My apologies for the third S&F post in four days. However, this blog represents an impression of the flow of thought through my head, and if I try to time my thoughts to suit readers’ interests and variety, I’m afraid I may not be doing a very good job.
I came across this funda in one of the “sub-plots” of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which I finished reading two days back. Actually, there is another post about the main plot of that book that I want to write, but I suppose I’ll write that some other day, maybe over this weekend. So Dawkins, in some part of the book talks about two different ways of giving instructions. And thinking about it, I think it can be fit into the stud and fighter theory.
I must admit I’ve forgotten what Dawkins used this argument for, but he talks about how a carpenter teaches his apprentice. According to Dawkins, the carpenter gives instructions such as “drive the nail into the wood until the head is firmly embedded” and contrasts it to instructions which say “hold the nail in your left hand and hit it on the head with a hammer held in the right hand exactly ten times”. By giving instructions in the former way, Dawkins argues, there is less chance of the apprentice making a mistake. However, in case the apprentice does err, it is likely to be a significantly large error. On the other hand, with the latter kind of instructions, chance of error is higher but errors are likely to be smaller.
A set of “stud instructions” typically tell the recipient “what to do”. It is typically not too specific, and lists out a series of fairly unambiguous steps. The way in which each of these smaller steps is to be accomplished is left to the recipient of the instructions. Hence, given that each instruction is fairly clear and unambiguous, it is unlikely that the recipient of the instructions will implement any of these instructions imperfectly. What is more likely is that he goes completely wrong on one step, maybe completely missing it or horribly misunderstanding it.
“Fighter instructions”, on the other hand, go deep into the details and tell the recipient not only what to do but also how to do what to do. These instructions will go down to much finer detail than stud instructions, and leave nothing to the reasoning of the recipient. Obviously the number of steps detailed here to do a particular piece of work will be significantly larger than the number of steps that a set of stud instructions. Now, the probability that the recipient of these instructions is likely to make a mistake is much larger, though the damage done will be much smaller, since the error would only be in a small part of the process.
Dawkins went on to give a better example than the carpenter one – consider an origami model of a boat on one hand, and a drawing of a boat on the other. Origami gives a set of precise and discrete instructions. Drawing is as good as a set of “continuous instructions”. Dawkins talks about experiments where kids are made to play a version of “chinese whispers” using the origami and the drawing. I won’t go into the details here but the argument is that the stud instructions are much easier to pass on, and the probability of the tenth kid in line producing a correct model is really high – while in case of a drawing, there is a small distortion at each and every step, so each final model is flawed.
Stud and fighter instructions have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Fighter instructions require much more supervision than do stud instructions. Stud instructions enable the recipient to bring in his own studness into the process and possibly optimize one or more of the sub-processes. Fighter instruction sets are so-finegrained that it is impossible for the recipient to innovate or optimize in every way. To receive a set of stud instructions, the recipient may need to have certain prior domain knowledge, or a certain level of intelligence. This is much more relaxed in case of fighter instructions.
I personally don’t like supervising people and hence prefer to give out stud instructions whenever I need to get some work done. However, there was one recent case where I was forced to do the opposite. There was this IT guy at my company on contract and I was supposed to get a piece of code written from him before his contract expired. Given the short time lines in question, and given that he didn’t have too much of a clue of the big picture, I was forced to act micro and give him a set of fighter instructions. He has ended up doing precisely what I asked him to do, the only problem being that he has written code in an extremely inflexible and non-scalable manner and I might have to duplicate his effort since this bit now needs generalization.
I have noticed that a large majority of people, when they have to give out instructions spell it out in the fighter manner. With a large number of micro steps rather than a small number of bigger steps. And until the recipient of the instructions has got enough fundaes to consolidate the set of micro-instructions he has received into a natural set of bigger chunks, it is unlikely that he will either be very efficient or that he will produce stuff that will be flexible. It might also be the case that a large number of people don’t want to let go of “control” and are hence loathe to give out stud instructions.
In the general case, however, my recommendation would be to give stud instructions, but have a set of fighter instructions ready in case the recipient of the instructionss wants things to be more specific.
Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory: