Wednesday, March 12, 2008


One of the most exciting new areas of research is an area that crosses traditional academic borders. It is called emergent behavior.

Emergent behavior is what happens when a relatively simple set of rules goes through many iterations, eventually producing a result that is complex and desirable, but completely unplanned by the individual actors themselves.

Take the game of chess, for example. It is a game with fewer than two dozen rules. Yet, the possible game variations are greater than the number of atoms in the universe. Simple rules, complex results.

On a larger scale, everything from corporations to the entire economy appears to work the same way. Individually, each of us operates with a simple set of rules -- some we can articulate, and some we cannot -- distilled from the social and physical processes of trial and error.

Contrary to popular opinion, we certainly do not act on the basis of thousands and thousands of pages of policies and procedures, regulations, and laws. Our brains simply cannot retrieve that much information. Complex rules result in the very undesirable consequence of utterly confused behavior. This is bad news for those among us who believe there must be a policy statement for everything. Human behavior will always default to a simpler set of rules.

The only thing a complex set of rules can achieve is widespread contempt for the very idea of rules in the first place. The lesson for business management is this: keep your rules simple, and measure the success of your rules by the results.

Beyond a certain point, every new rule, added to a new policy, published in a new manual, amended by a new law, established by a new decree, governed by a new committee, enforced by a new official, is a step towards the kind of world Franz Kafka wrote about in this three great novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, a world of contradictory rules and arbitrary enforcement; a world where an individual can be guilty and still be ignorant of his crime; a world where men live more in fear than in hope; a world where it is safest to do nothing.

Image of Franz Kafka, source: - Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

No comments: