Over a decade ago, a friend and I went to California for some training on a new way the program managers wanted to schedule our work. During the training, the instructor asked, “Suppose you have 4 tasks that depend on one another B depends on A, C depends on B, and D depends on C. If each task is estimated to take 2 weeks each, how long will it take to complete all the tasks (A->B->C->D)?” My friend and I both thought it would take 10 weeks, since all task estimates tend to slip a little. Then they asked another friend of ours with a gray beard. He pronounced 18 weeks! Um, if the one whose been around the longest is saying 18 weeks, can we change our answer?
When we estimate how long something will take we often add in a little slack. We think it might take one week so we say two in case something goes wrong (or even more in Dilbert’s case). Now that we have two weeks to do a task we think should take one week, we don’t feel pressure to start. So we get distracted, some urgent things come up that demand our attention. One week later we start working more diligently on it and then we find the problem that makes this way harder than we thought, and so the slips begin.
This book Scarcity describes and elaborates on this tendency to waste when we have abundance in many different areas of our lives. It also explains what they call a scarcity trap which comes after we waste our abundance. Once we run out of time on a project, we can easily become consumed by the one item that is late. In the process, the other projects that need to be done, get neglected and delayed as well. We end up like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, our effectiveness continually degrades. Unless we finally get a reprieve, we can easily get stuck there. This can happen for those who live paycheck to paycheck because as soon as some unexpected expense comes up, they have to borrow against the future, then find themselves trying to pay the interest on that while still making ends meet. Unless they experience some unexpected windfall, they will struggle to dig out of the trap they are caught in, each new stress creating an even deeper hole.
Moreover, once we get stuck in such a trap, we might search for a bailout to have slack again, but that tends to leave us with abundance and instead of saving, we tend to feel relieved we’re not stuck and that leads to the mentality of abundance. We stop focusing and we waste the resources we have. We need slack, but too much slack and we stop realizing how valuable it is.
As it turned out the new scheduling program tried to make use of this human tendency by having everyone create more aggressive schedules than was needed, so that people stay focused, and moving the slack to a shared pool at the end to handle the inevitable unknowns. While this works okay in an organizational setting (not great), it’s probably a great idea to consider personally. We need to bank some of the slack we have in time or money to make sure we can survive without getting stuck in a scarcity trap.
- Scarcity – Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir (On The Scarcity Trap) – Highly recommended
- The Critical Chain – Eliyahu M. Goldratt (On a way of using this while scheduling) – Entertaining