Monthly Archives: August 2004

Crucial Decision Breakdown

A little more on Irving L. Janis’s work on why competent capable groups focused on some crucial decision end up having a fiasco.

His diagnosis of the what leads to a premature exit from the vigilant problem solving at the feet of arousal. Like the three bears the group fails because it is too hot or too cold. The problem of too cold is a form of organizational blindness. The group fails to appreciate the necessity of additional vigilant problem solving. The overheated organization pops out of it’s vigilant problem solving in a state of emotional panic of one form or another. His observations of real word cases suggest that there are three classes of over reacting: cognitive, affiliative, and self-serving. Digging further in he then enumerates the “personality deficiencies” that trigger these too hot/cold exits from vigilant problem solving.

I. Too Cold

1. Lack of Conscientiousness
2. Lack of openness
3. Cool, calm, detatched, coping style
4. Chronic optomism concerning stablity and low vulnerabity of the organization

II. Too Hot

IIa.Cognitive (i.e. resource limitations)
5. Chronic low self-confidence or sense of low self-efficacy
6. Chronic pessimism concerning the organization’s ability to supply essential resources for solving complicated problems

IIb. Affiliative (i.e. loyality issues)
7. Strong need for social approval
8. Strong neeed for power and status
9. Chronic apprehensiveness about ruthlessness of other powerholders in the organization with supporting beliefes about their readiness to inflict retaliation
10. High dependency on a cohesive group of fellow members (executives)

IIc. Self serving, emotive, egocentric
11. Lack of conscientiousness
12. negativeism or hostility toward the organization
13. Low stress tolerance
14. Lack of percieved control and other components of low personality hardiness
15. Ambivalence toward he organization: it deserves loyality but is weak and vunerable
16. Habitual externalized anger-coping style
17. Chronic hostility toward opponents

He’s observed, it seems entirely credible to me, that each of these four major and 17 minor failure triggers leads to breakdowns of a particular kind. For example if the group becomes all hot and bothered about it’s lack of resources to think thru a critical problem it will respond by selecting a solution that emphasises that aspect of the problem. It will “solve” the problem using simple “rules of thumb” or some other coping mechinism for that kind of scarcity.

Previous post on this: How to have a fiasco.


When groups reach decisions in tough problem spaces it can be hard to get everybody in synch with the choice that’s been made. Sometimes this leads to folks wandering (even boiling) off. That almost always happens in an Open Source projects in the inter-version transitions. Sometimes it leads to the group splitting up. This is why we have so many churches in the US.

Mind guards (a community maintainance role) often act to help temper these forces. As the group reachs a decision the mind guards fan out to help hold everybody to the course chosen. This can like all other community maintainance roles go bad. A community who’s mind guards are too draconian will be unable to engage in any vigourous problem solving.

Ostracizing is another pattern. When groups undergo a bumby period and it become clear that folks are going to boil off surviving portions of the group will sometimes engage in a massive amount of shunning; presumably so they can get on with. Again this can go very badly.

Against this backgroup you get a complementary process involving the exit/voice/loyality dynamics of the individual group members. As the vigourous problem solving comes to closure the group collectively turns down the voice knob, turns up the loyality knob which leads to some degree of exiting by the indivuals. This is hard work for the individuals. On the loyality front they have to labor to strengthen loyalities in the face of personal doubts; or conversely they have to go thru the grief of tearing down existing loyalities. On the voice front they have to shift from a collective dialog about the problem at hand and shift to a personal dialog about enter/exit the choice that’s been made.

There is a tragic variation of the guardian pattern. The new member arrives at the door of the group and makes a few statements. The groups guardian immune system reacts. The pattern I’ve noted is how rare it is for the reaction to be played out privately. Why do the guardians choose to publicly scold or shun new commer rather than privately outline the nature of the local customs?

One, reasonably functional, answer is that they don’t want the public statements of the new commer to reopen old arguements or pattern bad behavior for others. If that’s the goal a short critique would do the job. But often the critique I’ve observed is strong, even vitrolic.

My guess is that the guardians in this case are revealing something about their own inner live. The level of conflict they have with the issue still. The new commer’s actions didn’t arouse them; they were already aroused. The new commer just provided a hook for them. It’s an oportunity for them to demonstrate their loyality, to prove that they don’t voice the ‘wrong’ answer. Tragically this tends to send newcommers running. It’s an unintended consequence that the guardian’s over aroused response on issue X leads to the group growing insuallar re. the entire rest of the alphabet.

Denial of service attacks directed at communtities

I used to hate shopping. Now I enjoy it as a form of sport, a game. It isn’t necessarily a good hobby. I spent a few hours on Friday saving 4 dollars! Your amazed, I can tell. I used a sniping tool to bid on 6 identical auctions. I got the object the fourth lowest price in recent history!

So, yesterday I’m shopping for our lodging in Vancouver. At one site where power shoppers hang out I found a reference to This is where the folks that play the PriceLine game hang out. (PriceLine is a site that sells surplus travel goods – you name your price and if they can find a vendor willing to take that price a deal is made.)

Originally, I’m sure, the folks that set up Bidding For Travel where just a bunch of power shoppers having some fun hanging out with like minded people; and getting bargins and on vacations. I suspect they yearn for those good old days. Today this is a really amazing site full of discussion boards for each city, hotel, region, etc. etc.

But, to the point of this posting.

When a fun community like this succeeds it becomes valuable. That value draws to the community – trouble! For example people that like to play power games are attracted because they see the power the community has aggreageted. I wonder how often Price Line’s lawyers call the people that run this site; or if Price Line’s bought them yet.

Another kind of trouble is the huge swarm of clueless newbies show that show up at your door. In effect a denial of service attack.

Groups when faced with these threats begin to lay in some organizational muscle to deal with them. Well at least those that survive do. This kind of muscle demands craft knowledge that’s usually different than the craft knowledge that brought the group together in the first place. So it’s often a bit painful – growing th at muscle.

I particularly liked the way that Bidding For Travel addressed how to deal with the swarm. First they did the usual thing. They wrote a FAQ. But then they did something wonderfully clever. They introduced a magic ritual. If the newbie can’t navigate the magic ritual then they ignore them.

The magic ritual is in the FAQ; so you have to read the FAQ. It is a marvalously ornate ritual that in effect helps to teach the newbie the lessions in the FAQ. In effect it’s a quiz that proves that you red the FAQ.

Before asking for help in the forums you have to answer 14 questions about your situation. Many of these questions involve doing some searching on the web. A treasure hunt!

Oh, look! The mail just arrived … rebate check for $15!

Bee Hive

I’ve been looking for years. A beehive! Bee Hive An example in nature of a two sided network effect! It provides brokage, exchange, or agency between two classes (pistil and stamen). It draws off a tax (honey) for the maintainance of the hub (hive). Since these kinds of hubs become more valuable as more and more particpants rondevous around the standards set by the hub I think we can assume that the flowers of the client population evolve to fit the exchange standards made manifest in the hub. I.e. they evolve to interface well with bees of a certain size et. al. of the dominate bee population. Overtime that should drive other polinators out of buisness.

Frustrating the man

How to herd cats: tie a small bright object to a string; place it in the peripheral vision of the cat; and then pull it around a corner out of sight.

Ben Laurie has been trying to entice me to pounce on tor. … I pounced yesterday morning.

Tor helps to frustrate the man in the middle’s attempt to monitor your internet usage patterns. For example.

Pretend to be the man watching my internet usage. You see me send mail to Mary, and then visit a travel site, and finally send mail to Tom. What do you think I’m doing? Notice that all those connections are unencrypted so you can probably know a lot more than just that pattern of usage.

Tor frustrates that kind of model building by mixing your traffic up with that of other tor users, partially encrypting things, and some other tricks. Mixing your traffic with a crowd of other users makes observing your patterns much harder. That’s done by bouncing traffice around the internet thru tor router nodes run by volunteers.

For example here’s my email to Mary intermediated by the Tor system. I send it to proxy on my machine; it’s encrypted, bounced around the Tor network a bit and then unencrypted and passed to Mary.

On my Mac this was really easy to set up; well in the usual geek sense of easy: download; build; install; cleanup; run it.

curl -o f.tgz
tar zxt f.tgz
cd tor*
./configure && make && sudo make install
Password: ...
F=`pwd` ; cd .. ; rm -rf $F f.tgz

But you should proably follow the directions.

Then you need to adjust your Network Preferences to use it. Each interface has settings for proxies; you need to set the ‘Socks Proxy’ to use (i.e. your own machine) and port 9050. I setup a “locations” in the network preferences for that.

I had having trouble with reaching things on my local private network; until the nice folks in the tor community tapped me with the clue stick and pointed out that you can write domain names to not route thru the proxy – it’s right there on the same page where you turn on the proxy – duh. I’ve also had some problems with client software that seem to disregard the network preference settings for proxies.

Clustering is not Coping

This paper by Steve Johnson is wonderful. I spend a lot of calories thinking about how groups form, but also about how groups create shape the membrane around them. I’m less interested in the organizational problems inside the cell, in part because there is so much liturature about that. Using the Dean campagn as a case study this paper notices that clustering is not enough. At some point a group will need to pile on the means to cope. Coping is not the same as clustering.

The paper suggests a kind of race condition developed in the Dean campaign. It’s clustering drivers ran real fast; too fast for it’s coping skills to build out. That’s not unlike a syndrome we see in Internet systems that catch fire. Friendster for example grew faster than it’s owners could cope with. Slashdotted, or the more venerable flash-crowd, is another name for the syndrome of a group forming event that blows up thru fad, crowd, and into riot.

There are a number of great one liners in the paper.

“…One of the funny things about the literature of emergence is that it is strangely obsessed with slime. Slime mold, to be precise…”

When I speak to an audience about Open Source I’m often asked by a middle aged quiet guy in the audience; “but what about managers.” I love that one liner because it is asking just that question. I might begin to reply by talking about the kind of coping methods you find in these groups.

Clay has an essay about the inevitable constitutional crisses that comes upon groups as they mature. Some organizers try to put the cart before the horse; they write the constitution before they have the revolution. Constitutions are distilled coping skill. It’s a kind of cargo cult confusion of cause and effect. Surely, they think, many groups have constitutions so constitutions must create groups. We can reframe that idea using the insights of this paper; sure it can be fatal for a group to lack coping skils, but first they need to have a driver to form them, e.g. clustering skills.

In the terms of my preferred three legs that a community stands on (common cause, common ritual/narative, and loyality) I tend to emphasis the aspects that drive the clustering. I leave the coping skills are packed up inside the common rituals and loyality. I’ve tended to think of the clustering as more interesting; mostly because the Internet keeps enabling more of that – more gathering, more rondevous, more group forming.

Like “coordination” or “membrane”, the word “coping” provides a nice addition to the vocabulary around groups.

Cool idea! Now go away.

Tim Oren appears to be suffering from sympathy. An unusual affliction for a VC. A handful of reasons why, Mr. Entrepreneur, your amazingly cool new innovation isn’t going to get funding:

  1. Cool demo! Great price point, what a leap forward! Man making stuff like this dependable is really hard work. You probably can’t see that, having just moved so fast. You know the incumbent is always improving. Sorry, I think we’ll pass.
  2. Cool! – oh – It’s so cool that pretty soon it will be a ‘must have’ and the platform vendor will swallow you. No durable business here. Next.
  3. Neat! – oh – Sadly your customers are too smart. Even if you get past the damn designers (NIH etc.) you won’t get by the risk adversion of the project manager.
  4. Your customer’s too powerful and too slow. They take years to release a new product and they never leave any real money on the table for the component providers.
  5. Customers would love that! – oh – The channel’s doesn’t care. The channel sells by subscription: i.e. they want zero up front cost, sticky features, and value delivered in dribble. You don’t fit that model; your toast.
  6. Ha, that’s clever. The early adopters will love it. But, I just can’t see how the late adopters are ever going to see that as anything but added complexity.

Needless to say Tim put’s this all in a much more professional and accurate way.


For any number of reasons I’m interested in middlemen and brokerage.

Here are four ways that a broker might bring value to another group.

  • Inform either side of interests or difficulties of the other.
  • Import useful techniques, practices, tools.
  • Draw analogies that the other group is blind to.
  • Synthesis of techniques, practies, tools, ideas thru merging.

I very much doubt this is a usefully complete list. For example it doesn’t even include trading goods between the groups. But it’s a start.

Sticky, it’s not just data.

I underestimated how sticky Moveable Type is.

Vendors love things that make their product sticky. If developers really appreciated this software products would be even more sticky. Instead developers hate sticky; they call it things like “backward compatiblity” or “legacy.” Maintaining the sticky bits is a pain. Platform developers have the worst of it because the software that stands on the platforms was written by very very clever dudes who find and depend on every curiosity of your API. The software those clever guys write is extremely brittle. The platform’s vendor has to work very very hard to maintain every bizzare detail.

When I switched to Word Press my web server logs suddenly blossomed in a torrent of broken links. I’d arranged to reroute the obvious links before the switch over. But, it turns out that my site’s users are as devious about finding interfaces into my blog as platform developers. It looks a bit like every URL that you could possible generate for reaching into the blog was used by somebody. This was particularly hairy for the various subscription feeds. I notice that a lot of subscription readers aren’t particularly interested in paying attention when my server notifies them that a resource has moved. So now I’m serving up the subscription feeds from the old locations. I wonder how many subscribers I lost during the service interuption?

The backward compatiblity breakage that I didn’t see comming was with Google. All my page names changed to something new and so Google’s model of what’s on my pages evaporated. All my Google ads suddenly became extremely lame. Imagine how sticky things would be if you depended on the revenue from such ads.

The third interface where backward compatiblity is turning out to be very rough is the blog author user interface. I don’t mind switching to a new user interface. Somethings are better, some are worse. But what about the other folks? The folks who’s blogs I host. I think they are going to hate it. In general they get to suffer the cost of changing but for them the benefit of the switch over is pretty obscure. In particular the photo upload in Word Press is much more tedious. Imagine if those people were paying me for their blog hosting?

I used to think that the #1 thing to worry about in buying software was that I would be able to rescue my data, retire the software, and adopt something else. Apparently in the modern world software embedded in the marvalously messy open platform that is the Internet it’s much more complex. We are all platform vendors now.