Adaption By Fast Observation Of The Environment

In this final posting about the Fish Pond metaphor we will look under water to see what we can learn about how (project) organizations can adapt to change.

Fish do not simply float around in a tank. Although they once in a while bump into glass walls, they are able to find food, detect other fish and perform other cases of interacting with their environment. Fish in general can sense changes in the environment either by vision, by smell, sound and by the sensitivity of the skin (changes in water pressure, acidity and temperature). Yes, if fish want to communicate, they blow bubbles.

Photography by Weaselmcfee.

In a pond or ocean fish will continuously sense their environment, make something of that information and change their behavior if needed. This is an OODA loop.

To have a complex system in general that is resilient to changes, that has a mechanism to transform itself and to be able to adapt to the environment, it needs feedback from the environment. Feedback information needs processing and communicating to other agents. To do this an agent has to go through the OODA loop. John Boyd, a famous military strategist, created the so-called OODA loop to give us structure when discussing this subject. The loop consists of four steps: Observe, Orient, Decide and then Act.

Observing reality based upon absorbing information from other agents and the environment. The processed information is used for orientation in combination of the mental model a person has of the reality. Based upon the expectations resulting from both previous steps an agents decides what to do. Like a little PacMan we and fish are eating information packages on the OODA highway. The higher the amount of high quality information, the better our effectiveness in adaption.

We can discuss to what level a fish uses a mental model to make explicit decisions. But at some level, conscious or at a more hard-wired biological level, information is processed into action. For fish the speed of which they can make use of the latest information is essential. Be too slow and your a fish stick. A high ability to observe fast seems essential for survival.

In a sea of short term business volatility, it is often difficult to see the big picture of business. The sea is turbid and vision is obstructed. What fish do in such circumstances? They rely on other senses such as sound to collect information. Fish have the ability to switch senses. Do we need to do the same? In the sea of flooding information we are puzzled. As sound and light travel at different speeds in water than in air do we need to develop our information-collecting senses to cope with the new media of work?

So far, it seems that everyone is working individually. In the traditional OODA loop your mental models of the world are used. Your view of a situation, with your experience and history. But because humans are social, a large part of our mental constructs are connected with other people. Religion, economic relationships or even just being married create a shared construct. It is impossible to look at humans as individuals, we have to make connections with the larger groups.

If you look at how fish operate in a pond, you can see that

  • fast observation of the environment is essential.
  • the effectiveness of the observation is depending on the quality of the mental models hold.
  • the ability to use more than one sense increases chances for survival.

Bas de Baar, blogging as “The Project Shrink“, is taking his message to the International Project Management community with a vengeance: “Projects Are About Humans. Now Deal With That!”


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