Impedance matching and proximity

It’s very important in life to know when to shut up.

Alex Trebek

If you’ve ever had an EKG or been tested for sleep apnea, you probably remember those funky sticky pads containing electrodes attached to various body parts. Back in my youth (aka “When Dirt Was Young”), electrodes were stuck on with collodion – some of you may remember how much fun(?!?) it was to get that stuff out of your hair.

The sticky pads and the collodion are there to minimize the barriers to transmission between your heart, for example, and an electronic receiver. Essentially they’re making sure that the messages your body is sending are getting through as efficiently as possible. This is called impedance matching.

Social capital in a community ultimately is about ensuring that information flows through the community to where it’s needed and can be acted upon. This is very similar to an EKG. In our communities, the social networks that connect us to our family, friends, neighbors, and to the rest of the community play the same role as the wires do for an EKG – acting as conduits for information.

But too often we forget the impedances to information flow. If I’m a migrant or an illegal alien, I’m not going to listen to a law enforcement officer or an emergency manager; in fact, I’m more likely to run the other way if I see a cop. If I’m a flaming progressive, there is little chance that a dyed-in-the-wool conservative is going to listen to anything I have to say (sadly, this knife cuts both ways). In fact, research has shown that the resistance of many conservatives to climate change messaging has as much to do with who’s been delivering the messages as it does with the messages themselves. As far as conservatives are concerned, the impedance around messages from Al Gore, Greta Thunberg or John Kerry is simply too high for those messages to get through.

The really tough problems our communities face are multi-dimensional (and probably multifarious!). Real sustainable solutions for most of them are unlikely to be flaming red or icy blue but rather various shades of purple. If we’re going to find those solutions, we’re going to have to share information and work together.

The old saw is that we have to find common ground, and I don’t disagree with that. But if we can’t discuss things rationally and respectfully, it’s hard to know where the “common ground” is to be found. Melding the idea of impedance matching with insights from the science of innovation can help us to begin that journey.

Successful innovation requires movement of ideas – information – from the thinker through intermediaries to the do-er. There are several possible paths for information flow, but the one commonality among them all is that they all rely on some form of proximity for successful information transfer. To anticipate my bottom line, proximity is a means of matching impedances to maximize information flow.

The simplest form of proximity is geographic. All other things being equal, I’m more likely to listen to my next-door neighbor than someone who lives three states away, let alone in another country (take Prince Harry … please). If one of my neighboring communities has solved a problem I’m facing, then I’m going to look hard at adapting their solution to my needs. And their nearness to me means that I’m more likely to learn about their successes (and failures!) than I am those of a town at the other end of the state or country.

But there are other forms of proximity. Take social proximity for example. I have a certain level of trust in those in my social networks. It may be conditional (”I can trust them except when the discussion is about _.”) but it means that I will at least listen to them.

Technical proximity provides another example. If the information to be transferred is in the literature, I might come upon it in my professional reading. Or, I might learn about it by attending professional association meetings. During the pandemic, much of the information used directly by restaurants and hotels and motels came from professional organizations such as the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the American Restaurant Association. These associations turned the rather turgid guidance from the Centers for Disease Control into actionable information for their members. While the CDC lost credibility during the pandemic, these organizations retained the trust of their members.

Businesses often have trading partners or alliances with other businesses. They may work together in clusters. These business interactions can also be low impedance communication channels, facilitating information flow. Cultural organizations and faith-based centers bring together people with similar values and language. They, too, can lower the barriers to information flow.

Even legal or regulatory – institutional – relationships can be used to foster information flow. Although we seldom think about it, working relationships between community and state and federal officials can also provide good working conduits for information flow.

So if I have a message, how do I make sure that it gets through even to those who otherwise wouldn’t receive or accept it? The stock answer is to find common ground. In practical terms, that may mean impedance matching: using existing relationships and information flow networks to get my message where I want it to go.

If I am passionate and vocal about climate change, for example, a message from me to conservatives likely will have high impedance. The message simply won’t be accepted. I could train to better communicate my message but the lack of cultural proximity between me and conservatives will always be a source of impedance. So if I really want to get my message across, I’m better off finding ways to use existing religious or business relationships to get my message through. In other words, I should shut up and find others who can convey the message better. I want my messengers to have as many points of proximity with the intended recipients as possible.

Ultimately, solving the really tough problems our communities face demands that Left, Right and Center find that elusive “common ground.” We can only do that if we can find ways to communicate together. Impedance matching is a way to start those necessary conversations. Done properly, we can begin to solve those problems while increasing our communities’ social capital, and their resilience.

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