The Secret of N.I.M.H

A rat standing on its hind legsThere are these two super intelligent rats.  I’m not saying that these rats are intelligent enough to get into your house to rummage in your bin, I’m saying that these rats are intelligent enough to steal your car as a get away vehicle afterwards.  They are awesomely intelligent.  They even wear waistcoats and one of them probably smokes a pipe.  I’m talking really, really super intelligent.  For rats anyway.

So, we have these two rats and each of them is put at the entrance of an identical maze.  At the centre of each maze… fine ok maybe they are labyrinths then! (I’m writing about rats in waistcoats here it doesn’t have to be accurate).  Ok, so at the centre of each maze/labyrinth (whatever) is a piece of cheese. 

Now one rat is given a map to the centre of the maze, but is not told about the cheese. He just has a map to the centre of what he assumes is an empty maze.

The other rat is told, in no uncertain terms, that the biggest piece of cheese he has ever seen is at the centre of the maze.  The scientists even sent him a picture of it to his blackberry as proof. 

So which rat will get to the cheese? If either?

This is, as the most erudite of you will have realised, a matter of training.  Or more precisely the approach to training.  The question is: is it better to know why you are doing something (be a rat who knows of the cheese) or is it better to know how to do something(be a rat with a map)?  On the face of it, it seems far more useful to know the process you need to perform.  A list (or a map) of the steps taken to achieve a goal is surely more useful then just knowing what you want to achieve?

But the problem lies with the rat’s reaction to this.  If all the rat knows is the steps it needs to take, what motivation is there to actually follow them?  Why is the centre of the maze so important?  Why should the rat not take a much shorter journey to a nice little snug corner where it can make a nest and live a happy bachelor life with ease?  The journey to the centre of the maze, while not hard with a map, certainly is longer and therefore more annoying, inconvenient, and does not necessarily fit into the rat’s idea of a happy life.

So should we put all our money on the rat whom knows its goal but lacks the process knowledge to achieve it as easily? This rat certainly will have the desire to do things the right way (or follow the right path) but without the knowledge of his compatriot he will undoubtedly make mistakes.  There is a chance that he will eventually make it to the centre of the maze and gorge himself on the piece of cheese, but there is also equal chance that he will get lost and even more frustrated as he knows what to do but can’t find the means to do it.

I think we can agree here that both methods have probably about equal chance of being successful, but neither is successful enough to be recommended.

The introduction of more rats seems to make little difference either.  A lone rat in a maze is not really an apt analogy for a working environment because few of us work in complete isolation.  So I shall allow more rats, each with the same knowledge as the original, into both mazes.

The rats with maps have, unfortunately, not increased their knowledge base at all and it is likely that the extra bodies in the maze won’t make much of a difference.  One or two may stumble on the centre of the maze out of a simple to desire to follow the rules and then they may spread the word to the others about the cheese, but by this time it is also likely that the rest of the rat population will be so ensconced in their little corners that a piece of cheese no longer is enough of a pull to drag them from their warm comfort.

The rats who know about the cheese, again, will not have any more knowledge as their population is increased, but it will become more statistically likely that some of them will find the cheese.  However, their efforts to spread the word, even though the fable of the cheese would have reached religious proportions, will also be ineffective.  Mostly because they will no longer be in contact with their brethren.  The rats will be scattered around the maze in such disorder that the knowledge of the cheese would get lost and even those who did hear it might not believe it and think it is mere stories.  (It is often the case that once a goal has been elevated to such a high status, that it becomes almost impossible to imagine anyone achieving it.)

Obviously, and I know you are all champing at the bit for me to say it, some form of synthesis is needed. Knowledge of both map and cheese is where we want to be.  This would probably be quite easily done if we were to start again with a new rat and a fresh maze, unfortunately lab conditions are often difficult to replicate in the outside world.

The rats are already in the maze.  The cheese is already a fable.  The rats with maps are ensconced in their homesteads.  The frenzied zealot rats are bewilderingly lost, not really sure which cheese story is real anymore.  The maze is a confusing place.

However, there is still hope.  Some of the rats do have the knowledge of both cheese and map.  Some of the rats know where the population should be going and how best to get there but, these rats, as they draw up maps and take photo’s of the cheese, need to understand something.  They need to realise that for every rat to run in the right direction, they need to provide both bits of information to each and every rat, but in the proportions that the rat’s current state requires.  A new map to the rat in the corner won’t help, but a Polaroid of the cheese next to a newspaper with today’s date might.  As long as, and this is important, the link is made clear between the map and the cheese.

You are probably quite annoyed now.  I mean, I have just written the best part of a thousand words to explain something that seems self-evident. Yet, and this is the mother of all yets, if it is so self evident why is it ignored so often?  Most training manuals describe processes without hint of goal.  Most impassioned speeches talk of goal with no reference to process. And, be honest, how many of you plumped for one or the other option when I first asked which was best?

So while, as always, I’m not saying anything new, I feel it is something important and something that maybe gets overlooked a few times too often.

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