Closed Loops, Open Minds: Why 'Negative Feedback' is Social

Too many people misunderstand the most important meaning of 'feedback.' You'll hear that word most often in two settings: when a sound system squeals, or when a teacher or a boss gives a compliment. In either case, that's 'positive feedback': a small signal is (accidentally or intentionally) "fed back" into a system, in a way that drives it to do more of what it was already doing. That's fine if you got lucky the first time, but no one is consistently lucky: you can't breed for that characteristic, no matter what the two-headed aliens might have believed in Larry Niven's novel Ringworld.

'Negative feedback,' however, struggles against a reputation for being a bad thing. "Negative feedback is seen as critical, apt to be rejected if not delivered skillfully, and almost as unpleasant to give as to receive," writes Fred Nickols in his July 2011 paper, Feedback about Feedback: Contrasts between the Behavioral Science and Engineering Views. As we move into the era of the Social Enterprise, we need to find convergence rather than contrast: we need to build social systems that are predictably useful and effective, which means we need to engineer them without making them inhuman.

MaxwellSystems that pursue a goal, adapting to uncertainty and compensating for disturbance, display the most important kind of feedback: the 'negative feedback' that measures deviation from a desired state, and uses that measurement as a corrective signal. If your car is on cruise control, and slows down as it heads up a hill, the detected loss of speed is fed back as a signal to add power; on the downhill side, a detected gain in speed will be fed back as a signal to back off on the gas. This idea was formalized at least as early as 1868 in the design of simple, mechanical governors for steam engines: it's clear that we're just beginning to recognize, and address, the need for well-considered and robustly designed feedback control in cloud computing.

But now, we need to add a few more layers to the onion, using concepts of feedback not only to control our systems but also to define their purpose. We used to plan a business on an annual budget, with perhaps a quarterly review, driven by a mission statement and a vision of our core business that might last for years or even decades. Kodak is the current poster child for the hazards of thinking that this way of doing things can continue. It can not.

OODAWhat's needed instead is relentless tuning and continual acceleration of our 'OODA Loop': the cycle of "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act" originally set forth by U.S. Air Force strategist John Boyd in briefings on air combat beginning in 1986.

This is the foundation of what the estimable Alistair Croll has dubbed "The Feedback Economy" – asserting that "Companies that get themselves on a feedback footing will dominate their industries, building better things faster for less money. Those that don't are already the walking dead, and will soon be little more than case studies and colorful anecdotes."

It's too bad that engineers got first crack at the label of 'negative feedback': it sounds, well, negative. If this were called 'corrective feedback,' that might be better, but Norbert Wiener arguably did well to borrow from Plato the prefix 'cyber-' – from a Greek root meaning "steersman" or "pilot." Nothing negative about that: it's just a matter of knowing where we're going, and making changes in a timely manner to keep us headed for a good goal even if the route throws us surprises on the way.

As I've said before, we've formed an expectation and a tolerance of antisocial systems: technologies and organizations that display the open-loop behavior of following a plan without bothering to measure its progress, and to modify behavior as needed. It's open-loop to make products that no one likes, or to give a customer "service" that's not actually perceived as useful.

Companies, governments, and other institutions can get away with slow or open loops when customers, citizens, and other stakeholders don't have anything better. What mandates the move to a Social Enterprise is that individuals today can discover, connect, and collaborate with each other in an OODA loop that may well be tighter than what's seen in formerly unassailable institutions – and in the dogfight of our modern world, the party whose OODA loop gets inside every other is going to decide how things turn out.

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