Stability and Play

I often think about how heavy my head is. When I let it rest on my hand, or lie down, I feel its weight and think about how much work my neck is doing to keep it upright throughout the day. The neck is, generally, an incredible system which keeps the head stable and allows for fully three-dimensional movement (pitch, roll, yaw) through a fairly wide range.

When I’m stressed or unhappy I usually feel that emotion to be physically located in the back of my neck, and sometimes treating the physical symptoms can alleviate the emotional distress. Which is to say in the normal course of events my neck is working hard.

The other day I was doing some yoga with a youtube video, and I got to a part of the session where I was told to move my head in circles to stretch out my neck. The instructor said something like “remember to keep your core activated”, I tightened up, and felt something completely new.

I became aware of a freedom in my neck that I had never felt before, a looseness that let me stretch farther, with less risk and worry, than I ever had. The muscles relaxed, the low-grade worry about keeping my head from toppling over dissipated, and I could playfully explore all kinds of new movements.

This all came about, of course, because I had given myself more physical stability with the rest of my body. This is a general pattern: there is a certain amount of stability necessary across every system, and stability in one place can ripple out, allowing other parts of the system to relax and play freely. Stability here is not static, but a control loop of sensing the outside world and making microadjustments to maintain whatever equilibrium is important.

Note that this isn’t a “nerve center” controlling the reaction of different components: stability within one component can trickle to the rest without direct control.

There are other kinds of stability we can think about, too.

Corporate research labs are kind of like this: Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, Google X. Only a company that is absolutely printing money, whose core business is rock-solid, can allow for such an unstructured approach to R&D. Here stability is basically cashflow; play is expensive.

Another is the advice given to startups that they shouldn’t try to innovate on corporate structure, because their core mission is already so difficult. The scarce resources here are time and attention for the people involved, but also some sense of risk. If your central idea is already likely to fail, you want as little risk in the rest of the system as possible.

Similarly, young writers often try to live bohemian lives, but are usually advised to build routine in their lives so they can be reckless in their art. There’s been an analogous idea floating around the techno-rationalist worlds that getting married early frees you to do greater career work, and I think the hypothesis is similar. (The econ blogosphere has been talking for a while about the marriage premium but the emphasis there is slightly different.)

Stability Mapping

When you are trying to understand, explore, or improve a system, why not try “stability mapping”? Which parts of the system generate stability, and which use it up or rely on it? Which kinds of stability are in surplus, and which are in short supply? How does stability percolate from one part of the system to the next?

Right now, organizations of every sort are reeling with VUCA (new term for me, see slide 14 here) . This analysis suggests one promising approach: identify the sources of stability that still remain and build around the kinds of stability they give you.

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