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Inspiration from E Coli on Being Effective

Quite some time ago I read the Greatest Show on Earth , where Richard Dawkins goes into detail both about the wonder of evolution and our understanding/evidence for it.

In chapter 5 Dawkins summarises an experiment using populations of the E. coli bacteria which was conducted by Dr. Richard Lenski and his team. The general gist that "Escherichia Coli" (e coli) are very prevalent (there are roughly a billion in your lower intestine right now), and so provide a great opportunity to observe random mutations.

The experiment involved placing a population of e coli in vials with a broth of glucose and citrate as a food source. The population would increase. E coli can't normally use citrate, so they would consume the glucose. The scientists could observe the e coli population grow as they consumed the glucose, level off, and then eventually starve) as they depleted their food source.

Each day the researchers would observe this growth, freeze the population (keeping essentially a daily fossil record), and take a sample to use as the initial population for the next day.

Initially the experiment had "ara-1" and "ara-2" strains of bacteria which were slowing evolving over the generations to better take advantage of the glucose food source:

If the bacteria could learn how to consume the citrate, then they would made a dramatic leap in population, as they would then have a whole new food source.

Making such a leap would be difficult, as it involved two separate mutations, but eventually those two chance mutations took place, and the researchers observed that dramatic leap in population.

This new "ara-3" generation could consume both the glucose broth, as well as the citrate.

E-coli? Ara-3 Evolution? What's your point?

Aside from just finding this experiment fascinating on its own (and I really don't do it justice here), that sudden spike in productivity seems a great metaphor in efficacy.

People familiar with Parkinson's Law or the Law of Triviality (bike shedding) know the feeling. I know that I've certainly suffered from spending too much time focused on minutia. I've observed it in projects and teams too, where a disproportionate amount of time is spent on inconsequential detail which doesn't get to the real problem at hand, or fails to address what should be the real priority.

What have your recent meetings or conversations been like? Have you been able to effectively balance the need to ensure everyone has a voice/is heard, but in a way that's focused on progressing actual value?

Matt Mullenweg of automatic recently (at about 31 minutes in) discussed on Farnam Street ways his teams embrace distributed (remote) working to get better results, primarily:

  • allowing people to process information and think about problems at times which are most convenient for them

  • unlocking introverts - people who may not have the confidence to contribute or interrupt in a meeting, but whose ideas are just as valuable. Their "stairway wit"

  • using online tools creates a decision record, or audit of discussions, so that new team members or even our future selves can recall why certain decisions were taken

  • your team members have more autonomy over their time and environments so they can do their best work

The next time I find myself in an hour-long zoom call or prolonged discussion, I'm going to try and reflect. What decisions/insights/actions did we come to, and how might we have done that in a way which made better use of everyone's time? Could we have achieved those results offline? And are we just improving our glucose intake, or working in ways to take advantage of the citrate? (Wow - that last sentence was awful/mega cheesy, but I'm leaving it in 😊)

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