Of Boiling Frogs And Chinese Whispers

Dec 21, 2008   //   by Hackadelic   //   Blog, Featured  //  No Comments
This entry is part of a series, Project Management Thoughts»

Hey Mom  ........ listen to this joke I heard todayWhen I wrote “Psychology Of IT Language“, I brought up the aspect of communication of principles, the implicit communication of values, and its possible psychological impact on an organization.

As I’m further contemplating about it, patterns begin to disclose themselves. Two such patterns are Chinese Whisper and Boiling Frog. But before I go into them, an example:

In another post I wrote

KISS, in its purest an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid” (note the coma!), is another example of a brilliant principle diluted in the process of mass circulation.

I’d like elaborate on this in more detail:

idea launch failureThe word “stupid” in KISS is targeted at the person who fails to implement a simple solution, effectively implying that simplicity is clever (while complicatedness is dumb). In this formulation, the implicit value judgment in the message positively correlates with the intention of the principle. Another variation, “Keep it simple and stupid”, as for example listed on the German Wikipedia site, targets both simple and stupid at the solution / the code. It effectively implies that “simple and stupid is the same”, and in reverse, that “clever is equal to complicated”. Here, the implicit value judgment and to the controversy of the message, but contradicts and undermines the principle’s intention.

Like KISS, many recognized principles of life are “packaged” in simple, value-communicating messages. That is, rules, sort of. (Apparently, rules are believed to be easier to follow then principles.)1 This is where the above patterns begin their virtue.

WhisperThe message starts spreading from its origin outwards, like waves from a pebble thrown into lake watter. It first hits the minds that are, intellectually speaking, closest to the original idea. To those, the message background is clear, and the difference between the spoken and actual meaning does not represent an obscuring barrier.

In the “second wave”, as the word spreads on, minds are a bit further away from the original idea. They receive the spoken message, but do not necessarily make the right connections to the original idea. As the begin “spreading the word” themselves, a cascade of Chinese Whispers begins…

PererecaThe whole process is gradual. With each “wave”, a little bit of the the purity of the original principle or idea is lost. But the “loss” between any two consecutive “waves” is so small, that nobody gets seriously alerted – just like the Boiling Frog doesn’t get alerted about the gradual (but progressive) heating of the watter he’s in.

To illustrate, let’s make a sample calculation, just for fun. Let’s assume that each wave preserves as much as 80% of the original thought. (The 80/20 principle could be a good starting point here.) Then, if the 1st wave carries 100%, the 2nd goes with 80%, the 3rd goes with 64%, … After the 10th wave, only roughly 10% is left.

This is like with everything in life. From a local, “wave-to-wave”, or “day-to-day” perspective, we can always find comfort in the fact that it’s as much as 80% that we’ve kept2. But it’s only from a higher, global perspective that we can recognize the full scale impact of the processes we’re in.

  1. For “PR” reasons, some messages are intentionally controversial. Controversy is interesting, and helps (that is, accelerates) “spreading the word”. But it also amplifies the Chinese Whisper effect. []
  2. and we wouldn’t be really lying to ourselves []

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