“Things which can’t go on forever, don’t” – Stein’s Law
Unfortunately, the system can’t operate that way forever. If we use overdrive for too long, the system will break, often irreparably. In most systems though, the break-point is unknown and so we find ourselves thinking, just a bit longer and then we’ll recover.
Systems which are being overdriven surround us. Sometimes we see the warning signs of the impending destruction, but when we do it’s difficult to help others understand that the systems current ability is not sustainable. As a result, I started collecting some analogies about this effect so that others might understand.
The Classic – Saw Blade
A sharp saw cuts down trees easily. Overtime, the saw gets duller and duller requiring more and more work to cut down trees. Suppose we find ourselves needing to cut down 30 trees a day. We are able to finish that quickly and still have time at the end of the day to sharpen the saw for the next days work. But a rush order comes in, and we need to cut down 50 trees today. That’s fine, we meet our quota by skipping the sharpening time. The next day we may find ourselves needing to meet the same quota, it works out but it’s taking us longer. Eventually the saw is dull enough that we are now playing catch up. Taking off half a day at that point to resharpen the saw seems killer and yet not doing so only creates more and more problems over time, till eventually we are trying to use the saw like an axe.
Sprinting feels incredible – the breeze in our face, our limbs free. We’re fast! But if we keep trying to sprint, suddenly we can’t run any more as the oxygen in our blood crashes and we find ourselves just trying to catch our breath. We start to just walk, or even stand still waiting for our longs to calm down. We can’t sprint a 5k much less a marathon, but every once in a while, when we need to get somewhere quickly – sprinting is great.
When we need something today, debt feels amazing. We can have something today and we don’t even have to pay for it until tomorrow, and even then it’s a small amount. The problem is that the more debt we incur, the more the income of tomorrow goes to what we needed yesterday making it harder to make ends meet today. When we develop any kind of information product, we often are under the stress to get something done and get it out to market. Inevitably, during this time, we incur development debt — code that should be restructured, databases that should be reorganized, or processes that need to be improved. Can we just push forward and not do those things which “add no value”? Sure, but just like interest eventually there is so much friction in the system that getting anything done is impossible.
The Red Line
Accelerating in first gear up into the red-line on the tachometer exhilarates us. Unfortunately, it’s the red-zone for a reason. If you keep driving the car in that area, eventually it will break down, the problem is that we don’t know when. It might be after a few seconds or a few hours, but it will break. Organizations can feel like this — we can drive them into the red-zone for a period of time and it may work just fine for a while, but eventually it will break. Organizations, however, rarely have an obvious tachometer. So just because we can make it go faster, doesn’t mean we should.
Turn It Up To 11
Speakers are rated up to a particular wattage. We can keep turning up the volume past that value and things get louder and louder, but eventually the volume starts damaging the speakers – introducing increased amount of distortion. Eventually all you get is really loud noise and even when you turn it back down, the damage is done.
Organizational Counter Pressure
We can push our people to work harder and get more done. In an example that I’ve seen in almost every organization, management takes the budget recommendations and tells the organization that they only have 90% of what they asked for. Surprisingly, things still get done and management gets bigger bonuses. So the next time around the organization asks for 110% of what it needs knowing that cuts are coming, management asks for 80% and on and on we go, until management and those estimating the costs are now working at cross purposes to outsmart one another.
When trust is destroyed, friction increases and rather than getting more done efficiently, more time is spent just trying to manage the infighting within. Any complex system will form antibodies that work against the pressure leaving the resulting system and organization in far worse shape because trust decreases which takes a long time to recover from. It’s incredible that organizations can sprint, can red-line, can go to 11 – but as leaders we must not get addicted to the performance at that level. We should use it when it’s needed, but then offer time to recover. This is how you get a complex system to work well over the long haul and even create a virtuous cycle that allows the overdrive to take place more often.
What analogies have you used to describe this situation to others? Leave a comment on the blog.
Photo Credit: Nathan E Photography