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Really interesting piece on whether it’s important to have clear channels versus channels with occasional chatter on them. Phrased in terms of radio, but I think it’s a general work/leadership/communication style issue.

I had been doing some projects with the RAND corporation in Santa Monica. One of them had to do with task-oriented group behavior under periods of long tedium and sudden panic. We built some mechanical simulators of a radar control room, and got real air force technicians to man their stations. The principal unreality was that all communication had to be by telephone so we could record and analyze the messages. The simulation itself, of course, was pretty unrealistic. We got huge piles of computer paper to roll past a window, to simulate what would appear on a screen. The technicians didn’t have much trouble with that – even a real radar display is pretty well removed from the reality of the situation it is modeling.

One of my contributions to the project was on the hypothesis that it was a good idea to restrict communication channels to business topics. In one experiment we let people talk as they wanted, and found three classes of message: (i) information – I see a target; (ii) orders – scramble three jets; and (iii) what I wanted to call “natter” – I’m thirsty, how was your date last night.
The hypothesis was that the natter got in the way of information and orders, which is what the whole team was all in aid of, after all. So on the next experiment we trained the people to cut out all the natter, and just pass information and orders.

The results were measured by the response time, after a long tedious period, to get jets up to altitude to intercept an enemy raid. The evidence was overwhelming that the second experiment took far longer. The natter in the first test kept the lines of communication open and greased. Natter turned off instantly when there was something of importance to communicate. In the second experiment it took a very long time to reopen the lines of communication and get one person to listen to another.

I presented these results at a meeting of some psychological association. The chairman, Sir Somebody-or-other, in his closing summary was kind enough to say, “The best paper on applied psychology was given by the only non-psychologist present.”

–Bobert Goodell Brown
Shirley He Hath Born
Self-published, 1984

Brown is the person who came up with the exponential moving average ideas that are all the rage these days.

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