Contract Writing and Chaos Theory

I’ve been at my desk with some contract writing this week. Fortunately and unfortunately, I usually write by an outside-facing window, near a small tree with two bird-feeders and high food-seeking traffic from bright red cardinals, grey squirrels, swooping hawks, and the occasional deer at night who eats while it thinks we’re not looking.


The Tree in Question, with Birdfeeder

Of course my opening the door to take this picture made the cardinals fly away. They returned as soon as I was indoors again.

About twenty minutes before I took the photo, I also saw two flocks of birds about 100 feet south of me. They were too far away to identify, but I was transfixed by the two-cluster flock of small, dark birds crisscrossing chaotically around the trees, over the grass, and on to the next grass patch and the power lines beyond: something like this murmuration of starlings over the River Shannon, Ireland.

While I watched my local birds, it occurred to me: contract writing can often be like the gorgeous chaos of flocking birds. Like avian flocks, successful contract writing has some very simple rules that allow beauty to emerge from the process: separation, cohesion, and alignment. [1]

1. Separation

The rule of separation means that a bird or other individual flocking agent (a boid) maintains some space between itself and its nearest neighbors in the group while in flight. If you have a serious project, you too will need to establish and maintain reasonable boundaries of space and time between your current project and your other relationships and obligations. You’ll need to be able to repel unnecessary distractions and impositions so that you can stay on course and mitigate crashes.

Hang the Soul At Work sign on your door or the back of your chair. Turn your cell ringer off. Sign out of Twitter, Facebook, or your favorite news site. Create whatever physical space and psychological space you need to attend to your work and produce well.

But also establish some reasonable interpersonal boundaries with your teammates in regard to the project itself. If you’ve scoped properly, you’ll have a collective schedule for deliverables and meetings. You’ll also have developed some expectations about email or phone response times and when you and your teammates should and should not expect to receive replies from each other. Set some fair guidelines about your workload and maintain them. Whatever artificial energy you might have felt procrastinating through school, you’ll perform better well-paced than you will with an overload and a pressure crunch.

2. Cohesion

Boids rely on these consistent rules because it’s impossible to know everything about a flock at all times. When applying the cohesion rule, each boid recognizes its neighbors’ courses, calculates their average locations, and moves toward that average. As each boid does this with at most six or seven others, the flock heads in a common direction as if of one mind.

People can approximate this without performing mental mathematics or a lot of awkward staring. Check in with your closest teammates regularly: contract work need not mean exercising your genius in solitary confinement! Ask sensible questions about your section of the project and how it influences your colleagues’ work, and listen to their progress updates. Your questions demonstrate that you’re making substantive progress on the contract whether you show draft deliverables or not.

More importantly, when you know where your peers are on the landscape of your assignment, you’ll have more data with which to refine your part, and if you’ve already opened up a communication channel with others, then when they make significant changes in their section, you’ll be more likely to hear earlier. All changes anywhere in the flock will have a mass impact, and improvements anywhere will also be mutually beneficial.

3. Alignment

In the book The Flinch, Julien Smith writes that “everyone wants progress, but no one wants to lead. So a whole group wants for the first hand to go up before their hands go up too.” Although there’s a lesson in this about assertiveness and initiative—some bird species do rotate leadership  during a migration, for example—there’s also something else to learn about moving ahead with others. Computer scientist Bernard Chazelle found that, while in flight, “birds update their velocities by averaging them out over their nearest neighbors.” All of them co-adjust to their proximal peers’ speed. It’s not the stagnant Waiting for Godot that we sometimes do in groups, it’s split-second reconfiguration while in motion and it keeps the flock flying together.

The business world fell in love with the rugby-influenced scrum method for agile group project management several years ago; it’s but one way for a team to ensure that all members stay on-task, mutually aligned, and adaptive over the course of an assignment. Learn to monitor and adjust to the people you work most closely with. Staying in alignment with your peers makes it more likely that you’ll uncover project issues together and be coherent enough to analyze them collectively and successfully resolve them.

Test the Rules Yourself

Just for fun: try using Northwestern University’s Flocking simulator to design and implement rules for a flock of your own. If you run it from your browser you’ll need to have Java enabled.

1. These and other rules (avoidance and goal orientation) are taught in college level computer science and game theory classes. See for example Flocking (.pdf) and a related build-animation-with-supplied-algorithm assignment (.pdf)


One thought on “Contract Writing and Chaos Theory

  1. Pingback: Complexity and the Economy | mackenzian

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