Monday, February 23, 2009

What is a Relationship Model?

Relationships are everywhere. We have relationships with our friends and our family. When we go to the store we rely on a relationship with the person at the checkout counter. The onion that we buy got to the store through a (probably complex) relationship between the store and a farm. When it grew, it grew through complex relationships between the plant, the soil around it, and the sunlight and water which rained down on it. And the crazy thing is, none of these relationships ever stay the same. How we buy food from stores is not the same today as it was 100 years ago, and it will probably be different 100 years from now. How the onion relates to the soil around it changes drastically as the onion matures, and has changed in a larger sense as onions have evolved and been selectively bred. 

We're used to thinking of these things as things: stores, onions, sunlight and people, but sometimes it is useful to think of them differently. You can think of the entire chain- from the sunlight hitting the soil to the onion soup you eat at your pot luck- as an interacting series of relationships. Understanding how all of those relationships evolve and change can be just as useful as understanding the things and people involved. 

This is useful because when it comes to relationships, especially relationships between people, we tend to be very very smart. If I ask you to explain the impact of the federal funds rate on housing prices you could probably read 5 articles on the topic and still be scratching your head. But if I ask you how bringing your new girlfriend to Thanksgiving will impact the conversation between your grandma and your uncle, you'd probably be able to tell me. A computer could never do that. People are incredibly complicated, much more so than obscure financial data, but because we have a deep intuitive understanding of the way that relationships work we are able to operate in them remarkably well. Thinking in terms of relationship models allows us to tap into that intelligence and use it to enhance our understanding of just about anything.

A relationship model is a set of expectations about what will happen in a relationship. If I call my friend Sam we will probably make plans to hang out next week. If I go on a date with Lori's sister things may get weird between Lori and I. If I work hard and kiss up to my boss, I may get promoted. If I buy this onion, I can cook with it. Relationship models allow us to confidently take actions in a largely unpredictable world, they consciously or intuitively tell us how relationships work. 

The relationship models that are easy to describe tend to be static. In these relationships expectations are written down in laws, scientific studies, or cultural customs. The relationship between a customer and a teller at the grocery store is one example, in most grocery stores around the world that relationship works in essentially the same way. Science tells us what to expect from the relationship between baking soda and vinegar, legal documents tell us what to expect from the relationship between a corporation and its shareholders. Even these fairly static relationships are constantly being redefined and disputed, which makes laws, science and cultural custom riddled with controversy. 

What's harder, but generally more fun, is thinking about dynamic relationship models. These models describe relationships where what we expect changes radically over time. We generally can't say where the relationship will wind up, but we can develop an understanding of the forces that will get us there. Falling in love is an example of a dynamic relationship model, so is scientific innovation or the development of an ecosystem or market strategy. Dynamic relationship models can't tell us exactly what will happen, often they can't even come close. They tell us what to pay attention to (ie the look in his eye, your gut instinct), and give us guidelines for how to act (keep an open mind, communicate clearly and openly) while we hold on to the changing situation for dear life.

The interesting thing about dynamic relationship models is how much they are similar. Did you notice how "keep an open mind" and "communicate clearly and openly" apply equally well to falling in love, making a scientific discovery and selling a product? It is not uncommon for dynamic relationships in widely differing circumstances to behave very similarly. A dating scene is a little like the trading floor on wall street which is a little like the woods regrowing after a forest fire. Relationship modelling is about finding a common, flexible language to describe those relationships, so that our understanding of one kind of dynamic relationship (building a lifelong friendship) can inform our understanding of another (building a stable company.) 

What are some concepts that you use to think about dynamic relationships?