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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules or Lives (or does it?)

I am not a mathematician. Several years ago my close colleague, Dr. Richard Baldwin, recommended a book that has stuck with me. Back in 2008, Leonard Mlodinow released "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives." Mlodinow achieves the success of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" in presenting complex mathematical concepts to lay-people like most of us. He starts with a game many of us understand in the rolling of dice. Using this, he guides us through constructs of mathematical probability. He then builds toward an analysis of an inebriated person walking in a series of random steps. I was deeply impressed with this book, as he walked me (pardon the pun) through the contributions of great mathematicians like Jacob Bernoulli, Pierre-Simon Laplace, and Blaise Pascal. Mlodinow then applies his observations on probability to everything from earthquake recovery to school grading. All of this fit well with my ongoing debate with Dr. Baldwin on what we commonly refer to as "randomness."


My viewpoint is that randomness does not "likely" exist. Note my convenient insertion of "likely" as I am also not a fan of absolutes. Today, we can more accurately predict many events that once seemed random using technology that was not always at our disposal. We have discovered predictive patterns associated with an almost endless range of phenomena from the spreading of a disease to urban traffic patterns, or even the shopping patterns of consumers. As our acumen with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning grows, the things we once saw as random begin to fall within predictable ranges of probability. There's a philosophy for this called "Instrumental Realism" where what we know as "reality" is dependent upon the accuracy and advancement of our instrumentation. It's a little to extreme for me, but begs a key question. Is anything actually random, or do we simply lack the ability or technology to add it to our growing list of predictable events?


This turns out to be a very tough question to answer, especially when we consider the "scale" of an event. We've become so advanced that we can land an exploratory spacecraft on a moving comet. I can't begin to fathom the math behind that one. Yet, our models are far from perfect. We leverage subatomic physics (Quantum Dynamics and Mechanics) in our everyday lives from cell phone and computer technology to toasters. Quantum encryption has all but just begun in the ongoing and very international cybersecurity race. From this scale we move toward the cosmological, where we predict the movement of entire galaxies and infer that dark matter is at play, as our calculations cannot be brought to accuracy without it. You see, when we attempt to predict any event, we must first define the container, or the size of the space in which the event may occur. Looking at six sides and two dice, the math is easy. At the quantum and cosmological scales it's an entirely different proposition.


Can you predict the movement of organizational culture? Can you predict the exact day a student is most likely to stop coming to class? Can you predict which lottery balls will hit on which day? These are all extremely difficult challenges within complex containers consisting of numerous variables to take into account. But, is it impossible? Given the right technology, calculating capacity, and understanding of influential variables is it fully beyond our collective capability? I cannot answer that one. I do know that the scale of container within which the event occurs is key. This is something Mlodinow's book does not fully take into account. The relationship between scale and actual randomness is core to any investigation. Doctoral statistics and my dissertation helped me to just begin to appreciate this aspect to all phenomena. Which leads me back to our question. Is anything random?


Whatever your profession or endeavor, it is a human penchant to predict things. A few other species appear to do it, but none like humans. If we can predict it, we can control it, at least that's a lot of our motivation. Organizational Culture Harmonics takes the first step in "quantifying" culture. We express "culture" as the relationship between individual member preferences of a group (or culture) and their perceptions of the overall culture. This yields a mathematical "harmonic" of the gap between individuals and their organizations. Gaps are not necessarily bad things, as long as you know they're there. As you use the system to track those harmonics, you begin to see patterns between performance of the system and these harmonics. Not surprisingly, those harmonics can be intentionally manipulated, like many variables. Intentionally directing your organization's culture...here it comes...reduces randomness!


And that's my argument ladies and gentlemen, Do not leave the culture of your organization to random chance. As you begin to quantify it, you will begin to better understand it, and empower you and all the members of your organization to exit the world of randomness, the Drunkard's Walk...


Be sure to visit our Organizational Culture Harmonics link at the top of our home page and contact us for much more!


Dr. Stephen Dunnivant


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