Elevator etiquette and self-organization

It’s common to borrow terms from the physical sciences and apply them to other domains. A football team can gain momentum during a game. People tend to cling to habits because they have inertia. A software development team tracks its velocity. When we investigate the nature of the interactions of individuals in a group, we talk about self-assembly and self-organization.

I suppose there’s no harm in this, provided we remember we’re using metaphor and we remain aware of the context. As the saying goes, "The map is not the territory."

With due regard to context, Joseph Pelrine draws an interesting distinction between self-organization and self-assembly in groups of people. In a nutshell, people may self-assemble in some way in response to an external stimulus, but this rises to the level of self-organization only when it results in a change in behavior that persists.

He has illustrated the point using elevator etiquette as an example, for instance in a workshop at Agile 2009. Joseph taped off a small area of the floor and called it an "elevator." We pretended the elevator was stopping at different floors in a building. Participants entered and exited the elevator at each floor. They moved out of one another’s way appropriately without being told how. Joseph called this an example of self-assembly because the people required no direction to manage themselves as they entered and exited the elevator; but it was not self-organization because no lasting behavioral change occurred.

I was reminded of this recently when I observed the elevator etiquette at a client company. It occurred to me that it was qualitatively different from elevator etiquette I had seen elsewhere.

First, let’s take a look at typical elevator etiquette in the US, particularly in the larger cities. People usually avoid eye contact, and they automatically move forward and back, side to side in the elevator as necessary to allow others to enter and leave the car. They automatically respond to a stimulus — the desire to enter or leave, communicated by body language and movement — but their behavior is otherwise unchanged. When people leave the elevator, they resume their disconnected behavior as if they had never ridden it. This is self-assembly, but not self-organization; the riders do not behave any differently for the rest of the day than they would have done had they walked up the stairs.

In contrast, consider the elevator protocol at a former client of mine, a large bank in a Latin American country. In that country at that time, companies received tax incentives for creating jobs. At this bank, they used five people to handle a transaction at a teller station in a branch. Normally, three people would handle each transaction, as a hedge against fraud (two people might collude, but probably not three); with five, the bank created two "extra" jobs at each teller station in each branch, earning a nice tax break. For the same reason, the bank hired elevator operators for its automatic elevators. The protocol was to ask the operator to press the button for your floor. In its main building, the bank had eight elevators, and they hired first and second shift operators, resulting in 16 jobs.

People riding the elevators generally behaved as they do in any large city, except that they spoke briefly to the elevator operator. It was also customary for people to greet one another politely, a custom that is practiced only sporadically in the US. These practices did not result in self-organization, however. In this case, the use of an operator was not an example of self-assembly either, as it was dictated by management.

Recently, I observed behavior that I think does rise to the level of self-organization in the sense that it affects people’s behavior throughout the remainder of the work day. At this client, the custom has spontaneously emerged that the first person to enter an elevator stands next to the button panel and asks new riders which floor they want. That person becomes the elevator operator until he or she leaves the car.

This is self-assembly. Why do I think it is also self-organization? The practice leads people to make eye contact and speak aloud. They wish one another a good day as they leave the elevator. This puts people in a positive frame of mind, which affects their style of interaction with co-workers for the whole day. Every time they ride an elevator during the day, the positive behavioral change is reinforced. I perceive a direct connection between the elevator etiquette and the generally positive attitude at the company. (I hope it isn’t necessary to say that I don’t consider that the sole reason for the positive attitude.)

A footnote: Some US readers may take issue with the assertion that Americans generally avoid greeting one another in elevators. Bear in mind I’m referring to observed behavior in large cities, mostly in the northeastern part of the country.

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