Overlapping Behavior

March 19, 2019

Examples of redundant structures that overlap and support each other can be found everywhere in nature. Examples include: human vertebra, protein interactions in cell function, and network communications. In engineering, structural redundancy refers to the ability of a structure to retain its function without catastrophic consequences. To state it only slightly differently, it’s the redundancy of function that enables the structure to survive assault or crisis. Redundancy is therefore a desirable engineering attribute for a resilient system.

Redundancy is something that I use when weightlifting. When I lift a heavy weight, I rely on the following:

  1. The structural rigidity of my skeleton
  2. The dynamic rigidity of my muscles
  3. The hydrostatic rigidity of my abdomen as I use controlled breathing during the lift
  4. Wearing my belt

All three of these elements serve to stabilize me and provide a solid base for lifting heavy. Each contributes to the others and provides additional strength or stability. Some are essential, like skeletal rigidity. If I lose that, I’m totally screwed. However, to a greater or lesser degree, the other elements, like muscular and hydrostatic rigidity can fail, and I will suffer varying degrees of lesser consequences without necessarily breaking anything. In fact, it happens all the time. I fail to breathe correctly, and I still get the lift. I fail to tense up in the right places and I may still get the lift. Or not. It’s usually not catastrophic because there are multiple overlapping systems involved.

Do we get the same benefits of structural redundancy when it comes to behavior, and more specifically, our habits? When it comes to scheduling and planning, it’s not uncommon to have both a calendar and a “to do” list. You might even supplement those with your email backlog. All three of these habits or tools help serve to insure that you get stuff done in a timely manner. We also have quite a bit of redundancy in our communication. For instance, there is voice, email, voicemail, collaboration tools like Slack, Skype, and others. There are social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (although I’m at a loss to come up with what useful purpose these serve – social cohesion?). So there are many overlapping behaviors or habits we have that enable us to get work done reliably during the day.

Here’s the cool part: the benefit of redundancy is that we can still succeed even if one of those mechanisms fails. Is your email server down? Try facebook. Or Twitter. Or heaven forbid, go “old school” and give them a phone call. Stuff will still get done. This kind of redundancy is at the heart of all systems that we think of as very reliable. When we have a set of redundant, highly reliable habits, we have a name for that too: discipline.

So if you want to build a team that delivers stuff reliably. The kind of team that gets things done in a crisis. A team that can be relied upon to deliver. Consider using redundant systems of habit. Use sprint planning AND release planning. Use daily stand-ups AND weekly checkpoints. Use retrospectives AND product reviews. Take advantage of multiple redundant habits and you will become respected for your discipline.