Two Taps

Two Taps

In Peter Senge’s landmark book, The 5th Discipline, he describes an example of feedback loops and the principle of delayed effects.

The example is of the hot and cold tap in a shower. When you turn on the taps and realize that the water is too cold, you turn up the hot tap. You do not feel any change to the temperature – at least, not right away. This gives the illusion that your intervention to create a more luxurious cleansing experience has failed. So you turn up the hot tap some more. Still no effect, or maybe just a little. So now you have worked out what the relative temperature increase is for all the twisting you have done so far. But it is still not hot enough, so to achieve the same temperature increase as you just felt, you turn the taps by the equivalent of both previous attempts. Hmm. Suddenly the water is way too hot. So you try to add some cold with vigorous, urgent yanking at the valves. No effect in your required time frame (remember that you are being scalded – you have a very short deadline for results). More cold. Now you are suddenly freezing again.

What is happening?

This simple illustration shows how the simple act of setting the water temperature is actually quite a … now I must be careful … complicated process.

In terms of the reference framework that we use at The Narrative Lab, namely the Cynefin framework, this is not a complex process, merely complicated. By the definition of complicated, with a sufficiently detailed set of formulae, and a couple of plumbing and hydro-dynamics experts, we can calculated exactly where to set the taps to get a good temperature. To be sure, there are several variables to take into account: water pressure, flow rates of the pipes, the temperature of the water in the geyser, etc. Each of these is actually measurable with sophisticated enough equipment. Then it is matter of calculating the values of the variables, and setting the valves at the correct place.

But what if you are not the only bather in the house? What if there are two showers and a bath? What if, as you start to negotiate with a seemingly stubborn system, another intelligent, sentient being is doing the same. What if either or both of you are unaware of the other? Even more interesting, what if you are aware of the other person, and you are aware that they are aware of you? An endless game of cat-and-mouse will no doubt ensue, with the three systems of water outlets competing with each other, until someone gives up and switches off, or gets vindictive and turns the hot tap full ball and steps out, for settles for a cold bath, or maybe flushes the toilet!

Now we step neatly out of the complicated space and into the complex. The complex space has no formulae. It can be predicted by no experts. Instead there are innumerable variables and infinitesimal changes for each. Our approach to these kinds of systems needs to be quite different. The solution lies in patterns and not predictability. The solution to this kind of problem is to make small attempts at adjustment, and then carefully observe the results – to try and see the underlying patterns of behaviour of the system and the humans interacting with both the system and each other by means of the system. The solution is to probe with the small adjustments, make sense by seeing the patterns, and then respond by making appropriate decisions.

Happy showering!

By |September 21st, 2007|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

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