Three stories about ants

Here are three stories about ants. The first two are from brilliant people and were both originally published in 01968 (oddly); the third is from me, today.

As behaving systems

Herb Simon’s “The Psychology of Thinking” opens with a little ditty about an ant, picking its way across a wind-swept beach. The ant’s path is weaving, irregular, non-geometric. Where is the ant going?

Old ‘Uncle’ Simon sketches the ant’s path and shows the sketch to a friend, who sees in its jagged course a skier’s slalom, a dodgy sloop, or (abstractly) a student working out a problem.

But it was just an ant crawling the beach, not doing anything complicated. It encountered a problem, it changed course, it moved along. Simon writes:

“An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.”

For the balance of the essay, he explores that hypothesis, but with the word “human being” replacing “ant”. Human beings have these basic characteristics: We remember a little bit. We forget almost everything. We do one thing at a time, mostly, and slowly. And from this you can explain a lot of behavior.

As creatures doing their best

Near the beginning of Stanislaw Lem’s awesome novel “His Master’s Voice”, our narrator finds himself as part of a team of scientists tasked with making sense of a deep space transmission, a signal (message?) from way out there. (I’ve heard “His Master’s Voice” described as Carl Sagan’s “Contact” for adults.) He describes the task thus:

“We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant.”

Because, of course, “ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.”

It’s probably not much of a surprise to know that Lem’s ants eat well, but they don’t really learn anything.

This story ends with a nagging question: for the ant, this is no great loss, is it?

As people grubbing at iPads

You want to make a compelling experience for people. Maybe you want them to do something, or buy something, or learn something. You can see the whole happy path. They’ll come in here, and work their way over there, and everybody gets what they want.

And then you let people into your system and things fall apart immediately. People are using the wrong device. They can’t hear your video on the train, or at all. They signed up but don’t remember where. They don’t get your e-mail. The commercial break ends, a drink spills, or (let’s hope not!) the traffic light turns green. These individuals have fallen off the happy path.

If a task has two steps, some people will fail to make it to the next step. If a task has one step, some people will fail to even begin. Some people will complete the task, forget they’ve done so, and start it again.

But that’s all fine. Because, when you start to design an experience, and as you’re developing it, and as you watch and change it over time, you aren’t just thinking about that happy path — the perfect, meaningful interaction you imagine people having in a comfortable seat and in good lighting.

Certainly you start with that happy path, by defining what should happen in an ideal scenario. But you’ll surround and buttress that path through designs that can recover from failures, mistakes, and interruptions.

To create a great experience, you must put together an environment, not just an interaction. And when somebody crawls off the path, you’ll have put something there to help them wiggle their little feelers and find their way back on.

“Three stories about ants” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.

Against balance

Alongside the gray road, you will encounter people who speak of work-life balance. You have a hard time taking that topic seriously.

The idea of work-life balance reminds you of people who put milk in their coffee. If the coffee isn’t good, just drink better coffee.

After a few years on the gray road, you’ve learned a few things. Not because you’re so smart, but through blistering repetition.

You’ve learned that most people haven’t had good coffee. They think that’s what coffee is. (You used to think that yourself.) That kind of coffee, of course, you balance out with milk, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, cream, and sugar.

And work like that, work so bad that people start talking about work-life balance and with standing meetings where everybody sits for half an hour and organizational culture and institutional values and birthday parties?

Work like that, you balance with life.

The whole of the law

They call it the law of personal mobility, or the law of two feet: that you are responsible for your own learning and engagement. This law, stated in various ways (another example: “when your mind wanders, let your body follow”), is the cornerstone of a participant’s experience during an open space technology meeting. Everyone’s job is to act according to this law, and the facilitator’s job is to create a venue (or to open a space) where it’s effortless to do so.

The Thelemites’d say: howdy & welcome to the Æeon of Horus, where do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. (And these guys were cribbing Augustine’s love, and do what you will.)

I’d like you to meet Bruce, my father-in-law:


Now, he’s been known to say that whatever you do is right, and what he says is true. Once he figures out what you’re going to do, he makes it alright. Even as Bruce leads by action (in a more relaxed style than the phrase suggests), sometimes he has to say something, so that’s what he says.

The point

You aren’t what you say, but what you do. Still, you have to say something. That’s our curse. These aphorisms pile up like logs in tide and time, and bang their big ideas against the bulkhead at night:

  • Nobody but you can take responsibility for your engagement with your environment. Authorities and charlatans such as employers, politicians, or religious figures will attempt to collect rent — financial or otherwise — by claiming this duty, but their claim isn’t a responsibility.
  • Nobody else can tell if you are learning anything today. People only learn when they are ready to learn. People only do anything when they are ready, except die. If you aren’t learning today, you should be. Fix this problem. Turns out it’s pretty easy for people to tell if you learned anything yesterday.
  • If you aren’t engaged in what you’re doing, everybody can tell (but they probably don’t care). Recall the last time you waited out a meeting you were invited to, but didn’t have any purpose at or contribution to. You were wasting your time, and you knew it. From the organization’s perspective it might have been waste, or slack, or just the way we do it here. Great, but remember whose candle is being burned.

Living in open space

During an open space meeting, you discover an environment where it’s easy and delightful to make effective use of your time. You’ll do what’s necessary to do in order to learn, and to teach, and to find and solve the problems that have brought everybody together.

Maybe you need to start a conversation, or introduce two people who aren’t friends yet. Maybe you need to leave early. The space has been carefully laid out and opened up to make these actions easier than the alternatives. If you’re bored, it’s OK to walk away. If you’re hungry, it’s OK to eat. If there’s a break in the rain, nobody’ll mind if you go outside. The organizers work to make the meeting effective by making the participants effective. By making you effective.

The next day or so, the meeting is over, and you’re back into your life and all of the things from it. However, that fruit cannot be uneaten. The next time your mind wanders, you’ll want to get up and follow. When you’re not learning, you’ll notice. If you’re not engaged, you’ll want to actually disengage rather than sit there and look good. This is probably when you’ll realize that, inside an open space, the law of personal mobility can be followed without any real consequences. And you’re way outside the open space, in the cold dark wolf-ridden world, where actions do have consequences.

This is honestly really tough. Because you are still responsible for your own learning and engagement, in a way that is completely evident and easy to understand — but now every weird action you take has its cost. You are, to put it gently, ruined for life. For example: if you have a job, you can use this law to improve your performance. It’s likely that you’ll do so by leaving that job. You’ll understand that the only person who might possibly assume this huge responsibility — for your own learning and engagement — is you. Therefore, when you’re getting bored or feeling somebody else’s slack or pressure, you’ll ask:

  • is this what I really need to be doing with my hour/day/life?
  • how bad would it be to walk away (versus the cost of staying here, and wasting my hour/day/life)?

and much of the time, you’ll decide to stay put, because you just can’t or just won’t accept the alternative and its risk, cost, or damage.

But it’ll be your decision, not inertia or fate. The ongoing cadence of asking these questions (and, maybe, the content of any answers you come up with) will convene an open space for you to live in. A world where whatever you do is right.



It’s the flow, the drip, the course, the same river (twice), the road of whales and swans, and the long downhill walk of water.




An organization creates a layer of engagement and abstraction that allows owners, stakeholders, and employees to move along,


sharing assumptions and repertoire, though many interesting things are going by, unnoticed, beneath the face of the waters.


That’s why, when you’re working inside an organization, you see surface area, but when you’re on the outside, you see volume.


Seattle LeanCamp

I’ll be participating in Seattle Lean Camp over the weekend of July 16 & 17, and am really looking forwards to the event. At my current job, I spend time doing software development, but almost none reflecting on process (“the” process, as well as my process).

Thinking back, turns out I’ve only been involved in one (1) Big Design Up Front metacolossus software project. Not much to note about that one except that:

  1. we wasted a big amount of time up front;
  2. the software is still in use 6 or so years later;
  3. the best parts of it are those which were unplanned; and
  4. never again.

Generally, agile/haptic/emergent/no design has been the norm in my work. This is probably due to my age and the fact that I didn’t get into serious software-as-deliverable gigs until grad school (about 02006). I’m one of the lucky ones.

Point being that, in software, as in design, and as in life, you make it up as you go along. At the beginning of a project you’re making something from nothing. Later, you’re making something with quality/utility/beauty out of that first something. How you’re making it up, and why, is all that matters. Specifically: these are the only things you have control over, so you’d damn well better make them the only things that matter.

That’s the lesson of the independent practitioner. You spend a lot of time saying “yes”, and a lot of time saying “no”, and most of your time saying “maybe” (which means “no”) — but all of that time needs to map onto getting paid doing valuable work. The work of reversing entropy, delighting clients and customers, creating complexity that can be taken for granted.

This is why I’m fascinated by the intermediary artifacts people use to generate, contain, and communicate design (oratory, reports, explanations, wireframes, maps, e-mails, drawings, scale models, whispers in the night, extended metaphors, etc.) and bored beyond the vale of tears by the professional identities and associations the same people wrap around themselves (information architect, user interface designer, user experience designer, researcher, product designer, librarian, futurist, urban planner, etc.). I get it: you need a professional identity to get paid situate your self and your work. It’s useful language.

So let’s treat the language of identity and association as damage and route around it.

Let’s try a roomful of people, each doing different things in different ways, with different teams and to different ends; fill that room, and say: great, now that we’re all here, take a weekend to listen and speak about how to make the things which, in turn, let you make the things you actually care about.