Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence

This is interesting - but the last sentence makes it awesome.

"The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" is a 1956 paper by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University's Department of Psychology. In it Miller showed a number of remarkable coincidences between the channel capacity of a number of human cognitive and perceptual tasks. In each case, the effective channel capacity is equivalent to between 5 and 9 equally-weighted error-less choices: on average, about 2.5 bits of information. Miller did not draw any firm conclusions, simply hypothesizing that the recurring sevens might represent something deep and profound or be just a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.

.. pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence. Beautiful. And fun to say aloud.

So when someone (me) speaks of a memory buffer and telling my family if they want me to get their take-out order right I need to write it down .. it's not because I'm forgetful it's because their complicated orders (light mayo, no lettuce, weird bread choice X five people) is far too much data to expect a person to remember. I've got science in my corner on this one.

I wonder if this relates to span-of-control in some weird mental way that only big-brains can really explain with a grant.

The reason that maneuver units are organized into threes (plus support elements) [1] is that ordinary commanding officers can only juggle so many units [2] before complexity overwhelms them and they loose their situational awareness and then the battle.

Span-of-control is interesting to me because, well, it's a fascinating concept that seems to be honored in the breach in the business world. I've got a manager with ten people [3], two project managers with (say) eighteen active projects going on between them ... you'd think the principals of span of control would apply.

Sure, in our flattened hierarchy we've replaced the majors and the captains with self-directed people and cross-dysfunctional teams - but what we've done is give each self-directed person and team so many elements to manage - up, down and across the org chart - that it does not break the span-of-control it shatters it into teensy little bits.

[1] three fire teams in a squad, three squads in a platoon, three platoons in a company, three companies in a battalion, etc.

[2] The colonel runs three companies, the captain runs three platoons, etc.

[3] Sure, we're self-directed and don't need a lot of hand-holding and direction. That's why we were hired. But even self-directed hot-shots working in a lean [4] environment need to touch base with management once in a while. And if he's got many plates juggling in mid-air .. how much high-quality attention can he really devote?

[4] Ha. I say again, ha.

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