Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Is short-sighted greed the best emergent solution?

Emergent solutions are good, but some are way better than others. This post is an academic musing on why that is and what solutions it suggests to many organizational problems.

See that post
on my replacement weblog

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Weblog moved to new site

Due to technical difficulties with this site,
after November 19, 2006 I am putting all new posts onto

Come visit!

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Unity with diversity is a central problem

Across all scales of life, a pivotal feature is "unity with diversity."

This problem is a recognized central problem in health care systems, for example, where there is a visible tendency for specialization to break the world up into "silos" of expertise and common world-views. The silo form is critical to establishing a small context within which a huge amount of information is shared and doesn't need to be explicitly stated, making terse conversation possible within the team.

Unfortunately, exactly the same words fall on deaf ears, or are totally misunderstood outside the silo, because the unstated assumptions and world-view are different.

A common response is something like "We need to get rid of silos!" followed by an attempt to "standardize" or, effectively, homogenize conversations - which only works where it can reduce conversations to the least common denominator.

The problem needs to be framed instead as "We need a way to allow silos to continue to exist, but for people within them to still be able to communicate across silos." In other words, we need the benefits of detailed specialization and the benefits of larger-scale coordination, both.

The exact same problem occurs in machine-vision, or processing of, say, microscope images of histopathology slides of cross section of a blood vessel. We need very high resolution to see enough of the important details, but we also need a high width field-of-view to be sure we're not looking at some statistical anomaly. For images, this can be solved by collecting the images, matching up the edges, and pasting them together to form a huge mosaic that has both the field of view and the necessary detail.

We haven't been able to do the analogy with health care organizations yet, but we need to.

Should this be possible? Well, we all walk around with a living example - our own bodies. Our bodies have trillions of cells, with great specialization in different areas for different purposes, and yet with a common identity and purpose. Our bodies exhibit the type of "unity with diversity" I'm referring to.

On a scale larger than cells, or organisms, or corporations, we have national and global needs as well to accomplish "unity with diversity." We need to treasure our global diversity, as it is rich with information and value, not to ignore a great variety of music and food. It is rich as well in different perspectives and world-views.

A bad strategy to accomplish "world peace" or conflict elimination is to attempt to homogenize the world into any one framework or cultural system. This strategy is effectively "the Borg", and the same as "eliminating silos." It won't give us the differing perspectives we need to survive. It removes the necessary ecological complexity. For species, simplification and homogeneity turn fatal at the next turning of the road, and change of conditions. It's like having all elm trees in a country, then catching Dutch elm disease. It's a very bad strategy.

What we need instead is the same type of "diversity within unity" that our own bodies exhibit, mathematically. ( I don't mean we should paste people together into a global sized blob of protoplasm!)

What I'm talking about here is really the key issue behind multi-cellular organisms, and why those are successful models for our bodies and our corporations. Nobody wants "the Borg", but nobody wants World War III either. As the world gets smaller at a visible rate, we are forced to confront these hard issues.

To accomplish that, as discussed in my prior post, we need to learn how to communicate between silos, across world-views. Then, we need to move up the scale to learning how to coordinate across them. Then we need to move up to collaboration across silos, as in "Getting to Yes." Finally, we need to move up to coherence of spirit across silos, where we all finally realize that we need to work together to survive here, and the solutions do not consist of killing off each other and trying to impose homogeneity and false-unity.

We need a healthy, organic unity of shared purpose and identity, but one that is above and crosses over different organizations and specializations and local world views, and still allows them to exist largely independently.

It can work. It does work in our bodies. In my mind, this is the challenge of the "life sciences" and what is the key ingredient in accomplishing the social cohesion necessary for health, both individually and economically of the nation.

This is one area where specialists from across the spectrum of science and business can get together in a true interdisciplinary effort, because the problem is, effectively, fractal or self-similar in nature. We see the same problem at every level of the totality of life-on-earth.
That's great, because it means we do have common ground there to compare notes and cross-fertilize the search for solutions. It's also great because the need for economic survival and large sources of funding are aligned with a need for global survival of that context in which we compete for resources. If the lifeboat we share goes down, we all lose.

So, we do have a common ground, and a common problem to solve together. The interdisciplinary value of that solution can structure and give meaning to our efforts
to find this "win-win" strategy. And we better, because the alternative is a "lose-lose" one.

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Do religions have common ground?

The Washington Post had this forum topic this week:


If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

Posted by Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham on November 10, 2006 8:34 AM

I posted this comment:

This is a great question, but the answer may require a few years of preparation. We may find it helpful to learn how to carry on such conversations on less-loaded topics first.

For example, people have studied recent disasters at nuclear power plants, space shuttles, airplane accidents, etc., to see how on earth these things happen, despite our best efforts to make them safe. The answers reveal a lot about how humans form beliefs, carry on conversations, and change beliefs. The stakes keep getting higher.

The keys to what's called "high reliability organizations" are honesty, trust, and ability to speak out respectfully and safely when you see something that doesn't seem to fit the story that everyone is treating as truth. And that means sometimes not only questioning the fact, but also questioning the framework or model or story-line.

The costs of mistakes keep getting higher, so this is a type of social learning that gets more important with time. This kind of problem occurs at home, at work, and at a national and cultural level.

It's hard, but not impossible, to build such a "safety culture" on purpose. All high-risk businesses are working on that problem, including nuclear power plants, airlines, hospitals.. It's made doubly-hard because we tangle up questioning facts, questioning assumptions, and challenging-authority or "stepping out of line." So, those who raise honest questions in a loving way are often perceived as opponents or enemies.

Some people still assert that dissent and open questioning are not compatible with the necessary authority and control to maintain law, order, and public safety. The facts disagree. In aircraft cockpits, co-pilots are learning how to challenge the pilot's facts without challenging her authority. In hospitals, nurses are learning how to challenge the surgeon's assumptions without being out of line. Even the US Army has a program of learning how those on "the bottom" can question the facts and assumptions of those above them without being insubordinate. If these questions can't be raised, overall safety goes down, not up, and that's been demonstrated over and over.

And, particularly, the hardest thing to do is to challenge unspoken, shared assumptions.

But, until we learn how to carry on these conversations, about the "truth" of much simpler things such as what's going on inside the reactor, or on that left wing, or inside the patient, or in the middle east, it seems doubly hard to talk about differing assumptions regarding religious questions.

So it's a really good sign that people are learning how to carry on serious conversations, and that a lot of funding is going into that activity. Those skills should help give us the experience and skills we need to tackle even harder questions about apparent discrepancies between religions, and between religion and science.

On the other hand, if we can't even carry on productive conversations about relatively simple matters, we shouldn't be surprised that the harder ones defy us.



Threat and Error Management - Airline safety that also works for hospitals

Organizational Learning From Experience in High-Hazard Industries (Carroll, 2002, MIT)

Health care risk analysis and Culture of Safety (IOM)

US Army Leadership Field Manual ( FM 22-100 )

High Reliability Organizations (Web site with extensive bibliography)

Effects of adaptive behaviors and shared mental models on control crew performance.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

psychosocial factors and depression

The USA seems to be the world leader in both incidence and prevalence of major depression, and if anything, the rate is increasing.

In an Op-ED piece in today's New York Times, "Our Great Depression", Andrew Solomon argues that "We need a network of depression centers, much like the cancer centers established in the 1970s." He says:

DEPRESSION is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It costs more in treatment and lost productivity than anything but heart disease. Suicide is the 11th most common cause of death in the United States, claiming 30,000 lives each year...

Following this model, the National Institute of Mental Health should coordinate and subsidize a national network of depression centers, ideally based at research universities with good hospitals and departments devoted to the subject.

The University of Michigan, host to the country’s first national depression center, which opened its doors last month, has been a pioneer in this regard. More than 135 experts on depression and bipolar disorder will collaborate there, about half of them psychiatrists. The center has a large clinical treatment program and a genetic database that will house samples from tens of thousands of depressed and bipolar patients. It is sponsoring social and biological research and pressing for policy initiatives related to mental illness.

And finally adds "(Full disclosure: my father is the chief executive of a pharmaceutical company that manufactures antidepressants.)" His facts may be correct, but he is not an unbiased observer. And, the U of Michigan depression center certainly supports Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as much it supports pharmaceutical "solutions," so it is not just a thinly-disguised retail outlet for the largest company in Ann Arbor, Pfizer.

Still, while it is clear that "psychosocial factors" such as depression, isolation, and social support have a dramatic predictive value on the outcomes of "medical" disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, it is less clear to what extent depression is itself largely predicted by, or in some causal loop with these other social factors.

(See "Depression, Isolation, Social Support, and Cardiovascular Disease in Older Adults" by Heather M. Arthur, Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, Vob 21, No. 55, pp S2-S7 for some links into the literature on the former subject.)

A different viewpoint can be found in literature off the continent, that is less supported by the pharmaceutical industry. Here's an example from the National Medical Journal of India
2006 Jul-Aug;19(4):218-20.

The cultures of depression.

Jacob, KS

Department of Psychiatry, Christian Medical College, Vellore 632002, Tamil Nadu, India.

Diverse frameworks, models and 'cultures' of depression have been postulated and promoted by psychiatrists, the pharmaceutical industry, general practitioners, primary care psychiatrists and the general population.

Psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry endorse the medical model while general practitioners and the public subscribe to social and psychological frameworks. [emphasis added]

These models are partial truths and should be viewed as complementary rather than competitive, some more valid in a specific context than others. The issues that need to be resolved include: (i) reexamination of the validity of the psychiatric diagnosis of depression in the primary care context; (ii) a review of the adequacy of a single label of depression to describe the diverse human context of distress; (iii) acknowledging the problems of using a symptom checklist in diagnosing depression; (iv) recognizing the need for psychosocial diagnostic formulations which clearly state the context, personality factors, acute and chronic stress and coping; (iv) highlighting the fact that antidepressant medication should be reserved for severe forms of distress; (v) re-emphasizing the need to manage stress and alter coping strategies in the treatment of people with such presentations; (vi) de-emphasizing medicalization of all forms of personal and social distress; (vii) focusing on other underlying causes of human misery including poverty, unmet needs and lack of rights. Clinically, there is a need to look beyond symptoms and explore personality, life events, situational difficulties and coping strategies in order to comprehensively evaluate the role of vulnerability, personality factors and stress in the causation of depression.

Possibly, however, we have simply run into the largest single reason to be considering systems thinking - namely, the occurrence of feedback in models of causation.

Standard statistical techniques are fine at dealing with open-loop causality, where A "causes" B, or B causes A, and there is a clearly defined start and end point. The General Linear Model covers that reasonably nicely.

But, as soon as you close that loop, so that A causes B which in turn causes A, that model breaks down. This behavior (a feedback loop) is very common in engineering, and no big deal, but it remains not only perplexing, but almost heretical in the epidemiological community. Even the mention of "psychosocial factors" for medical disorders causes tempers to flare and voices to be raised. The battles go on between arguments such as "bullets cause death" versus "guns cause death" versus "angry people who just happen to have guns at hand cause death" versus "bad economic and political situations cause massive unemployement and unhappiness and anger, which ultimately express themselves in gunshots which cause death."

Still, it seems a reasonable hypothesis to me that social factors, such as isolation and loneliness and lack of social support, result in depression; and, then that depression results in further actions or non-actions that increase isolation and lack of support; and, etc. in a mutually reinforcing feedback loop.

This is "hard to study" in the sense that people don't have desktop software that lets them compute such things as a "p-value" to distinguish whether they are being too credible, or not credible enough when looking at this possible causal loop to explain observational data.

The lack of such software is, of course, precisely the type of gap that the R21 research request for proposals I mentioned in earlier posts is designed to address. (I'm available to work on such a project if there are others also interested in a joint proposal.)

Why does this matter? It matters because it can completely change the interventions required to address the problem. If depression is largely an internal phenomenon, caused by genetics and bad wiring in the brain, that leads to one type of intervention - drugs and CBT. If depression is largely a social phenomenon, related to the well-documented collapse in social interaction documented by Putnam and the group at Duke, then personal intervention will simply deal with symptoms, and result in an ever growing prevalence of drug-dependent victims of social dysfunction - precisely the observation we find about the USA today.

In the latter case, what we need to address is why people are losing the ability to make friends, to keep friends, and to be a friend -- because it is that low-level breakdown that is emerging on a national scale as an epidemic of "depression."

The Duke study is "Social Isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades" by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew E. Brashears, American Sociological Reviews , (2006), vol 71, June (p 353-375)

Putnam's famous book is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (New York , Simon and Schuster, 2000).
As that site says,

In a groundbreaking book based on vast new data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures-- and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital - the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Flash - US solves world hunger!

From today's Washington Post:

Some Americans Lack Food, but USDA Won't Call Them Hungry

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006; A01

The U.S. government has vowed that Americans will never be hungry again. But they may experience "very low food security."

Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans' access to food, and it has consistently used the word "hunger" to describe those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year....

The USDA said that 12 percent of Americans -- 35 million people -- could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the USDA has determined "very low food security" to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group.


Anti-hunger advocates say the new words sugarcoat a national shame... "

In assembling its report, the USDA divides Americans into groups with "food security" and those with "food insecurity," who cannot always afford to keep food on the table.

A reader's comment in the WP on that article has a different perspective:

This is a story only to the ignorant. The development community, which works on food issues around the world, has long recognized that the problem is not hunger, but food security. The difference is in the policy solutions. If a person is hungry, you feed him. If you a person is food insecure, you help strengthen his capacity to get food, which in turn will allow him to take the kind of risks that allow him to climb out of permanent poverty. In focusing on food security, USDA is going where the World Food Program has been for decades. Bread for the World and similar groups depend on shock value words and images to raise money not a surprise that they oppose the change in focus.

By nunyo555 | Nov 16, 2006 6:03:17 AM
My comments:

It may be that "very low food security" is a more academically helpful category for setting international development policy. And it may well be that Pluto is not "a planet" by the new academic lexicon. The truth is that these academic debates take place on a very public stage, and do not play well in the corn belt. It gives regular peoople the impression that "low continued-employment security" would solve one obvious problem here.

Alternatively, this is a case-in-point in why honesty, trust, and integrity are key in making a functioning, high-reliability organization. If cynicism and distrust are the norm, perpetuated by highly visible incidents that justify them, it becomes almost impossible for well-intentioned people in public health to operate without being victim to that pent-up anger.

That has enormous implications for disaster preparedness, because if public health officials or the government officials say "Go here" the majority of the public may be inclined to ignore it or go the opposite direction.

The short-run benefits of "spin-control" and cover-ups and not trusting the people to be able to deal with the truth are ultimately overcome by the long-term costs. The breakdown in order that the lies were intended to prevent comes anyway. Without integrity, there is disintegration and no amount of "law" will create the living, active "order" that is desired.

This is why the US Army Leadership Field Manual core doctrine stresses character and integrity as the pivotal factors in success. It is not "obvious" that is is true, but it's increasingly clear that all "learning organizations" will ultimately come to the same realization - that integrity is not something that's just nice or a "core value" - it's the actual requirement for organzational cohesion and integration that will survive and continue to perform under duress.

The fight for integrity is as much a front-line of homeland security as missile defense. More so, because if we lose that fight, the missiles won't have much left to be defending.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Center for Inquiry-Transnational

Speakers at the National Press Club presented new initiatives by the Center for Inquire-Transnational, according to an article in today's Washington Post. I'll summarize the article here and go on below to comment on the philosophy.

Think Tank Will Promote Thinking
Advocates Want Science, Not Faith, at Core of Public Policy

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006; A19

Concerned that the voice of science and secularism is growing ever fainter in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in culture, a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote "rationalism" as the basis of public policy.

The brainchild of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, the small public policy office will lobby and sometimes litigate on behalf of science-based decision making and against religion in government affairs.

The announcement was accompanied by release of a "Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism," which bemoans what signers say is a growing lack of understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry and the value of a rational approach to life.

"This disdain for science is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies," the declaration says. "We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home."

"Unfortunately, not only do too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books -- such as the Bible and the Koran -- rather than scientific inquiry, but politicians of all parties encourage and abet this scientific ignorance," reads the declaration, which was signed by, among others, three Nobel Prize winners.

Kurtz, ...said the methods of science,..., "are being challenged culturally in the United States today as never before."

Several speakers also had strong words for the media, ...

Lawrence M. Krauss, an author and theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, said the scientific community has done a "poor job" of explaining its logic and benefits to the public....

The goals of the new group are to establish relationships with sympathetic legislators, provide experts to give testimony before Congress, speak publicly on issues when they are in the news, and submit friend-of-the-court briefs in Supreme Court cases involving science and religion. The Center for Inquiry-Transnational, a nonprofit organization, is funded by memberships.

My analysis of that:

There are at least three hypotheses in contention in the policy arena:
1) All religion is bunk and should be replaced by science
2) All science is bunk and should be replaced by religion
3) Science and religion are compatible

The "Center for Inquiry - Transnational" seems to be firmly in position #1.

Position #2 is subdivided into incompatible parts by actually being
2) All science (and also your religion) is bunk and should be replaced by (my) religion.

This is the axis along which the Bush administration and Moslem Fundamentalists seem to be battling -- Bush's objection to Islamic theocracy seemst to be not that it is religious, but that it is a different religion controlling the theocracy than the religion (a version of Fundamentalist Christianity) he is allied with.

Position #3 is also subdivided into two distinct cases
3a) -- Separate but equal: so long as religion stays in its place, and science stays in its place, and the two never meet in the middle, they are "compatible". A significant number of researchers and scientists are in this camp.
3b) -- ultimately compatible: there is only one reality which has multiple valid views, the "incompatibility" between religion and science is largely due to misunderstanding, and religion(s) and science need to be brought together and reworked into a new paradigm that embraces both.

Position #3 is certainly is my own working hypothesis and is the way I understand the Baha'i Faith as well. I present this here less as an advertisement and more to make the case that "religion" is perfectly capable of embracing multiple viewpoints and scientific principles, and does not automatically equate to "fanatic" or "closed-minded" or "intolerant."

We need to distinguish, as it were "the baby" and "the bathwater."

Baha'i Social principles include:

  • full equality between women and men in all departments of life and at every level of society.
  • harmony between science and religion as two complementary systems of knowledge that must work together to advance the well-being and progress of humanity.
  • the elimination of all forms of prejudice.
  • the establishment of a world commonwealth of nations.
  • recognition of the common origin and fundamental unity of purpose of all religions.
  • spiritual solutions to economic problems and the removal of economic barriers and restrictions.
  • the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty.
One of the most insidious forms of prejudice is racism, about which the Baha'is stated position is:
Racism is the most challenging issue confronting America. A nation whose ancestry includes every people on earth, whose motto is E pluribus unum, whose ideals of freedom under law have inspired millions throughout the world, cannot continue to harbor prejudice against any racial or ethnic group without betraying itself.

The nature of "competing" versus "complementary" views

Let me bring this topic back to "systems thinking," the theme of this weblog. It is generally recognized in software systems analysis that most complex systems are larger than the human brain can comprehend in a single view or perspective.

Here's a quote from a current best practices technical textbook by Nick Rozanski and Eoin Woods, entitled Software Systems Architecture - Working with Stakeholders Using Viewpoints and Perspectives (Addison-Wesley, 2005) :

If you read the more recent literature on software architecture, one of the first useful discoveries you will make is the concept of an architectural view. An architectural view is a description of one aspect of a system's architecture and is an application of the timeless problem-solving principle of "divide and conquer." By considering a system's architecture through a number of distinct views, you can understand, define, and communicate a complex architecture in a partitioned fashion and thus avoid overwhelming your readers with it's overall complexity.... Using viewpoints and views to guide the architecture definition process is a core theme of this book.
Many people are working right now on the problems we've created for ourselves by partitioning the scientific viewpoint of the world into silos which may seldom speak with each other. A major axis along which such silo-building has occured is the scale of activity within life on the earth. So we have cellular scientists, and tissue scientists and individual-being studying scientists and those that study small groups of people and those that study huge collections of people. It's increasingly clear that public health problems cross those artificial historical divisions.

Until recently, scientists who dealt with parts of reality that could be studied in isolation (with open causal pathways and no feedback) couldn't even comprehend or tolerate the work of scientists who deal with parts of reality that cannot be studied in isolation (with complex systems, intractable feedback). The whole nature of "causality" and "the scientific method" are being revamped and revitalized to deal with complex systems. Let's see where that gets us.

The R21 research RFA I mentioned in an earlier post (Houston, we have another problem!) is an effort precisely to cross those artificial barriers between models of the world at different scales and levels of abstraction.
Earlier this week, the National Institutes of Health (in the U.S.)
announced the availability of $3M to fund approximately 10 projects
designed to facilitate "Interdisciplinary Research via Methodological
and Technological Innovation in the Behavioral and Social Sciences."
Complete details about the grant program are available online at:

In some ways all I'm saying is that, if you keep going up in scale, you'll come to a scale where issues commonly termed "religious" or possibly "theological" are the current common way of modeling and investigating and understanding what mankind has observed about itself over millenia.

It is not surprising that the tools, concepts, and approaches are different from those used by civil engineers. Sociologists and psychologists and biologists disagree all the time. That doesn't say anything about whether the data are ultimately compatible in a more comprehensive model.

We have all heardthe story of the blind men who encounter an elephant, with one finding the tail, one finding a leg, one finding the ear, and arguing about whether they have come across a
huge rope, or a tree, or a huge blanket, or whatever.

What's really pivotal here is that these differences do not automatically make the viewpoints incompatible. "Incompatible" would mean that the viewpoints cannot be reconciled into being fully valid points in a larger picture. The viewpoints of the elephant can be reconciled, and must be, if one is to understand what an "elephant" is.

The question of incompatible is this: after accounting for the different observers' perspectives and viewpoints, are the observations still irreconcilably different?

Humans are not born understanding that others see the world differently than they do. Two very hard facts to accept are (1) sometimes both viewpoints are "right", and (2) sometimes the other person's viewpoint is "right" and your own, regardless how obviously true it is to you, is wrong.

Some of this accounting for viewpoint or "frame" or "reference frame" or "perspective" is something we do every day. If I look at people in the distance, I could say - "Look, people get smaller as they move farther away from me." Then other people could say "No, you're wrong, you get smaller as you move away from me!" Possibly they could fight a war in which "size matters" and battle over who it is that "get's smaller". In point of fact, of course, no one "gets smaller" they just "look smaller".

Why discarding "religion" as a whole is a very bad idea:

Actually, it's ironic that many scientists, who spend all day trying to isolate their work from the rest of reality in order to study it, now abruptly seem to realize that science itself is a social activity and only takes place in a social context.

Yes, religion and spirituality are similar to gasoline and can alternately blow up in your face, or move your fleet of automobiles. The recent work in top-performing organizations, and high-reliability organizations, all point to a need for some key traits to make them work: honesty, integrity, and compassion - variables that religions have kept central for thousands of years, despite their having "no place" in science as it was practiced. "Scientific" and machine-based models of humans, business, and commerce have resulted in as much human carnage as spiritually based models - more, in fact, when the destructive power of mankind was amplified and the integrative, compassionate side demeaned and neglected.

In fact, isn't it precisely because "science" has built huge new technologies of mass destruction and climate change, but neglected the equivalent tools of reintegration and wholeness preached by religion, that we now face the prospect of demolishing our entire planet?

I'd argue that our best route is not to despise and discard religions of the world, but to understand what it is they were trying to tell us and ask ourselves if that's not something we need to hear.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

You can say that again!

You have a lot more control over the people around you than you might think.

All living systems must survive the regular death and rebirth of their components.

This is true for cells, for people, for relationships between two people, for families, for workplace teams, for companies, for nations, and for cultures or religions.

It's universal.

It's also a tremendous opportunity for change, because it means nothing that's alive is really static, or could be. Life depends on constant feedback, reaffirmation, reassembly, reassertion of basic truths before they fade out and are lost.

This basic fact about life brings with it responsibility and opportunity.

For any system you are a part of, you are also part of the continual dance that sustains it and shapes it and keeps it the way it is. If you don't like the way it is, the key message here is that you have control over that. It won't change instantly, but it will change over time. Your own actions are helping sustain it, and your own response to it can help change it.

Even simply changing the way you perceive it can change it, because what it "is" has to pass thousands of times through the feedback loops of perception and responsive action. That is an enormous multiplier and gives you huge leverage from tiny changes.

One example we had in class recently was based on the observation that marriages that stay together over 10 years or longer have daily conversations where positive statements about the other person were five times as common as negative statements.

And, here we can apply some basic knowledge of "systems thinking" and recognize that, in feedback loops, causality becomes smeared out over time. There is no distinction between the cause and the effect, because every part is both.

What's' that mean? It means that it is silly to try to measure whether the positive statements cause relationships to last, or whether lasting relationships cause positive outlooks on things, because it's clear these two variables form a reinforcing feedback loop either way, either upwards or downwards. Either more positive leads to more positive, or more negative leads to more negative. So the loop itself is "the cause", not either variable.

That also means that you can intervene in the situation at any point of the loop that you find convenient. One easy place to intervene, if you'd like to improve the water in your own fishbowl, is to react and respond more positively to any trace of anything that could possibly be interpreted as a positive event. If you like something, or like the way something is going, say so.

That's the first place to work. If you're not doing that, you're missing your first major opportunity to effectively cause more of that to occur. People tend to perk up when they do something that gets noticed. It's a very powerful effect.

As a single candle casts more light the darker it is, a single compliment has power way beyond what you'd think in places wherre there haven't been any compliments for a long time. People hunger to be noticed and appreciated sincerely. It mostly doesn't matter to them whether it's a huge life-work or a single word that they're appreciated for. We have genetic hardware that is always scanning for any trace of a positive response to our own actions. Everyone does.

The second place to work is even easier, but mysteriously missed by most people. You can say that again!

You can say that again. There is no rule in life that restricts you from delivering a positive response to someone TWICE. If they did something you like, or you want to encourage, let them know today - and then, let them know again tomorrow about the very same thing.

Try this experiment with your family, a friend, or your workplace. Agree, for one week, to try to make sure that you speak five times as many positive things about each other as negative things. Any action, regardless how tiny, that can be interpreted as positive is fair game for a compliment or being simply noticed and appreciated.

From the literature, the results of this are nothing short of astounding.

If you can't get agreement, you can always take up this task in a one-sided way, say, for a child or student or co-worker of yours who just seems depressed, or hostile, or anti-social, or not much fun to be around. For a week, watch them intently for any sign of some tiny move they do that's what you'd rather see, and then thank them for it, and then wait a day, and then thank them AGAIN for it.

It works miracles.

There's a whole science of "Positive Organizational Scholarship" you can read up on, if you're interested in learning more about how this works.

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