Thursday, May 13, 2010

Decoding the Code

In response to yesterday's A Man's Gotta Have a Code, Sree wrote:
Teflon: it just occurred to me that we may not yet have addressed the fundamental question - why One Code? What benefit does it offer over a flexible/variable code, other than simplicity?
Mark Kaufman wrote:
So, how does a code differentiate itself from a principle? Are you recanting your previous stand on principles? Plz. Clarify.
Additionally, as Iris and I drove from New Jersey back to the Berkshires, Iris made it clear that she thought having a code was probably a bad idea.

Whether stated explicitly or never stated at all, each of us has a code that governs how we operate and interact with one another. Some people have codes that are clear, simple and deliberate. Others have codes that are so convoluted and situational that they require advanced degrees to decipher. But we each have a code.

Some of us demonstrate perfect alignment between the our stated codes and our lived codes; others don't. So, let's continue, shall we...

Not Digging the Whole Code Thing
Iris had a... ummm... let's call it a "strong" reaction to the idea of having a code. The very concept elicited visions of religion and bureaucracy--of rigid and pious people who don't understand that process is a way of thinking, not a substitute for thinking.

As we rode along, Iris said:
OK, let's say that you have a code of ethics or how you behave and I come along, decide that I like your code, and adopt it for myself. Then someone else comes along and does the same thing, except that he makes some minor changes to the code.

After a while you have a bunch of people all running around with various versions of the code. So you all get together to clarify and define a single code. People argue over what should be and what should not be included. There's all sorts of discussions about how and where things apply. Before you know it, you either have everyone leaving without agreeing or agreeing to something that they don't particularly like.
As I thought about this, my first response was that anyone who would do that doesn't get it. But then I realized that what Iris had described is pretty much par for the course when it comes to people and rules. I think the problem may be the word code.

People Should Come with Warning Labels
As Iris spoke, it occurred to me that two goals of having a code are clarity and transparency. Ideally a code is clear, straight-forward and simple (something that anyone could read and understand), and it reveals exactly who you are and how you behave. So, I said, "Forget about the word code. Think about it as a warning label that each of us wears on our chests. It would be right next to the list of benefits."

Iris laughed and seemed to like the idea. We discussed how the labels might read.
Benefits: I will love you and support you all the days of our lives.
Warning: As long as you:
  • never look at another woman...
  • never hit or verbally abuse me...
  • come home every night at 5:00...
  • don't travel too much...
  • don't spend too much time at home...
  • stay exciting and interesting...
  • don't get too exciting or interesting...
  • don't gain too much weight...
  • don't lose more weight than I do...
  • let me have my space...
  • do everything with me....
  • want to have kids...
  • don't want to have kids...
  • take care of the kids...
  • let me be in charge of the kids...
Iris liked this idea 0f labels much better than the idea of having a code. So, I'm good with labels. The labels metaphor addresses Iris' concern over people adopting the codes of others.

It's easy to imagine that you wouldn't look at a label on one bottle of medicine, and liking how it looked, scrape it off and tape it to a bottle containing a different medicine. If you did do so, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to ask the manufacturer of the original medication to change her ingredients because her label didn't match the ingredients in your medication. Each medication would have its own label.

Further, the process of labeling the medication would be deliberate, intentional. When making cautionary statements about interactions with other drugs, the label wouldn't say, "Well, that depends..." or "Hmmm... I don't really know." So, for Iris, we're not talking about having a code; we're talking about clear, simple and accurate labeling.

An Unprincipled Man
Mark K refers to my "recanting my previous stand on principles". Indeed, I have stated that I have no principles, that I am unprincipled. However, to be clear, this is in contrast to what others might call a principled man, a man who has an habitual devotion to right principles, someone who is moral, someone who is good. In this context, I am strictly unprincipled.

When talking about having a code, one could indeed discuss the core elements as principles. However, in this context, those principles would be akin to scientific principles (core, foundational elements), not moralistic principles (platitudes and philosophical constructs). Avoiding the distraction of the nuances of semantic, let's contrast and compare the practical implications of the two words principle and principle.

The moralistic principles of a principled man are externally defined, typically based in religion or societal norms. They tend to be broad-based and general. Since the principles are externally defined and not derived by the person who holds them, principled people tend not to fully understand what their principles mean nor what they imply. They may have thought about their principles frequently, but tend not to have thought about them deeply. For some, even to question the principles would be unprincipled. They have made process a substitute for thinking, not a way of thinking.

When building a code, we are looking for operational principles that are internally defined. They are derived, not adopted, through deliberate and thoughtful process. As such, the principles and implications are understood and connected to our reality. The principles are functional and actionable, not moral (although they may be based on morals if being moral is important to you.) Placing the requirement of actionable on a principle tends to force it to be simple and clear.

In case my bias hasn't completely permeated my writing, I'm suggesting that the operational principles are the way to go.

When Worlds Collide
Sree points out that, other than keeping things simple, I never made it clear why having a code is any better than having multiple codes that one applies as appropriate. Before going to other reasons, let's start with simplicity.

The effect of having a flexible and variable code is that you become different people in different contexts. There's the guy who gets together with his buddies to drink beer and watch football, the guy who presents to the board of directors, the guy who takes his daughter to her violin lessons, the guy that teaches the Sunday school class, and the guy who makes love to his wife. Having a variable and flexible code allows us to fit in and provide what others expect of us.

However, when our various worlds intersect, things can get a little complex. Just before the birth of my daughter Joy's son Logan, Joy called me and invited me to her baby shower. I was driving Iris down to New Jersey for the girls-only party and Joy decided that she didn't want me just hanging around waiting for her. So, I was going to be the only guy there.

After Joy sweetly told me how she really wanted me to come, she added one caveat, saying, "Dad, one more thing, when you're at the shower, you just can't talk about Grandpa."

I asked her, "Why not?"

After a bit of hemming and hawing, Joy said, "Well you see, there are going to be several people there from my work. And, well, Michael and I really needed a vacation, but I'd used up my vacation time. So, I, uhh, I told them that Grandpa died."

Indeed, having a code can keep things simple (read easy), especially when our worlds come together. But even our worlds don't intersect externally, they intersect internally. Having a flexible and variable code can play havoc on the internal transmission as we move from thought context to thought context.

Other Benefits
For me, keeping things simple and drama free is reason enough for having a single code. However, there are other benefits.

Having a code helps us to deal with times when our thinking is less than clear. For example, when it's late at night, you're exhausted and pissed off, having a code that says, "Never hit send on an email late at night when you're tired and pissed off" can prove immeasurably useful.

Having a single code can help us to recognize those times when our actions are not exactly what we'd want them to be. We all behave differently when we're tired or scared or angry or righteous. Having a code that we really know and understand helps us quickly identify those times when our actions are being dictated by transient emotion and belief. We can still pursue those actions, but we do it being aware.

The process of deliberately creating a single code forces us to reconcile contextual principles that conflict with one another. We can work them through and define a new super principle that addresses all contexts, or at least, elements of a warning label.

Is It a Good Idea?
I really like the concept of each of us coming with an FDA approved label, a label defined by the labeled.

I understand the fear of process replacing thinking. However, I believe this is an artifact of using platitudes and adopting externally defined principles that we don't fully understand. When we thoughtfully derive and define our own principles, I believe we avoid the whole mindless-execution-of-orders phenomenon.

For me, keeping it simple (easy) is probably enough. However, I would love it if everyone came with a label accurately explaining benefits, side-effects and warnings.

What do you think?

Happy Thursday!

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