Come On, Feel the Noise!

You need a little noise with your signal to spice up your life.


Do you use services that depend on your prior “likes” and “dislikes” to serve up suggestions to you? You know, like Amazon, Pandora, or other eerily perceptive services that depend on your input to provide you with tailored experiences?

Do you think that those services depend on serving up only what you want, and not a few things that you might want?

Of course they don’t.  They may know you like Bruce Springsteen, but occasionally throw in a little bit of Bob Dylan.  Why?

Just to see.

Just to see what *might* be the boundaries of your likes and dislikes.  And, besides, if they only served up a steady helping of exactly what you likethen your life would get more and more limited, and more and more boring, to boot.

And, there is a lesson in that.

In order to find the edges of our capabilities, we have to step outside of our comfort zones.  We have to create tests of our boundaries.

We have to, in short, introduce noise into the system.

Now, all my highly structured, management guru, six sigma worshiping friends are saying NYET!  Variability is a bad thing.  I want what I want, when I want it.

Well, sure you do, but how do you know you are getting what you really want?

There is a “thing” in the physical world known as “Stochastic Resonance” or SR, for short.  SR is a phenomenon whereby the introduction of noise to a system actually amplifies the ability to see the signal.  The signal stands out more because of the noise, not without it.  Just like when we use Amazon’s suggestions, we can find what we really like by virtue of introducing a steady stream of things that we might not clearly like.

The signal gets clearer.

And, while I’m leaning on examples that have to do with consumer marketing, this type of thinking has applicability to strategists everywhere.  We in business have been brought up in systems that point to noise as a bad thing.  People who don’t do exactly what they are told are bad employees.  Financial performance that is noisy is bad financial performance.  Manufacturing processes that have variability are bad processes.

These are concepts that are near and dear to the hearts of management scientists everywhere.

Minimize uncertainty.

Create systems that minimize thought and choice.

Plan the economy.

Only, a strange thing happens on the way to technocratic nirvana…we scare out the entrepreneurship.  We scare out the little variances that create or illuminate opportunity.  We–in full thrall of the arrogance that we can create systems that know all–remove the ability for a little bit of idiosyncrasy to add to our lives.

So, what does this really mean?  Well, let me offer a few ideas.

  • For teams you lead…introduce new perspectives.  You have a team of engineers?  Bring an artist to a meeting.  You have a team of bankers?  Bring an operations guy to the room every now and then.
  • For you as an individual…Try something new.  You like playing golf? Try poker.  You like finance?  Spend a few weeks working on a marketing project.
  • For your organizations…find it within yourself to encourage a few more experiments.  Give your organization some leash and see what it can create.  Sponsor people.
  • For your organizations’ external relationships…find a way to create more of them.  Test partnerships.  Date more.

With a little bit of noise, you might be able to more clearly discern opportunity.

1 reply
  1. bg
    bg says:

    I liked this one … step outside the comfort zone and gain new perspective. I am sad when I hear people say ” I can’t even draw a straight line” when asked if they would like to try doing something artistic. No one is asking for a straight line … one is asking for you to just try to express yourself differently … making noise to wake people up to new possibilities is a good thing … not allowing things to get stale should be seen as a good thing… seeing things from a different perspective is a good thing. It is amazing what has been discovered ‘by accident’ … make some noise … shake things up … and see what happens!!


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