Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance


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Spring is once again struggling to exert its’ dominance over the winter months and signs of the coming thaw abound. A pair of hooded mergansers, 3 pairs of wood ducks, a few mallards and 1 pair of geese were spotted on the pond over the last few weeks, robins have been jumping up and down on the lawn conducting their traditional mating dance, and daffodils are doing their best to poke their leaves above the ground, all harbingers of the coming season.

In another annual right of spring, we traveled to Vermont over the weekend, about a 4 hour trek, for the annual Maple Syrup festival. We went sugaring, visiting 4 farms that produce maple syrup. At one farm there were maybe 50-75 new born baby lambs and some new born baby pigs in evidence. Sheep will often have one lamb born at a time a ratio of 1 offspring for each ewe or 1:1. But they may have up to three for a ratio of 3:1. Pigs of course are in a whole different category with large numbers born per sow. The new mother we saw had 9 piglets suckling, we think, for a ratio of 9:1. It was hard to get an exact count with all the little bodies pushed up against mom.

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, is part of a famous sequence of numbers made more famous by the book and movie “The Da Vinci Code”. Called the Fibonacci sequence, each number in the string is the sum of the previous two, a simple rule. The sequence along with other related mathematical sequences show up in places that some would consider unexpected. In nature as you look at objects as diverse as pine cones, leaf growth and galaxies this sequence or closely related sequences of numbers comes into play. The sequence of numbers represents the outcome when certain simple rules of nature are being followed. For the buds on a cone of a spruce tree the rule (chemically driven) seems to be to form a new bud that will turn into a needle, as distantly as possible from the last bud that formed on the cone. As this rule is followed a spiral pattern of new needles forms following the golden ratio or the Fibonacci sequence. From simple rules tremendous complexity can emerge.

Complex flight patterns and flocking behavior of birds was simulated by Craig Reynolds in a program called Boids. He showed that 3 rules can be used to describe the behaviors of flocks of birds. He called the rules, Separation, Alignment and Cohesion. The separation rule was to steer to avoid crowding local flock mates (don’t hit anyone). The alignment rule was to steer to the average heading of the local flock (go in the direction that most everyone else is) and the cohesion rule was to steer to the average position of the others in the local flock (don’t lose sight of your friends). Applying those three simple rules allowed Craig to create a simulation of complex bird flocking patterns.        

In the maple sugaring process tree sap is gathered from sugar maples, traditionally in galvanized steel buckets hanging from taps driven into the trees. In larger operations the sap is collected by a series of plastic tubes leading from the tree downhill to a collection point. The one farm we visited had tapped 7,000 trees, another 9,000. Sap starts to run when you have cold nights, in the 20s (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower and warmer days hitting 40 degrees or so. One 5th generation farmer told me that it looked like it was going to be a very good harvest this year. So far about 2/3rds of the way into the season he had already produced 2000 gallons of maple syrup, where most years in total he would produce between 1400 and 1600 gallons. (A gallon of freshly made maple syrup was selling for between $36 and $40 dollars at the farm).

In order to produce 2,000 gallons of syrup 80,000 gallons of maple sap must be boiled down, a ratio of 40:1. That is a lot of sap, a lot of raw product that is needed to produce 1 gallon of the especially fine Vermont maple syrup. It is as though you are concentrating the essence of the tree as you create maple syrup and in fact that is exactly what you do. The collected sap, fresh from the trees, sits inside a large tank, external to the sugar house. A pipe from that tank leads into an evaporator in the sugar house. (Prior to the sap going into the evaporator some water is removed using a reverse osmosis process.) In the evaporator there is a channel, a pathway through the evaporator that the sap follows. It enters in one end as a cold raw ingredient and as it travels to the other end it boils away the water leaving the maple syrup concentrate. Once the sap boils at 219 degrees (this temperature gets adjusted based on altitude), or 7 degrees above the boiling point of water you have maple syrup. And that syrup gets drained out of the evaporator, filtered, graded by color, and bottled. From a large amount of raw ingredients a gem of a final product emerges, if you follow a simple rule – the syrup is not ready unless it boils at 219 degrees. If it boils at a lower temperature it is not sufficiently concentrated. (If it boils at a higher temperature you are going to get maple candy not syrup).

New research on sudden insights, solutions to problems or paths forward to solving issues has recently been emerging. Some of the findings indicate that along with unique patterns of electrical activity in the brain prior to these moments of insight, there is a somewhat simple rule that if followed can lead to moments of inspiration.  That simple rule is to expand the number of possible solutions, to broaden one’s horizon, allowing new combinations of solutions to emerge for potential consideration. As new interconnections between possibilities are generated a potential solution, leading to a breakthrough or sudden insight can emerge, a so-called “Aha” moment. A 2004 research study documented that just prior to reporting a sudden insight subjects had a large amount of electrical activity in the right-brain region responsible for integrating pieces of information, however distant.

It is as though you are starting with a large amount of raw ingredients, potential solutions and running these ideas through an evaporator, your brain, and when an idea reaches the right temperature out pops your final product, a potentially novel solution that can hopefully be successfully implemented. The ratio of sap to syrup, of raw ingredients to final product, 40:1, might not be too far off from what you should aim for as you consider potential solutions to your more vexing problems.

Bay-of-Pigs thinking or Groupthink is when members of a group try to minimize potential conflict in the group and reach consensus without critically testing and analyzing alternative ideas. It is as though one idea floats to the top, possibly promulgated by a leader within the group and without group members feeling that alternatives can be raised, explored for possible implementation. The reasons this occurs are varied but some potential reasons why group members may avoid raising alternative is to avoid looking foolish, assuming that others know more than they do, to avoid conflict with other group members or to prevent isolationism from others within the group (a punishment for not falling into line). For those presenting ideas that become part of the Groupthink process it can be a matter of control over the group, a matter of power display.

Avoiding Groupthink and possibly finding moments of insight and novel solutions might be as easy as remembering a simple easy to following ratio. 40:1 – from simple rules sometimes tremendously great ideas can emerge.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 12, 2010 at 9:50 pm

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    March 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm

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