Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Two questions

Lately I've been watching multiple debates, arguments, shouting matches, and iceberg-tip snowball fights as they sprawl across various blogs. The topics that triggered these noisy brawls vary somewhat, but the pattern of escalation of all the conflicts looks the same to me.

Although it shouldn't surprise me anymore, I confess I still find it remarkable how much effort some people can expend in trying to justify rude and counterproductive behaviors.

I've been trying to find a concise way to describe what I see below the surface of these icebergs. Today it occurred to me that two simple questions could reveal a lot — if anyone cared to ask them:

What are the effects of my own behavior?

How should I behave if I care about the answer?


Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Rule of 150, minus three

About ten years ago I began working with a small tiny Internet company. Did you notice that I say "with" -- not "for"? I was an employee, not a temp, not a consultant, but we were a small group and we worked with each other.

When I began I was the eighth person in the group. They began as five, tightly knit as the saying goes, working closely with each other to manage and sell bandwidth on a small fiber optic network. Changes in the telecommunication industry and the emerging Internet phenomenon steered the little company toward a path of sudden growth.

At the beginning it was a perfect fit for me. They were doing, or were about to do, exactly what I wanted for my career. It was exciting. It was perfect. It was fun. We didn't worry much about job titles or job descriptions or hierarchy. We did what needed to be done, and we had fun doing it. One day I was chatting with one of our Vice President of Sales, and I told him:

"Some days I feel like the janitor. But some days I feel like a Vice President."

"Me, too!" he said. "Me, too."

But the fun didn't last. We bought into the idea that bigger is always better, so we tried to get bigger. We tried to get bigger even faster than everybody else was trying to get bigger. In just months I went from one of eight, sharing offices with real doors that we didn't need to be closed and sharing jazz CDs and janitorial outlooks with vice presidents, to one cubicle gopher among hundreds. I had quickly become just another one of the seven hundred strangers scattered throughout three buildings, surrounded by acres of parking lots.

Late one afternoon I was chatting with a couple of close colleagues from "the good old days". The three of us lamented that we didn't know anybody anymore. Our little company had become BIG. And bigger just didn't seem better, after all.

My friends left for the day, but I stayed and pulled out a company phone directory. I began counting the names of the people I actually knew. Not just names I vaguely recognized, but people I knew. There were a lot more unknown names than known ones. I scanned quickly until I came to a name I knew, and then I found myself pausing to reminisce. Eventually I came to the end of the list. I remember the number clearly:


Out of almost 700 people working for the company (notice I say "for", not "with"), out of 700, I knew exactly 147. I put away the phone list and went home. By the next day I had forgotten this depressing counting exercise.

Things went downhill from there. Three years later the rollercoaster was coasting to a bumpy stop. Even though most of them were strangers, I felt bad for the hundreds of people whose jobs were shed in a series of increasingly painful lay-offs; people whose lives were hurt by the decisions of strangers they didn't know either. I was fortunate to exit with some degree of dignity and grace. Not with a golden parachute. Not as a dot.com millionaire. But I got off the ride with only minor damage to my psyche.

That left me with plenty of time to catch up on some reading. During one trip to the library I noticed a book called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. I remembered that one of my two closest colleagues had been intrigued by it, so I checked it out.

I'm fond of saying that most models are wrong, but some are useful. The Tipping Point is useful. Malcolm Gladwell applies the epidemiological concept of a tipping point to fads and fashions and social changes in modern life. In the middle of it he describes "The Rule of 150". Drawing on scientific research, business operation of the unusual company that made Goretex, and leadership insight from military history and agrarian villages, Gladwell describes how we humans work best in social groups limited to a maximum of 150 people.

Not 150 thousand. Not 150 million. Just one hundred fifty. Larger groups tend to fragment and organizations tend to fall apart at the seams if they don't account for that limit. Things fall apart when we don't observe the Rule of 150.

Gladwell describes a simple exercise to illustrate the Rule of 150 to readers. Open a phone book and count the number of last names you recognize.

Open a phone book. Count the names you recognize.

Well, I had a flashback, of course. A visual image popped into my mind so suddenly that it startled me. Years had passed. I had totally forgotten my depressing scan of my former employer's phone list. But when I read those instructions I could see the number 147 scribbled in the margin of an old phone directory.

For me that was a more than an exercise. I knew from unpleasant personal experience what the Rule of 150 meant. Things fall apart when we ignore the Rule of 150.

There's more to The Tipping Point besides the Rule of 150. There's more I could write about it, but this is not a book review.

Most models are wrong, but some are useful. The Tipping Point presents a useful model. The Rule of 150 is important. In fact, I suspect The Rule of 150 will turn out to be absolutely crucial if we are to make a successful transition to a sustainable human culture.


A primatologist who writes at the blog, The Primate Diaries, contributes a related perspective on cities full of strangers and wonders, Who's your neighbor?

The Tipping Point, at Gladwell's web site

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A few books I've mentioned elsewhere

In the course of commenting at other blogs and web sites I've mentioned some books that I have not yet listed here. For the sake of posterity and future reference I thought I should consolidate them in this quick list.

Disclaimer: I mention these because I have found them useful. Other than that, what passes for a running joke around here is my oft-repeated assertion that I don't do book reviews.

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.
This little book really deserves a post of its own. Someday it will get what it deserves.

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming, by Paul Hawken
Never judge a book by its cover ... only by its subtitle. This is a new one from Paul Hawken, an influential thinker in the sustainability field. The subtitle suggests to me that he might address an issue mentioned in another book:

The Cultural Creatives, by Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson
The authors describe a large group of Americans, tens of millions, characterized by a kind of counter-cultural creativity and the feeling that they're totally alone in their views. For me it was worth skimming for tidbits like that, but some portions of the book didn't grab me. Their work does complement the work of others, though, such as Hawken.

Urban Tribes, by Ethan Watters
Another mixed bag. It's really two books in one cover. I found much value in the first half, which is about an unexpected phenomenon that the author discovered while trying to write the second half.

Gaviotas, by Alan Weisman
Weisman describes an extraordinary village, Gaviotas, that really ought to be utterly ordinary. For 95% of human history, it was utterly ordinary. I had the great good fortune to meet Paolo Lugari, founder of Gaviotas. Like the village, Lugari is extraordinary, but we really ought to make people like him utterly ordinary.

Beyond Civilization, by Daniel Quinn
Some folks have trouble "getting" this one. I recommend reading it along with Urban Tribes and Gaviotas. These three pieces connect very neatly, and the examples in the other two help to make this one more understandable.

More pieces assembled at BluePuzzle.org/books ...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Enough rolling rocks

In Greek mythology a guy named Sisyphus was condemned to roll a great big rock up a hill, over and over. Every time he made some progress rolling that rock up the hill, the rock would roll back to the bottom, and Sisyphus would start pushing the rock all over again. He was forced to. That was his punishment.

I have met Sisyphus. In fact, I see him often. I see Sisyphus among would-be activists who seek social change. And I see Sisyphus among the many folks who seek to prevent any social change at any social cost.

I have met Sisyphus. In fact, I have been Sisyphus.

I have spent more than enough of my time rolling great big rocks up great big hills, only to watch them roll down again. I know the frustration, and I know the pain of crushed fingers and crushed toes and crushed ego when those rocks escape and roll downhill.

Often I would ask myself, after a lot of cursing, but before starting over again, "Why am I doing this?"

Usually that was just a different way to say, "Darn, this sucks."

Eventually, however, after many tiring trips partway up a hill, after crushed fingers, crushed toes, and crushed ego, someone else asked me similar questions, but in a different way, a way that led to an insight.

"Why are you doing THIS? Why are you not doing something else? What is it about this rock that makes you think it's worth so much frustration? What will happen if you actually get this thing up to the top? Will you be happy then? What's your real goal here?"

Answering those questions helped me to realize that I was really trying to accomplish something else. Answering those questions helped me to see that rolling the rock up the hill was not my real goal, that getting the rock to the top of the hill wouldn't make me happy. All I really wanted was a little decorative landscaping on the other side of the hill. The rock seemed like a good idea at first, before I discovered how difficult it was to move. Somehow I just got caught up in the challenge of rolling the rock, even though it wasted my time and wasted my effort and made me tired and angry.

Sisyphus was forced to keep rolling his rock. Sisyphus was being punished by others. He wasn't allowed to stop.

But I could stop. I did stop. When I remembered that all I really wanted was decorative landscaping, it became obvious that the rock was a great big distraction. And then it became easier to let the rock go and to concentrate my effort on what I really wanted.

I encounter many otherwise nice people who become angry, tired, and surly, because they're frustrated by the rocks they're trying to roll uphill. If I suggest to any of those folks that they might consider stopping, they look at me as if I'm crazy. They look at me as if I've just arrived from another planet. "You're not from around here, are you?!" they snap. "Rolling rocks up hills is what we do here."

Habit. Culture. Cultural habits. Habitual culture. "This is what we do! How can we possibly stop?!"

But really, how often do we need another rock on a hilltop? How often do we recall why we started trying to move heavy objects in the first place? Do we even know what we're really trying to accomplish?

It worries me to see so much effort wasted on painful, unnecessary tasks. It saddens me to see so many nice people turn bitter, cynical, and unhelpful in the process. It saddens me to see people burn out this way.

As a culture, as a nation, as a company, as individuals, have we asked ourselves what we really want to accomplish? Why do we believe that rolling heavy rocks uphill will work?

It's surprising, no, it's amazing, how often asking ourselves those questions leads to different methods, different solutions, and even new and different goals.

Sometimes, of course, what we really want is still difficult to achieve, more difficult than decorative landscaping. But isn't it a better use of our time to concentrate on our real goals, difficult as they may be, than to waste our time and effort on distractions, than to persist in habits that accomplish nothing except to make us unhappy?

Suppose we stop rolling rocks out of habit. Suppose we try to figure out what rolling those rocks was supposed to accomplish. Suppose we find another way to accomplish that goal.


Related pieces:

"You're not from around here, are you?! Rolling rocks up hills is what we do here."

Escaping a deceptive trap

Why are we doing THIS?