The dining geek problem

by admin

Last weekend, I attended the Agile Coaches Gathering, which was held in Bletchley Park. I met many old and new friends, and had an enjoyable time. Thanks to Rachel Davies and Mike Sutton for organizing it!

A very interesting incident took place at the gathering, one that got me thinking about the practical application of my work in social complexity to the people and teams I deal with. The gathering was structured as an Open Space, running all day Saturday, and all 40 participants met up Friday evening to discuss and decide on topics for the next day. At 19.30, we had a full board of interesting topics, Rachel announced that the evening session was over – and then it happened.

40 people sitting in a room, all thinking “now what?”

My friends know that I hate the tradition of everyone at a conference going out to eat together. You all pile into some poor restaurant, start pushing tables together, and generally drive both the restaurant personnel and the other diners mad. Why do you need to push tables together? It makes it much more difficult for the waiters and waitresses to manoeuvre, and honestly, you can’t talk to more than the 5 people surrounding you at most. It’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s uncomfortable. It puts a stress on the waiters and waitresses, taking all the orders, serving them all at once, and then having to deal with people demanding separate checks and paying with a mix of cash (in multiple currencies), debit card, and credit card. It’s even worse for the kitchen staff, who get bashed with a large number of orders without any warning.

40 people sitting in a room, all thinking “I’m hungry.”

As if the problem with the restaurant wasn’t enough, we had to deal with people staying in a number of different hotels, none of which were within walking distance from the gathering site, and a number of people who came by train, and had no way to get to either the restaurant nor the hotel.

So, how does one solve this problem?

Rachel gave it a good try. She told me afterwards that her prime concern was to have no one left stranded. Once she asked people who needed a ride somewhere, though, things took on their own momentum, and there were cries of “everyone who wants to eat Indian in this corner” and “anybody staying at the Premier Inn in this corner” and “anyone with a car over to this side”. Pure chaos. Admittedly, Rachel and Mike had tried to plan things a bit, and had posted a list of restaurants for people to choose from, but as you’ll see if you look at the list ( some people either couldn’t/wouldn’t decide, or were gaming the system by keeping their options open and not committing themselves.

“So”, I thought to myself, “this is an excellent example of what happens when you try to apply ordered systems techniques to a complex problem domain. How would I deal with this?” And so I used the incident as a case study in my Open Space session on self-organization the next day.

We all tend to fall into the habit of trying to bring un-orderly situations under control. In complex situations, however, even someone as skilled and experienced as Rachel had a tough time doing so. The domain had three main variables – restaurants, hotels, and transportation – with each person having an unknown combination of the three. With 40 people, that’s a lot of possible combinations to match up.

So, how would I solve the problem? Instinctively, my first intervention would be to “turn up the heat”, to give people the sense of urgency necessary to break through their lethargy and self-organize. Saying something like “we gotta get out of here in 5 minutes, because they’re closing” would provide the shock necessary. The problem here is that the level of heat generated is not predictable (we’re in a retrospectively coherent complex system here), and we don’t have the luxury of doing multiple probes in a probe-inspect-adapt loop. Would 10 minutes be better? Would 3 minutes suffice? I don’t know, so it’s time to start thinking about what I do know.

One thing I know – or rather, assume with a high degree of certainty – is that all the attendees are adults. They got to Bletchley Park., which means they took responsibility for organizing that, and they assumedly took responsibility for organizing their accommodations for the night. It’s 19.30, and everyone’s there, so no one has a hotel that they need to check in to immediately, lest they lose their reservation. So, why not just forget the hotels for now? Doing that would bound the problem more by reducing the number of variables and complexity. People can go to their hotels after dinner. Also, letting people go to dinner first works to our advantage. Social network stimulation takes place at dinner, people find others staying at the same hotel, and the restaurant staff are usually knowledgeable (if not always helpful) about the relative locations of the restaurant and the hotel. They’ll know how far a walk it is, and can also call a taxi if need be.

This leaves us with two variables  – food and transportation. Given a choice between catching a ride with someone, and going with interesting people to a restaurant that might not have been first choice, or being fixated on a particular restaurant, at the risk of calling a taxi to get there, and then having to eat alone, I assume that most people would choose the first option. This assumption is supported in part by the fact that quite a number of people signed up for multiple restaurants during pre-planning (see above). So, with the restaurant variable becoming at least partly dependent on the transportation variable, we’ve gotten things down to one variable – transportation. The simplest way to solve the problem of one variable would be to ask all those attendees who have no transportation to raise their hands, and ask the others to help them. Wait around for a few minutes to ensure that everyone’s been taken care of, and no one is standing there alone and lost, and you’ve solved the problem. You’ve also solved it in terms of Rachel’s initial concern, i.e., that no one was stranded.

What did I do? I had driven up to the meeting with my good friend and business partner David Harvey – actually, he drove, since I can’t deal with people driving on the wrong side of the road. Knowing our mutual dislike of large crowds in restaurants, we checked around on the net for a nice quiet place that serves good food, and that was a bit out of town, and booked a table for four there. As we anticipated, we weren’t the only two who wanted to avoid the post-meeting turmoil, and so we spent an enjoyable evening eating and chatting with Steve Freeman and Keith Braithwaite.