July 23, 2018

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Inner Navigation

Navigation Mechanisms

Erik Jonsson has written a peculiar little book, Inner Navigation, on how people find their way. This is not about the metaphorical "finding a meaning in life"; it's about the literal "finding your way back to your house".

Before we consider Jonsson's conclusions, let's consider what the mechanism for finding our way might be. The obvious answer is that we have a mental map, very much like the ones you buy at the corner store, that allows us to find our way. If we were tasked with building a robot that needed to find its way, we would probably program in some kind of map building capability. It's not a bad idea, but our robot would get lost.

According to Jonsson-and he's the type of man one is inclined to believe-people navigate based on an inner map with landmarks but also a sense of direction (probably magnetic), dead reckoning (how far we've walked, keeping track of turns), the sun, the stars, the wind, traces of the wind (like ripples in the snow) and other cues. There are a host of mechanisms that together enable animals, including humans, to have a truly remarkable ability to navigate. It works so well that we fail to notice just how extraordinary it is.

Management Lessons

The key management lesson will come when our robot duly goes off on a mission and never finds its way back. If we conclude, we need to build a better inner map, we have failed to learn the deeper lesson.

We find our way not because we have a good map but because we have a whole variety of interlinked mechanisms for getting the end result. The inner map is important, but is not sufficient. Nature is very good at designing this kind of mechanism, yet for engineers and managers it almost never occurs to design things that way. We always try to build one good mechanism and despair when it fails far too often.

An HR Example

If we want to orient new hires, the natural thing to do is to create an orientation program. That would typically involve a few days of programmed activities to help get the person on-board. However, this unitary approach will not have the robustness of something like the human navigation system which is based on multiple elements.

If we were to learn from nature we would have an orientation system that had multiple tactics. So, for example, we might have an orientation portal on-line, an orientation program, a buddy program, and an "are we lost" diagnostic (i.e. check after a couple of weeks to see if the person seems to be on track and intervene where something has gone astray.)


We like to build simple mechanical systems. We want A, we build a system that produces A. The trouble is that these systems are brittle- when something doesn't go quite right, they fail. Nature is messier but more robust. We should mimic nature in applying multiple tactics if we want robust HR processes.

-David Creelman