If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? – Ethan Zuckerman
Many years ago, when I entered my first electronics lecture, a charismatic lecturer introduced me to the book The art of electronics by Horowitz and Hill. 20 years later the words in the preface still resonate with me, the idea that electronics is “basically a simple art, a combination of some basic laws, rules of thumb, and a large bag of tricks.” I have not developed my knowledge of electronics beyond those early lectures – heading in the direction of computers instead but a few words that I came across again recently prompted me to have a go at the picture above – drawing on the old book again.
I am currently thinking about how you can make a difference with a service. All too often we think that service is the same as self-service – if we build a tool that lets you do something that’s the same as providing you with a service. That’s a little like saying here’s a booth – go in and the machine will give you a haircut. You might be happy with a booth if you need to get something like a passport photo but you might want a little more input into what happens with your hair.
Now, of course, an organisation can’t deal with anything and everything thrown at it. You have to reduce what comes at you to manageable proportions. Organisations do this by limiting what they do. A hairdresser, for example, may specialise in certain styles, or focus on a gender. The same professional will probably not cut a person’s hair and trim dogs and cats.
This act of limiting what comes in is like attenuation in electronics – accomplished by using a voltage divider that reduces the size of the signal. Now this isn’t an exact analogy because in attentuation you have the same signal, only at a lower amplitude, while in the work kind of attentuation you actually have less things that you are willing to do. So, the electronics analogy is not a good one – but since the theory uses the word it’s amusing to draw it that way.
The point, however, is that if you want to get something done you have to cut it down to size, limit it, make it possible to do. You can limit it too much though – if you insist on everything coming to you in a particular form then you’ll end up with little or no business. The trick is to limit and limit and limit until what comes to you matches your capability to deliver.
The other side of the coin, however, is that you want to increase your capability to deliver. Hairdressers use scissors and combs, of course, but they also use hairdryers and electric trimmers to make the process faster, so they can get more done to either give you a better service or reduce the amount of time you’re in the chair. This process of increasing their capacity is called amplification.
What’s interesting to note is the relationship between the organisation and the environment. When you try and attentuate what’s coming at you from the environment you have to limit it, reduce it, from whatever the total amount is to something you can manage. But when you’re trying to amplify something you have to rely on the resources you have available. You can’t rely on getting more from the environment for free – what you do depends on what you have.
These basic ideas are powerful – the idea of attentuation and amplification. If you translate this to simple language it really comes down to two things.
Focus on what you’re good at. And use the best tools you can get to be as good as you can be.