You might think that I squander my time sitting in a beach chair, not thinking about anything at all, and just eating cheeseburgers all day long. But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I eat doughnuts instead.

And on very rare occasions, I do think about something. So here’s a thought: path dependence.

“Path dependence” sure sounds like a boring term, but it’s really a cool idea that’s just a victim of bad labeling. Behind that boring wrapper is an explanation for why things often insist on being the way they are and aren’t easy to improve.

Here’s a favorite example: keyboards.

The conventional layout for keyboards is called QWERTY, and it so named, of course, for the first keys on the top row of letters. It’s a lousy design. It’s hard to learn, and even once you learn it, the most commonly-used keys aren’t usually directly under the fingers.

So why does QWERTY persist?

Path dependence.

Before people were typing at computers, they were typing on typewriters. The first designs were hitting commercial potential in the 1870’s, and during these early days, the QWERTY arrangement hit the scene. The details behind the development are probably lost in the mists of time, but were probably rooted in the mechanical constraints of the devices or, perhaps, factors involved in helping telegraph operators make the transition to the new-fangled typing machines.

In any event, having been the solution that worked at the time, QWERTY was launched successfully. The layout became the standard, that standard has had about 140 years to propagate, and, well, here we are. The reasons for the design are gone, but the design itself remains. Trying to convince everyone to embrace another design would be like changing the tire on a rolling car.

Welcome to path dependence. The situation can rear its head in just about any realm I can think of. For example, we see path dependence, to a greater or lessor extent, in the design of our bodies, the engineering of aircraft, the use of languages, the evolution of software, the structure of economies, and so on.

Although the QWERTY example might make us laugh at such a clunky relic of the olden days, I don’t know if our modern minds are any less path dependent for more contemporary inventions. When it comes to products, propagation of the design is surely one factor in path dependence. In the olden days those heavy, steel typewriters and their keyboards had to be stamped out one-by-one, then lugged aboard carts, trains, and ships to hit the market. QWERTY’s plod through history must have been just that: a plod, at least through the early decades.

These days, by contrast, a piece of software can propagate around the world in a matter of seconds. Maybe that’s not a deep path, but it’s sure a wide one.

In the business world, path dependence is often lurking in the shadows. If you arrive at a new job, for example, and want to help the company develop its sales, you’ll usually learn a lot by looking at the path it took to get where it is. This approach will often reveal constraints, or opportunities, that weren’t visible with a superficial glance.

It’s not all that common of an approach, though. Managers often relish sitting in judgment of past decisions, but they often overlook the context in which those decisions were made. It’s a pretty rare person who can invert that process and suspend judgment about a decision while learning about the context that surrounded it.

Heeding the past doesn’t mean being tied to it; to the contrary, the best way to break into a new direction is to understand how and why the old direction evolved. So maybe “path dependence” is too strong of a term. “Path influence” is probably more accurate in many cases.

One of my friends likes to observe that what you’ll be doing in 10 years is largely a function of what you’re doing right now, and that what you’re doing right now is largely a function of what you were doing 10 years ago. Whether that’s a liberating notion, or a constraining one, depends on how you want to look at it, I suppose.

As for me, I suppose that’s all the thinking I’m willing to do today. It’s time to put away this keyboard. So goodbye, QWERTY. Hello, beach chair.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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