Friday, February 28, 2014

Cooperation theory: why we can trust strangers

Suppose you’re buying something on eBay. How can you trust someone you’ve never met and are only likely to deal with once? How do you know they won't take your money and run?
eBay realized that sharing historical information in the form of reputation solved the problem. Sellers know that failing to deliver what was promised will compromise their future orders. A good reputation means trusting buyers and encourages the seller to maintain their positive reputation.
On the other hand, the Nigerian prince who needs help getting his inheritance out of the country doesn't have that eBay reputation to back him up, which means you have less incentive to cooperate.
In the prisoners dilemma games two players can either cooperate or defect. Two strategies are noteworthy: tit-for-tat and grim trigger. Tit-for-tat just does what their opponent did last turn. Grim trigger strategies never forgive once they’ve been defected.
Although these are both ‘nice’ strategies in that they do not defect first, tit-for-tat does well even though it can never do better than its opponent. The grim trigger strategy, on the other hand, leads to miserable outcomes for both sides, because its only asset is permanent retaliation. You never cooperate again.
In situations where there is noise or imperfect communication, any perceived slight can trigger the permanent defection and leave no avenue for cooperation.
Tit for tat is better than grim trigger just like forgiveness is better than punishment.
Another factor in cooperation theory that can affect the outcome is the role of hostages. Why cooperate with a hostage-taker? Because you value the hostages.
During the cold war, the entire populations of the US and the USSR were effectively hostages of the other country. Our incentive to negotiate was pretty strong, because the alternative was severe.
More typical 'hostage' situations exist, for example, in mortgage situations, where the bank gets your house if you don't pay them back. It creates incentives for people to pay back the money when they otherwise might have an incentive not to.
Don't get stepped on. Cooperation strategies that let the other player get too far ahead don't do very well either. Cooperation needs to work for both sides to be truly effective and sustainable. Look for fair deals.

The world is not a zero sum game. If you treat it that way, opportunities to cooperate disappear. Tolerate the successes of others, but don't compare yourself to them. Instead compare yourself to what someone else in your position could do. Cooperate, but don't get stepped on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't quit your habits. Change them.

Once the mental pathways for your habits have become encoded in your mind they stay there. It's more effective to introduce new behaviours to old habits.
"Quitting" is hard, relies on your limited willpower and doesn't tell you what to do instead.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that there are three parts to a habit: The cue, the behaviour, and the reward. It's not just the behaviour. The behaviour is easy to see.
Determine the cue: What's happening to prompt the habit? Is it a time of day? A group of people? A lull in activity?
Determine the reward: Is that coffee a caffeine hit or a social one? Do you want the break your behaviour provides?
Once you figure out the reward you crave, test different behaviours that could provide a similar reward.
Then practice it. That's how you can change your destructive habits into constructive ones that scratch the same itch.
If you want to start a new habit, acknowledge the same three step habit cycle. Decide on the cue. Do the behaviour then give yourself a reward. Maybe chocolate.
This sounds a bit like training yourself like a dog, and  it works much the same way. Habits happen deep in the brain, without much conscious effort. That goes for dogs and people. Habits don't need willpower. They just happen.
Here's the thing: you will have habits. You're better off having habits you've chosen on purpose than habits you've acquired by accident.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Rstrictions brd crativity

To spin a story, it's fitting to talk about a particular topic or situation. Without a topic, it's impractical to start, but a story with a narrow topic and a sharp point is a snap by comparison.
If I ask you to spin a story about a tiny rabbit who is trying to find his way to visit a giant raccoon and borrow his running outfit, you know just how to start. It's smooth sailing. You know just what to do. Although holding you back from total autonomy, a topic narrows options and prods you onward.
That notion can pair with packing bags for a trip too. You can avoid bringing most of what you'd normally pack. If you must, you can always buy it. This will slim down your bags, which allows an adaptability that you can't obtain with big bags.
With all tools at your disposal, all standard boring solutions apply. Why branch out? Why try anything?
In a community, thinking within constraints brings about original solutions to particular situations in that community. That kind of solution will fit just right. Standard boring solutions can't match an optimal community plan.
Solutions turn up as constraints do away with staid ways of thinking. Build constraints that fit with what you want to accomplish. Constraints will modify your thinking and bring out solutions you wouldn't know about without trying out unusual ways of doing things.
Constraints limit and obstruct old standard plans and tactics. Brilliant thoughts show up that wouldn't show up without that constraint.
Don't try to avoid constraints. Adopt a way of thinking that can launch you with constraints into contrasting paradigms you might not find normally.
Pack small bags. Pick a topic and go.

Bonus points: Tomorrow, no right turns on your way to work.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Customer Satisfaction

Dissatisfiers done well? Less sad.
Delighters done badly? More happy.
Some things matter and some things don't. To please your customers, focus on the things that matter.
Cover the basics. Some things, no matter how well executed, will never lead to customer satisfaction. The roof doesn't leak. If it did, you would not be pleased with the building. It's expected and taken for granted.
Treat these 'dissatisfiers' as minimum requirements to participate, like a restaurant passing its health inspection. 
Add the value. The 'satisfiers' are what people say they want and would be willing to pay more for. That's where people look for quality, price and style.
The better you deliver on these, the better the value for the customer. Faster. Cheaper. Bigger. Stronger. Better. After meeting the minimums this is where you compete.
Bonus points: surprise and delight. These are things that your customer won't expect, but wildly improves their experience.
Doing these 'delighters' poorly still makes things better and doing them well can knock your customer experience out of the park.
Watch out for expectation creep. Remember when cell phones just made phone calls? You wouldn't buy that phone today. It doesn't play Flappy Bird.
If they wash your car when you get an oil change, that's a nice surprise. If it becomes routine it becomes expected. Customers can be fickle like that.
The Kano Model, as this theory is known, can help you decide where to put your customer satisfaction efforts.

You can't do it all, so focus on the things that matter.

Friday, February 14, 2014

DIY Community Amenity: The Little Free Library

You're out for a walk. You notice what looks like a brightly decorated birdhouse along the path. That's new. There's a window on the front. You peek in the window. Books. One looks particularly interesting.
There's a small sign on the box: "Little Free Library. Take a book, return a book."
You can just take it? You pop open the door and collect the book. 
A neighbour, out walking their dog, asks you about the book you're carrying. You mention the library, explain the perfectly simple system, and recruit another 'member' of the Little Free Library.
What a tremendous contribution that is to a community. What the Little Free Library lacks in extensive cataloguing or interlibrary loans it more than makes up in impulse reading and serendipity. Here, you can find something you didn't know you were looking for.
Books are great. They can take you to far away lands, pass on the wisdom of the ages and teach you to do new things. They're portable. They last a long time. They never need batteries. They make great gifts.
Moreover, once you've read a book, you know how it ends, you've learned what you can from it. You don't need to own it unless you want a reference or a souvenir. The important part is already in your head.
And so you've got a lot of books you've already read kicking around, useless. You're not going to re-read them and they're too good to throw out.
That's where the 'Little Free Library' comes in. The concept's simple. "Take a book, return a book." It's taking off in North America.
There are some standard plans and documentation of the movement at The designs are as dignified or as eccentric as the people who build them.
These little libraries encourage literacy in the community, give people something to talk about, and provide a piece of public art that contributes to the life of the community.
You can share books you enjoyed and stumble upon new books or ideas that you might never have discovered.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Over the psychological hump: How to get it done.

There comes a point in any project or activity where you're invested in seeing it completed.
If you're interrupted early on you might not make it back. Interrupted later in the process, and the project will live on in your mind with a flashing 'incomplete' light.
You'll have to complete it to get it off your mind.
The 'Zeigarnik effect' describes how it's easier to remember things that we've started but haven't finished, than things we haven't really started or things that have been tied up.
You can leverage this. Want to exercise? Work through the process until you figure out where the resistance stops. Maybe it's getting your running shoes on. Don't think about running, just commit to putting your running shoes on. The rest will follow automatically.
You get it to the point where it's easier to finish it and get it off your mind than it is to leave it pending.
Electronic games often use this to keep you coming back. One more turn until I can... It keeps you playing just that little bit longer, because you don't want to leave things incomplete. 
Avoid interruptions if you can. Resuming what you're doing takes time. Instead take advantage of your brain's need to complete things, and use that lever to help achieve your goals.
Once you commit mentally to the task, you'll finish it. Or it will bug you until you do.

Shave and a haircut...

Friday, February 7, 2014

Water. Accept no substitutes.

"Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights" declared the UN in July 2010.
More than just a human right, it's essential for all life, and deserves our care and attention.
As communities, we control how we use our water.
Architects and civil engineers are trained to treat water as the enemy, whisking it down and away as fast as possible, because uncontrolled water can lead to mould, leaks, flooded streets and other things that lead to lawsuits.
Designing this way makes sense from a purely mechanical perspective, but that's not a holistic approach to water use. It's not the enemy.
Communities can benefit from responsible water management. People like being near water, and real estate values in those areas tend to be higher.
Nature does a great job of filtering water, as long as we take care of the riparian areas and watersheds that feed our creeks, streams and rivers.
Fortunately, those areas near water tend to be prime recreation areas, which makes them easier to protect.
Stormwater management can play into these creeks and streams. Handling big downpours with soft surfaces like grass and ditches, rather than concrete and storm sewers, is a great way of slowing and filtering the water. This puts the water into the soil where it can be used for plants and recharge the water table.
Houses can take advantage of the water that comes off their roofs by either storing it in a rain barrel for use in the yard, or even UV treating it for potable use within the home (in places without a municipal water supply).
Gardens can also benefit from a trail and swale system. Fill a small ditch with a filter cloth and big rocks. Make it level, with an overflow somewhere where it makes sense, then fill it with gravel as a trail. When it rains, run the water into this ditch, which will accept lots of water, then slowly allow it to seep into the ground, feeding the nearby plants from below, encouraging strong root growth.

The lighter our demand on water the more is retained for use within the environment, keeping the environment healthy helps it keep providing those ecological services we need.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ten Thousand steps to health

"A little more than you're doing already."
That's how much activity would do you some good.
That's where data comes in. You can't know what a little more is unless you know what you're doing now.
You could walk around with a notebook detailing every activity every day, or you could take the easy way out and get a tracker.
As electronics become cheaper, wearable technology can track your activity, and how that changes over time.
In fact, simply measuring something can help you improve it. There's an innate tendency to want to beat the high score whether it's Space Invaders, Candy Crush Saga, or daily steps.
As for Ten Thousand Steps, it was originally part of a 1965 Japanese marketing campaign to sell pedometers.
As it turns out, that number happens to work. It's not too high or too low. Distance-wise, it's about 8km, (or about 90 minutes of walking a day), and twice as much walking as an average office worker does in a day. 
Being able to use a tracker like Fitbit or Nike+ to track your activity provides motivation to stay active.
Activity leads to healthy people. Walkable communities lead naturally to active populations.
If you live in a community where walking is impractical you will have be intentional about your activity. Tracking can help you know whether you're getting enough to meet your goals.

Don't knock yourself out over the number. Slow, consistent improvement will pay off in the long term. Keep beating that high score.