A sidewalk shuffle, or pavement tango, depending on where your English linguistic origins lie. I’ve done it numerous times and I’m quite sure you’re aware of this people coordination phenomenon. The urban dictionary calls it; “the awkward dance that results when two people approach each other from opposite directions, each attempts to move out of the other’s way, and both end up moving in the same direction. Often followed by further ungainly movement, apologies, and awkward laughter.”

Most of the time our brains work out a way to pass each other and it does so without ‘thinking’ about it. Until you enter a country where people are driving on the other side of the road than you are used to, you’ll discover that it also has its effect on how you pass each other in a hallway, through double doors, or at which side the escalator goes up. Traffic is a social engagement where rules, norms, and culture apply. 

At the World Science Festival [1], already in 2015, Alan Peters, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, when explaining some principles around developing driverless cars mentions “The world around us is very probabilistic but not totally”.

We know how to manipulate our car to behave in a certain way. Turn the steering wheel and the car turns in that direction. Turn it more and you can take a sharper corner. Very deterministic. It all changes when you enter traffic, with other people doing ‘unexpected’ things. 

And this goes for many instances beyond traffic. If you’ve ever been inside a call centre, you probably experienced similar things. Customers seemingly do unexpected things not following the carefully laid out processes by the organisation.

And then Alan Peters continues; “You can get through traffic because you’re observing the world and then you act. The machine acts in ways you expect it to, and then the world changes in some ways, and then you can react.”, summarising it as; “Motion structures sensing, and sensing structures motion”.  

Driverless car development tries to learn from how humans do this. Peters; “All of our behaviour is driven by intent or a goal. It’s trying to get from where it is to somewhere else. And that intent informs the action. But also the surroundings inform its action. What it has to do, because the world is so random, is that it chooses the best course of action, given how it has sensed the world and the goal it has.”

Picture a situation in which you’re arriving at a large subway/tube station with multiple exits. Most of the time you’ll find a map of the immediate surroundings of the station, so you can work out which exit to take, get up the stairs and arrive at street level. How do you know that you took the right exit?

“Our belief on where we are is conditioned not only on what we observe but also on what we have done before, given to where we were before.”

Alan Peters

We, as humans, do this very well in the physical space. Yet, somehow we struggle in other areas of our lives and in organisations.  Still, our brains are capable of thinking both ‘analytical’, cause and effect, as well as, what Leonard Mlodinow calls, ‘elastic’ [2]. This elastic thinking is more probabilistic, creative, and very fast. It can explore a vast array of possibilities and discriminate the most probable ones from them. It is all built into our brains and we are not using these capacities to our best advantage.

So in the ‘traffic’ in organisations, how do we behave? Are we bumping into each other, getting stuck, or waiting for each other in jams, and possibly going in endless circles? Are traffic lights and wardens the solution to stay on the deterministic side? Or, can we use the elasticity of our brains and find connection and flow? What is our intent/purpose, and how does that inform our actions and that of the organisation we’re part of?

At Leading From Love we believe that this elastic thinking is a very efficient way to resolve both day-to-day situations and large systemic issues in organisations, with some nice fringe benefits; it is as fast and effortless as manoeuvring in traffic.

Why not learn more about how you could manoeuvre through life and work by having love as an intent and using the elasticity of your brains in your actions?

  1. World Science Festival, The Power of Odds; https://youtu.be/92A5iDjxgOg?t=3410
  2. Leonard Mlodinow, Elastic Thinking; https://youtu.be/Of_R7OZzAgU?t=76

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash