It’s been a while since I’ve posted an original article here at Roblog. Sorry about that – it’s all this guy’s fault:
Three-month-old puppies and having the headspace to write articles aren’t compatible, it turns out. He’s still great, though.
As I clamber back onto the wagon, this week’s article is all about how we coordinate when we can’t communicate: how we match our actions to others, anticipating what they might do even as they anticipate what we might do. It’s the only way to coordinate well at scale. But how do we encourage that coordination?
As ever, if you think someone might find this interesting, please do forward it along – the more the merrier.
This week’s article
What arranging a meeting in Grand Central station can teach us about organisations
Imagine you had to meet someone in New York City. You couldn’t communicate with them in advance; you only knew that you had to meet them somewhere in the city at some point on a particular day. Where and when would you choose to go, in order to maximise the chances of meeting them?
The economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling posed this question to students. The most common answer given by them was to meet at 12pm by the information desk at Grand Central station. It’s not that 12pm is a particularly useful time to meet, or that Grand Central station is a particularly useful place – you could easily rattle off a list of a hundred other places that are equally suitable. But in trying to pick a point, you’re trying to guess what other people might pick. 12pm feels like a particularly salient time, and Grand Central station feels like a particularly salient place to meet people. It feels like what other people will pick, and so it’s what you should pick.
For an even simpler example, imagine that you’re tasked with choosing one of the four squares from this diagram. At the same time, in a different room, your friend is being given the same task, but you can’t communicate with them. If you pick the same square as your friend, you’ll both get a reward; if you each pick different squares, you’ll both get nothing.
Technically – if you were looking at this through a mathematician’s eyes – no square is superior to the others. You and your friend could pick any of them and win, or pick any of them and lose. And yet it seems incredibly obvious that you would pick the top-right, red square because it stands out. And, indeed, that’s what happens when this game is played for real. Most people pick the red square, and are correct to do so.
These focal points, points around which people can organise and coordinate even without communicating with one another, are called Schelling points after Thomas Schelling. They’re a great example of how human beings can coordinate their actions even without communication, as a result of the mental models they have about other people’s behaviour.
Schelling points are a useful tool for thinking about organisations. They help us to think about what people do, and where they go, in the absence of communication.
Imagine you’re working in a professional services business with lots of clients. You want to know what the latest developments are on a particular project. Where do you go? Clearly, you could solve this problem with communication. You’re not in the artificial environment of an academic experiment; you can just go and ask the person who’s leading the project, and they’ll give you an update. But that’s slow, and interrupts them, and means you need to wait on a reply. It also scales very poorly – what if that person is getting ten people asking them for updates every day? Coordination that requires communication is costly, and so it’s still worth exploring solutions that don’t involve communication.
If you have a system that everyone uses, and that provides an obvious and salient summary of projects, then that will become the place people working on projects will post their updates, and it will become the place people wanting to check on those projects will go to check on them. People will use it without having to communicate with one another. You will have created a Schelling point, a way for people to coordinate without communicating.
A big shared drive full of random documents tends to lack Schelling points; a more structured knowledge base is more likely to grow them. A clearly structured and easy-to-navigate website will develop popular Schelling points; a jumbled-up one won’t. Schelling points can be deliberately designed, can be consciously built into tools, and can be strengthened by the consistent use of those tools.
Ultimately, though, Schelling points are effective because of social norms. I know what’s salient to me, and I know what’s salient to you; we share an understanding of the world, and that allows us to converge on something without communication. Nobody designed Grand Central station as a Schelling point; it just is one, as a result of an unknowable emergent process within our collective psyche.
Schelling points, then, are enormously powerful. They allow for people to coordinate without communicating, even in enormously large organisations. They can be designed thoughtfully into processes to make them more effective.
But there’s a danger to them, too. Schelling points can be accidental as well as designed, and they’re also self-strengthening: the more people coordinate around a single point, the more plausible that point is as a choice, and so the more people will coordinate around it, and so on. Schelling points emerge whether we like it or not, and can prove stubbornly hard to displace. We are as much the prisoners of them as we are the designers of them; we’ll likely still be meeting people in Grand Central station for many years to come.
This week’s six interesting links
Abraham Thomas with a well-expressed solution to the apparent contradiction that startups require both stamina and speed:
“If startups are a marathon, then staying power should count for more than speed. Conversely, if speed is the key, then why worry about stamina and resilience and the long haul?
“One way to resolve this contradiction is to simply say, this is why startups are hard. You have to do both: go as fast as you can for as long as you can. Sprint the marathon.
“But I think there’s a deeper resolution, and I found it in events from over a hundred years ago.”
His examples are from the golden age of Antarctic exploration, and Scott’s and Amundsen’s competing attempts to reach the South Pole. #
As the tech industry in particular fires people in their tens of thousands, Sandra J. Sucher and Marilyn Morgan Westner explain something I’ve always felt intuitively about mass layoffs:
“I’ve studied layoffs since 2009… the short-term cost savings provided by a layoff are overshadowed by bad publicity, loss of knowledge, weakened engagement, higher voluntary turnover, and lower innovation – all of which hurt profits in the long run.”
A news story that, in true Ronseal fashion, does exactly what it says on the tin:
“It began as a way to make myself a little uncomfortable, which I think is necessary in life. I wanted to return to simplicity – eat a cooked chicken every day, with no sauces, no condiments. I never imagined it would take off in the way it did. What captured people’s imaginations? A rotisserie chicken is very evocative: with even just the word, you can smell it, taste it, feel the grease beneath your fingertips. I like that it’s a simple, mundane thing.”
A great article by Cedric Chin of Commoncog about the stereotype within the Chinese diaspora of the person who just “gets business”. Chin maintains that it has nothing to do with innate talent:
“But the perception of ‘business savvy’ or ‘not business savvy’ as an inborn trait, unchangeable by circumstance, is hardcoded into our culture; an inalienable part of the ‘traditional Chinese businessman’.
“I reject this notion almost as strongly as I reject the notion of pre-ordained destiny.”
…but is rather the result of a particularly earthy and practical sort of knowledge, hard-won from trial and error. There’s a series of articles that explores this education and decision-making, and there’s lots of interesting gems within them. #
The origin story of Microsoft’s Clippy, the animated mascot we all loved to hate in the ’90s:
“These days, an annoying Word creature might seem eminently tolerable compared to the ghouls on Twitter. Now that Alexa’s in our bedroom and Siri’s in our hand, Clippy’s a throwback to what seems like a more benign digital age.”
Nate Jones on the phenomenon of the “nepo baby” – the children of Hollywood stars who fill the current ranks of celebrities:
“Long before TikTok got ahold of these descendants, scholars had been studying our obsession with multigenerational stars. Austrian academic Eva Maria Schörgenhuber argues that celebrity children function as living links to a shared pop-culture history, connecting us to a nostalgic vision of the past. You can see this keenly in the types of nepo babies the culture does not have a problem with. Stars like Minnelli, Mariska Hargitay, or Freddie Prinze Jr., who all had a parent die in tragic circumstances, garner respect, not scorn, for following in their footsteps. The same way the Kennedys went from nouveau-riche boot-leggers to inhabitants of a fairy-tale castle, so does the passage of time transform a nepo baby into someone ‘from a famous family.’ Few today care that Michael Douglas, Laura Dern, or Tracee Ellis Ross had celebrity parents. The same principle holds true for someone like Dakota Johnson, who reps multiple generations of Hollywood legends and is thus exempt from the tasteless striving that defines celebrity children of a more recent vintage. Paradoxically, the nepo babies we like best are often the ones who are most privileged.”