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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Exploiting laggy human systems for executive profit

I wish I had gone on record with some of my observations a couple of years ago. I started realizing that there may not be a linear relationship between the amount of effort invested and the amount of "awesomeness" which is realized in it. I did not mean that in the personal sense, but rather the corporate sense, specifically for that environment where I was at the time.

My thoughts went like this: imagine a chart, where money, benefits, perks, whatever, are the Y axis: more of that stuff put in drives the plot higher from the base line. Then, the amount of cool stuff and other amazing things which comes out of your organization is on the X axis. Get really far out to the right and just all sorts of crazy things become possible.

By saying it's non-linear, I'm invoking the concept of diminishing returns. At some point, you might put in 10 units of resources and you get 10 units of cool back. Later, you put in another 10 units of resources and you get only 5 units of cool back. To me, the mark of a place which really cares about doing those amazing things is one which realizes this, and presses ahead anyway. They really want those products and tools which happen when you get that far out to the right on the graph, and they're willing to pay for it.

Trouble is, it seems that someone eventually realizes there's money to be made. All you have to do is settle for being slightly less awesome. That's because that non-linear relationship works in the favor of the bean counters. When you're way out on that curve, you pull back 5 units of cool and you get 10 units of resources back! Wow!

There's another aspect to this, too, which is the fact that human systems do not react instantaneously to this sort of change. You can start draining away the resources, and you'll probably still get most of the output from your engineers. You're running on your own accumulated goodwill and momentum at that point. Also, let's face it: people won't believe it can happen to them, or will refuse to accept it, and that will keep them going for a long time as well.

Eventually, though, if left unchecked, these things become obvious to even the most fanatical keeper of the faith. They squeeze too much, or enough time elapses down with the benefits below some acceptable level, and that person wakes up and sees the light. Keep repeating this and pretty soon your organization is full of swiss cheese, and you have to start going on these massive hiring sprees. That's when the Mythical Man Month rises up and bites you, since bringing on new people is expensive in multiple ways.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Put it this way, are you an arrow, or are you just wood?