December 2008

The beauty of negative feedback

When biographer James Boswell asked innovator Matthew Boulton what he did with his commercial engine business, he said, "I sell here what all the world desires: power."

That dream of power, along with its inventions, such as the steam engine, all relate to feedback control, a reading that gives output, which opposes input. This opposing output, negative feedback, is the key to progress, said Dr. John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, and the final keynote speaker at ISA EXPO in October. Other theorists have also taken the concept of negative feedback to explore how the phenomenon can work in society and in business advancement.

Lienhard's history lesson on inventions, or the lack thereof, throughout world history pointed with each instance to the need for innovation, which requires teamwork, risk taking, and of course, negative feedback. "Negative feedback is good. Positive feedback reinforces negative behavior. And that's why yes men are a doom to companies," he said. "Negative feedback is the lifeblood to any organization," he said.

"We live by machines that make decision for us," Lienhard said. And this type of thinking did not set well with the authoritarian minds. The Romans were users of technology but did not contribute. The Arab Scholars were fascinated by all things Hellenistic. After the 7th century, Bagdad became the intellectual center. Then there were no new feedback devices for two millennia. Why? "The world was full of authoritarian minds," he said. "They wanted to write rules and see them obeyed. They had a problem with negative feedback."

"The more one thinks about the role of negative feedback in this context, the more one realizes that Lienhard's thesis is not only correct, but also significant," said Cliff Pedersen, principal at Pedersen Enterprises Inc., in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. "As history illustrates, progress has usually been made by individuals who are capable of independent and original thinking often at high personal risk (such as Galileo), not with maintaining the status quo and increasing personal gain," he said. "In this respect, our society can be hypocritical; while we value original contributions in academia and research, we denigrate them in corporate management and industrial cultures."

Joe Bingham, president of AES Automation in California, can relate to this idea as well. "In today's society, we have way too many 'yes' people and not enough 'hey, that's not going to work' people," he said. "A lot of organizations are afraid of negative feedback because it means that their expensive consultants were off the mark, and the guy on the plant floor was right from the beginning."

One of Bingham's clients has an employee who is "rough around the edges and comes off a little crude most of the time, but he's always right," he said. "They don't listen to him due to the fact they want to hear their ideas are always going to work."

Look at the mechanical clock of the 14th century, which had no negative feedback characteristics, Lienhard said. "Clockwork became a new metaphor for God's creation, and by 700, we'd stretched that concept to the breaking point. The notion that feedback processes were built into the heavens was antithetical to Isaac Newton's thinking," he said. "Newton didn't catch on to the fact that orbits are self corrective," he said.

"Feedback systems are perfect conceptual models. They provide a framework, which is robust and elegant, balanced perfectly at all times on the edge of efficiency," said Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an artist/engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y. and author of a research paper that emphasizes theoretical perspectives on interactivity, specifically negative feedback systems.

Along with the water clock, steam engine, and thermostat, the toilet is a classic example of a mechanical feedback system, Dewey-Hagborg said. "The toilet must have a critical amount of water in the tank for an effective flush. Too little doesn't work, and too much will overflow. To maintain the proper amount of water in the tank at all times, a float sits atop the water connected to a valve. After a flush, the water level falls, and the float falls with it thereby opening the valve and letting water back into the tank. As the tank fills, the float rises back up, eventually closing the valve at the critical point," she said.

Dewey-Hagborg agrees with Lienhard's concept of using negative feedback to provoke innovation. "This use of negative feedback guarantees that whatever extreme state the machine may be driven into, stability can always be recovered by applying an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction effectively neutralizing the extreme," she said in her paper. "Feedback systems combat entropy by perfectly folding fluctuations back into the system itself, swallowing them whole."

Working in teams

Another key to success is the concept of working together by committee, melding minds of different ilk to ensure creativity. "The concept of the lonely inventor is fiction," Lienhard said. Our contempt for committees is detrimental to our success. "Cooperation is a strange thing. It's a disciplined process," he said. Yes men are not what today's corporations need. Yes men do not give negative feedback. "And when people attack and listen, good things happen." The King James Bible and the American Constitution were written by committees. "But these people didn't say yes to one another," Lienhard said. DaVinci talked with people all the time. Impressionist artists painted together, sharing ideas.

"Collaboration is so beneficial because it forces you to slow down, talk things over, and get past your initial rush of inspiritiaon to really think through all the pros and cons of your idea," Dewey-Hagborg said. "For me, the beauty of working with people with very different backgrounds is the intensity of connections you can make. You hear how a graphic artist sees a printed circuit board, or how a sculptor views a computer program. We never really work alone anyway; even a solo project builds on centuries of history and previous work."

"While competition is widely regarded as desirable and indeed necessary for progress (especially in capitalistic economies), it can be taken to the extreme of winning at all costs, Pedersen said. "The refuge of the mediocre is actually group-think á la the committee, especially if those in power must win to the detriment of other ideas," he said. "As Lienhard suggests, the most significant progress in civilization is achieved when original and individualistic thinkers collaborate to achieve a common objective, as shown by the Magna Carta as well."

In his presentation Lienhard pointed to inventors such as Boulton and Watts, who regularly met with great thinkers. "Boulton's remark about power was no accident," he said. In the mid-18th century, we saw the advent of windmills and thermostats. We saw negative feedback coming from inventors such as David Hume, who came up with the self regulation of the international money market. The popular phrase laissez faire, stressed the need to let things manage themselves.

"What transpired was decision-making power," Lienhard said. "Engineers were artists who worked for wealthy patrons. The English gentry saw that people who made goods would want to own those goods. Their lives were interwoven."

Lienhard pointed out this all took place in 1776, the same time as Boulton's remarks about power, and the same time as the American Revolution. In fact, the American Constitution has the language of negative feedback woven throughout it. "Checks and balances are the regulators," he said.

"It has been said that every generation stands on the shoulders of the one preceding it," Pedersen said. "We have learned from them that competition can be misused to be destructive and retrogressive; therefore, new age organizations should now strive for constructive collaboration that highly values original thought and new ideas that survive the acid tests of competition; the ones that have it right will win. That takes true leadership," he said.

"Haven''t most of us wondered why all of the yes men get promoted and the negative feedback men are left to pick up the pieces? If we dare to learn anything from Lienhard's address, it is that in order for us as an individuals, a company, or a county to be truly innovative and successful, we need to start being brave enough to ask the tough questions," Bingham said.

"Like President Roosevelt said, 'In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.' "

Ellen Fussell Policastro ( writes and edits Workforce Development.