The Strength of Flexibility: Weak Protocols and Weak Links

Thank you for your feedback. I agree the examples initially provided may not have sufficiently clarified how weak protocols differ from adjacent concepts like heuristics, rules of thumb, and best practices.

These familiar concepts, while diverse, share a common foundation as decision-making tools grounded in experience and accumulated knowledge. Heuristics are mental shortcuts derived from experiential learning, often applied subconsciously. Rules of thumb, similar in nature, arise from generalised experiences and serve as quick, practical guidelines. Best practices, on the other hand, are methods or techniques that have consistently shown superior results, underpinned by a broader and more formal aggregation of knowledge.

But what sets weak protocols apart from these tools? Weak protocols are not just about leveraging past experiences or established practices. To better illustrate this distinction, let’s consider a well-known heuristic in physics.

Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule metaphor

Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule, a principle from physics, is used to determine the direction of force experienced by a current-carrying conductor in a magnetic field, with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger each representing a different vector (force, magnetic field and electric current).

Now, let’s adapt this heuristic to not just explain physical phenomena but to explore the distinction and interplay between weak protocols and tools more broadly:

Thumb (Force): Represents the outcomes or actions in a human system.

Index Finger (Magnetic Field): Represents the weak protocols that guide these actions.

Middle Finger (Electric Current): Represents the tools (heuristics, rules of thumb, best practices, etc) that drive problem-solving and decision-making.

Weak Links: Can be represented by the electrical resistance in the circuit. In a circuit, resistance affects the flow of current, shaping how effectively the tools (electric current) can work within the confines of the weak protocols (magnetic field). Similarly, weak links in a social or organisational context affect the flow of information and resources, influencing how effectively tools are applied within the guidelines of weak protocols. They can either facilitate or hinder the process, depending on their nature and position within the network.

This analogy highlights how weak protocols (magnetic field) subtly influence the direction and nature of actions (force), while the tools (electric current) provide the energy or means to execute these actions. It underscores the idea that weak protocols and tools, though distinct, work together to shape outcomes in human systems.

Open-source communities serve as a prime example of the interplay between weak links, weak protocols, and a diverse array of tools. These tools range from software platforms that facilitate collaboration to version control systems like Git, and extend to communication channels such as forums and chat applications. Conceptually, these tools are instrumental in enabling decentralised and efficient collaboration, allowing loosely connected individuals to contribute effectively. The tools employed in open-source communities encompass both technical aspects (such as software, coding standards and environments) and communication tools (like discussion boards and documentation). This combination plays a central role in the collective development process and in the dissemination of knowledge. Such tools not only empower individuals within the network but also leverage the affordances of weak protocols and the connections established through weak links.

Desire paths

Desire paths offer another interesting lens to view the Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule metaphor, particularly in identifying which dimension aligns most closely with this concept.

Thumb (Outcome / Force): While this dimension may initially seem to align with desire paths due to its representation of natural and emergent outcomes, it primarily signifies the end results of actions within the system, possibly bypassing established protocols or tools. In contrast, desire paths are more about the spontaneous choices and routes taken by individuals, which is a characteristic not of the outcomes themselves, but of the guiding principles and choices that lead to those outcomes.

Middle Finger (Tools / Electric Current): This dimension represents the specific tools, methods, or strategies used in decision-making and problem-solving. Desire paths are less aligned with this dimension. Tools, being more about activities and specific methodologies, do not typically encompass the organic, emergent patterns that desire paths represent.

Index Finger (Weak Protocols / Magnetic Field): Unlike the more rigid and prescriptive nature of tools, weak protocols embody the flexibility and responsiveness to community needs and preferences that are characteristic of desire paths. Like desire paths, weak protocols are shaped by the collective, emergent behaviours of the community, offering guidance while allowing for natural deviations and adaptations. Both reflect organic movements and preferences, deviating from rigid structures to find the most efficient or natural route.

Social consequences

The social consequences associated with these concepts offer another perspective on distinguishing weak protocols from tools like heuristics, rules of thumb, and best practices. When individuals deviate from established tools such as heuristics or best practices, the primary implications typically relate to efficiency, effectiveness, or the success of a given outcome. For instance, disregarding a common best practice in a technical procedure might lead to less optimal results, but it generally doesn’t result in social sanctions.

In contrast, straying outside the boundaries of weak protocols can lead to significant social repercussions. Such deviations might be met with social disapproval, ostracism, or other forms of social sanctions. Compliance is often enforced through social pressure, underscoring their role in maintaining certain societal or group norms. For example, consider the informal protocol within a workplace that values open and frequent communication. An employee who chooses to work in isolation, ignoring this protocol, might face not just professional challenges but also social disapproval or ostracism from colleagues. This reaction occurs because the deviation isn’t just a matter of efficiency; it’s perceived as a breach of the social norms that underpin the team’s collaborative culture. Here, compliance with weak protocols is enforced more through social pressure and the desire to belong than through formal rules.