Monday, February 25, 2008

1 of 4: Structure Influences People

Premise #1.0: The structure of a tool influences the people who use it, and the structure of an organization influences the people who belong to it.

Premise #1.1: We don't act nearly as independently as we think we do. All day long, we are listening for cues about what behavior is appropriate in each context. We also broadcast cues as to what behavior is rewarded, acceptable, or inappropriate.

Example A: You're invited to an acquaintance's house; he's "having some cool people over." He has spiky hair and a nose ring. So, you grab your Immortal Technique CDs and take a cab out to his place, expecting to tie one on and get loose. You get there and discover that, (1) the table is set with a white tablecloth and matching silverware, and (2) there are wine glasses. You instantly realize this is a Grownup Party. Chagrined, you start greeting the other guests with conversation about work while privately lamenting your wasted $30 on cabfare.

Example B: Usually, the lady checker with the orange hair at the Red Apple asks "How are you?" in a monotone while she's typing your produce codes with one hand and checking her watch with the other. You respond: "Fine, thanks, and you?" But today, she notices you look kinda off. You come up to the counter, and she sets her pen down and places both hands on the counter. She looks into your eyes, and says: "How are you?" You say: "Pretty lousy. I'm just not sleeping well. I stress too much."

This is our symbolic, implicit, fantastically complex language of human aggregation: we tell each other what to do all day long without saying a word.

Organizations and tools bake these messages into formal structures that tell people what behavior is desirable and what is unacceptable. When we successfully and ritually use the tool or belong to the organization, we adopt those behaviors. Usually, we adopt them unknowingly; often, we do it involuntarily.
Premise #1.2: It's important to set up tools and systems to encourage the behaviors that you want, and discourage the behaviors that you don't.
The more unconscious those behavioral handshakes between us and our org/tool, the more likely they are to affect our perception of ourselves, and our ability to see a broad set of options and to make decisions.
Premise #1.3: If you have a system where a group of people are doing the same odious thing over and over again no matter how often you try to get them to stop, look at the rules of the system they belong to.
Next up: 1.5: How to Build Horrible Social Systems by Accident: Incentives. This is one of several entries fleshing out the theme of "Structure Influences People." It will be the first in, time willing, a short list of tools I learned about in academia that aim to analyze structure and its influences.

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