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Putting On The Brakes

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Image Credit: © ra2 Studio – #141095295

It won’t come as any surprise to regular readers of this blog that I have always been somewhat of a ‘geek’. I’ve always been fascinated with computers, and particularly how they can be used to communicate. Long before the Internet went mainstream, I enjoyed dialing  up ‘Bulletin Board Systems‘ (or BBS as they were known) on my 2400 baud modem. It was slow, unreliable and seems archaic now, but it felt really futuristic at the time.


One thing I miss about those pioneering days is the discussion forums. They were, by today’s standards, very low-tech. There was a voluntary ‘store-and-forward’ network called Fidonet that allowed messages to ‘ripple’ out to other BBS around the world. I won’t bore you with details of the topology, but in brief each BBS would poll at least one other server a day, and exchange messages. This meant that, over several days, a message posted in a discussion forum by a user in, say, Edinburgh, would be visible to users in London.


This seemed amazing to me at the time. For the cost of a local call, you could collaborate and discuss all sorts of topics from people all over the country (or even the world). And whilst there was very robust debate, there was very little ‘trolling’ and very little need for moderation.


Juxtapose this with today’s Facebook message forums, and there is a world of difference. I am a member of a local community forum where a range of local issues are discussed,  and even though there is a lot of constructive debate sometimes things escalate very quickly and turn ugly. The discussion turns from constructive to personal extremely quickly. So why is there so much more conflict now than in those early Fidonet days?


The Danger of Immediacy (Without Brakes)

Well, there could be many reasons. Perhaps the demographic of the user is different (as Fidonet was largely used by computer enthusiasts), but most likely it is a combination of factors. One significant factor is likely to be the dampening effect of delayed messages. In the old days, you were reading messages that were probably posted at least a day ago, and it would take a day for your reply to be visible to the wider world.  This led to a natural opportunity to pause, think and reflect.  Things just couldn’t escalate quickly. It is almost like the system had ‘brakes’ built in. An exchange of four or five messages might take a week—on Facebook it could take less than five minutes!


This draws us towards an important systemic principle: Sometimes we need to deliberately build in brakes. Sometimes we need the ability to selectively and deliberately control acceleration and escalation.  From my very arbitrary understanding of physics, I believe this is why nuclear reactors have carbon control rods—they can be lowered to slow the reaction and stop it running out of control, or raised to allow it to accelerate.


But do we build our own control rods into our systems and processes? For example:


  • What if a marketing campaign creates more interest than we anticipated, and we can’t service the demand? Do we have a contingency plan to dampen demand or stagger it in some way? Or scale up?
  • What if a customer is really dissatisfied. Do we respond quickly, empathetically, addressing their issue and the root cause? Or do we wait until it’s a complaint (by which time they’ve complained on social media and to the press?)
  • What if a process inadvertently generates more and more ‘waste’, and as the backlog increases even more ‘failure demand’ is generated (as people chase). Are we monitoring this? Would we even know?
  • On a personal level, do we respond immediately to those ‘annoying’ emails (creating the potential for an accelerating feedback loop) or do we deliberately pause. Or even better, reply by phone?


Being conscious of these types of feedback loop, and accepting that sometimes they emerge somewhat unexpectedly, will help us consider what control mechanisms are necessary. And when we consciously build an ‘accelerator’, we should be sure to build a ‘brake’ too!



It was reading Dave Snowden’s excellent article (‘Human Dampners’) a  month or so ago that indirectly inspired me to write this blog.  I’d highly recommend reading Dave’s article, and looking at the other resources on his site too.

What are your views, do you have anything to add?  I’d love to hear your experiences and tips.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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2 thoughts on “Putting On The Brakes”

  1. Good article. I agree whole-heartedly that people, systems and processes all need built-in controls and ‘thinking’ time. I also find this in meetings and sometimes email, that people (often, but not exclusively, managers and seniors!) feel somehow duty-bound to make a decision quickly. This is unlikely to involve full consideration and closes off avenues of discussion or compromise. This may be because everyone is busy (no excuse), but in a politically-motivated, high-pressure environment, being quick and decisive seems to trump reflection, whatever the consequences of the ‘wrong’ decision.

    1. Hi Tony, thanks so much for the comment, and I’m so glad you found the article interesting 🙂

      Yes, it is interesting that the world seems to get blind-sided by the need for instant (and often knee-jerk) reactions. Of course, there are times when speedy decisions are crucial–but many others where (in my opinion) some reflection and reflexiveness would be useful. Sometimes we need to *briefly* slow down… so that we can accelerate together coherently towards a solution that we’re confident in.

      Thanks again for the comment Tony! — Adrian

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