If a choice is good for you and for the closest people to you, it's a no-brainer. But our social instincts go well beyond our closest circle. If everything else is the same, even a small thing in common with a stranger will make you prefer that person and what that person is saying.
  • Following the leader: Part and parcel of being social animals is that some people are leaders. I'm not going to go here into how and why somebody becomes a leader. The important thing is that people will follow their leaders, sometimes even against all of the other instincts I listed above - think of soldiers following difficult orders without questioning them, risking their own lives and sometimes the lives of good friends.
  • Being consistent: Most people don't see it this way and call it a matter of principles, but our social instincts are the fundamental reason we like to be consistent. Being spontaneous and flexible could be the best thing when we are alone. But it makes other people's lives a lot easier when we are consistent and predictable, and we always behave according to the same rules. If something is presented as consistent with the rules we already follow, we are very likely to accept it.
The practice

Experiment 1

In the post about difficult problems there was an experiment to do if you have a pet that keeps doing something that you would like it to stop doing. The experiment revolved around removing all possible difficulties. But if that isn't working, or the problem is rather that there is something you would like it to do but it isn't doing, it may be better to try to influence it using the other instincts listed above. Most pets are intelligent enough to have some curiosity. Many are social, so getting them to follow the leader (that's likely to be you) or look for number two (their young) is reasonably easy. What doesn't work so well is expecting them to be consistent. It takes somebody very clever and very flexible to see the advantages of behaving predictably, even if it makes you look stupid!

For example, let's suppose that your cat keeps scratching furniture. You can experiment with different approaches to influence your cat:
  • Avoiding difficulty: Make sure that your cat undestands there will be trouble when it scratches furniture. Get it out of the way, shout at it and be generally ungrateful about it. Spraying a cat with water is an easy way of inconveniencing them without inconveniencing yourself much.
  • Curiosity: The problem can be that your cat doesn't have a good scratching pad. Cats know when their claws are too long, and do everything they can to wear them out. A nice new scratching pad will attract their curiosity, and they are likely to become fond of it when they notice how good it is for scratching compared with other surfaces.
  • Following the leader: A cat that has never used a scratching pad may not know what to do. Demonstrate the scratching pad with your own nails, then you can also hold them next to it and scratch their claws to show them.
Experiment 2

Have you ever been involved in producing any educational or promotional material that clearly failed in its goal of influencing people? This is your chance to have a second look at it and figure out what went wrong. This is best done by a group of people, because different people have different reactions to the same material.

What insticts of the list above do you think the material appealed to? Was there any instinct in the list that was actually pushing people away? (For example, was it asking people to take on more trouble in their lives or be inconsistent with the way they behave normally?)

Try to fix the material so that it pushes all the buttons and there is nothing that pushes people away. Some instincts could be pushed quite weakly, but try to touch on all, the effect is much stronger if they reinforce each other. If it's unavoidable to give up on one or two of the list - sometimes you have to ask people to do difficult things - say clearly that this may go against some of their instincts, but make sure that all the others are touched as hard as you can.

For example, when Kennedy proposed to go to the moon within a decade, he knew he couldn't possibly say that it would be avoiding difficulty. And he couldn't say that it was necessary for individual Americans or their families. So what did he say?

"For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation [...] But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win!"

Can you see? He admitted openly his defeat on the bases he knew were lost - no, it isn't easy, and we don't need it. But all the other important instincts for influence - look for number one and two (the Russians might put weapons up there!), curiosity, follow leadership, and be consistent with the American way - were not just touched, they were hammered in.