Long, fascinating article in this morning’s Boston Globe about the meningitis outbreak. One of the things that most caught my eye about it is the CDC’s role as a manufacturer of leveraged coincidence. A doctor in Tennessee who happened to have the right background and insight to ask for an unusual set of tests. A doctor in Michigan who could correlate those results against other isolated incidents, turn them into a pattern. The tiny handful of experts who have so much as ever seen a case of fungal meningitis, able to put together and disseminate a treatment plan — because behind the scenes you have the CDC and state departments of public health, answering phones, being points of contact. Letting information connect.
The knowledge was all in the system to recognize and address the problem, but it wasn’t in any one person’s head. It required a structure of effective communication that let insights connect into understanding, that let coincidences coalesce into pattern, that let the steps people took in the right direction add up into something more than abortive journeys.
The world is full of these threads we can follow, these isolated coincidences and insights and beginnings-of-things, all the time. Constantly. The vast majority of threads go unfollowed. We don’t even know there are threads in front of us.
Yesterday Cindi Trainor, our fearless LITA vice president, was live-tweeting the LITA Executive Committee meeting. (Did you know we have one? It’s some fascinating sausage-making.) And one of the things she tweeted was:
@librarycourtney bummed to know you are the *former* BARC liaison. I didn’t even know til yesterday that we had one. :/
— cindi (@cindi) October 26, 2012
Some context here:
- BARC is the ALA Budget Analysis and Review Committee.
- LITA’s been running budget deficits for years; the Board has made some stabs at fixing this problem but there is a great deal of work left to be done, and there’s some interest in involving more people with budget expertise.
- The LITA Board oversees but does not entirely set the association’s budget; there’s an operating agreement that governs the relationship between ALA and its divisions, a budgeting process encompassing the Board and LITA staff and ALA and this is the part where I wave my hands around to distract you because honestly I don’t understand it any more than this. It’s complicated. The point being, if the process is going to be healthy, it requires solid communication among a variety of entities.
- Cindi’s been on the Board for years, and heavily involved with LITA even longer. She knows lots of stuff about lots of stuff.
- Cindi and Courtney, as you can see from that Twitter exchange, already know each other.
And yet with all that, with so many engines to manufacture coincidence sitting right out there in the open, somehow this particular connection didn’t get made until right now.
To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Cindi or Courtney, at all. This is a red flag that there are communications processes that need to exist, and don’t.
Yesterday I was doing some local volunteering (hooray!). And I got to chat with several members of the group in charge of the event, just obvious small-talk stuff, “how did you get involved,” et cetera — I mean obvious even to me and I’m one of those nerdish introverts with an intense stereotypical discomfort about small talk.
And only one of them made small talk back, even so much as asking me what brought me to the event — a question whose answer instantly reveals that I have experience relevant to their organization. And he didn’t ask for much detail about the specifics of that experience.
This bothers me on basic hospitality grounds — again, I am a nerdish introvert here, not exactly Emily Post, but I’m not wrong that when strangers volunteer for your cause you engage with them, right? this is what’s done? — but also on utilitarian ones. What if I happened to have unusual skills that would let them break a logjam on some project they’ve been working on? What if I turned out to know someone they’ve been hoping to get connected to? What if I were a prospective major donor? What if the coincidence engine were right in front of them, the loose threads to tie together were sitting right out there in plain sight, but they never asked? How can you know if you don’t talk to people?
The world is full of these loose threads we can follow, all the time. The world is constantly flinging opportunities straight at us. But we need structures for manufacturing system out of coincidence. We need communication and processes that let us find loose threads, recognize their mutual relevance, and tie them together.
On one level it’s easy: just talk to the mysterious stranger. But truly, it’s hard, because you have to do it at scale, and amidst everyone’s constant crush of everyday distractions. Because you have to be consistent. Because you have to be brave enough to talk to people who aren’t familiar. Because if it were easy, everyone would already be doing it, and the magic of the CDC is it’s a thing that works even though humans do not generally do this.
A system for leveraging coincidence at scale. It’s magical, truly. Magical.