Monday, December 28, 2009

Unpredictable, that's what we are

This article in the Mind Hacks blog says that a researcher who is both a physicist and a sociologist built models similar to those used to model disease spreading to test the assumption that there are pivotal people in a group that launch fashions and opinions that then spread through the group.  His result imply that any member of a network can be quite influential.  He did find that some well-connected people do spread ideas or trends more quickly but only sometimes.  Basically, it seems that fashions and trends are relatively unpredictable.

The article reminded me of a conclusion I reached working with groups and committees, that I might as well not try to predict the decision eventually arrived at.  I had tried several times and was dramatically wrong repeatedly.  Of course, talking about a single individual is very different from impersonal models of what happens with everyone.  Still, I was often shocked at how wrong I was.

I tried for support from other members of my department to be head of the group.  I was shocked at how low I rated among the candidates and the unanimous support for others.  Why did people very close to me not support me?  I have never been clear about that. 

But it wasn't just me.  I served on a large committee of smart, influential and responsible people to fill an important position.  We did a wide search and received applications for highly qualified people, or so I thought.  But some thought a candidate too well-qualified!  They figured such a person would jump to some more attractive job too quickly and leave us hanging.  Some thought a candidate didn't fit well in a group like us.  After months of meeting and arguing and ranking and judging, the only decision to receive enough support to pass was to reject all candidates and search again the following year. I was surprised and not all that delighted at the thought of doing the whole thing again, especially when we had some candidates that looked world-class quite literally, as far as I was concerned.

The next year, a second search was carried out.  Another large batch of highly qualified candidates applied.  Similar objections were raised and accepted on what seemed to me equally questionable grounds.  After similar months of talk, the only candidate who had enough support was the temporary holder of the job, the same man who had held the job on a temporary basis for both years!  That experience really got my attention.  I thought back over other times when I was part of a discussion and realized how often some direction was taken in the end that no one had considered at the beginning.

Humans and human actions and alliances can be pretty unpredictable.

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