Lets forget the bubble, for a while. As well
as the noisy flutters of the stock markets, the inflating and
deflating ventures of the dot coms, the woes of the telecoms,
the bewildering bewilderment of analysts and economists who
failed to see the obvious two or three years ago. Lets go a
bit farther back in time and take another look at some
famous laws that can be of great practical value now
and in the future if we spend a little time understanding their meaning.
Before we look at the relevant laws, I think its
important to get rid of one that never existed and has been
widely misinterpreted causing considerable damage.
Moores law (1964) is fiction. Gordon Moore did
not say that computing power (whatever that is
supposed to mean) would double every 18 months. And whatever
happens to computer technology does not mean that the whole
world of society, economy and human behavior is
revolutionized every year or so. That false perception has
been used for 37 years to sell hardware and software
updates that nobody needs. Even worse, it has
caused a widespread perception of haste that has
scared many people into hurried and poorly planned moves and
generated an unbelievable number of business
plans setting impossible short-term targets. There is a
simple thing that we can do with this myth. Forget it and
concentrate on the realities of life and business. Where
things are changing, but in another way and with a different
pace that can be slower, or faster, depending on the
specific nature of what we are doing or planning.
Gordon Moore found that in 1962-64 «the number of transistors per integrated circuit was
doubling every 12 months.» The trend was not confirmed in following years.
Over time, manipulated folkore arbitrarily defined the doubling period as 18 months
and extended the notion to a vague concept of performance or speed. That false law was used to sustain for 37 years a confusing perception that hardware and software
needed to be changed very often and that everything relating to information technology (as well as communication)
had to be managed with frantic haste.
There are four laws that, I think, we should
re-consider. Four different ways of answering the same
question: «why to things go wrong?». They are not
new, but they can teach us a lot about whats happening, help
us to understand whats going to happen and what we can do
to make things work a bit better.
This problem, of course, has been proven by facts since
the dawn of history. Its been known as Murphys
Law since 1949. Apparently it was never defined as a
scientific law. It started as a comment by Edward
Murphy, an aeronautics engineer, complaining about things
going wrong. As we all know, it became established as the
simple notion that «if something can go wrong it will,
at the worst possible time.» It seems to happen more often
with computers than with any other type of equipment but
thats another story. Over the years it has generated
hundreds of variations and corollaries. Some are just jokes,
many are sadly true. With hasty management and clumsy
technologies the effects multiply. But Murphys Law can be
put to good practical use. If we understand that errors are
unavoidable and unpredictable, and will happen in unexpected
ways, we can set our plans with a healthy dose of flexibility
and avoid the flutter and confusion that make things worse
when something goes wrong. The internet, with its effectiveness
in testing every step, can be a particularly useful tool for this purpose.
Murphys Law is also known as Finagles Law of Dynamic Negatives.
Several collections of its variations are available online, such as
Murphys Laws and Murphys Laws and Corollaries.
The most common definition of Parkinsons Law is that
«work expands so as to fill the time available for its
completion.» That is often true but the remarkable
book written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1958 was about
something else. It explained why organizations grow
regardless of an increasing or decreasing amount of work to
be done. In todays environment, dominated by short-term
maneuvering, stock exchange manipulations, mergers and
acquisitions, the reverse is often true. In many cases the
size of organizations is suddenly reduced for reasons that
have nothing to do with the size of the tasks to be performed.
And that is done so hastily that the inefficiencies of overstaffed
or unnecessary departments arent eliminated. The resulting
mess is a structure that is understaffed where it should have more
resources, overweight where it needed some pruning
as well as scared and confused everywhere.
Some of the problems have been getting worse in recent
years. But Parkinsons book discusses many other organization
diseases in addition to the law. Its even more
useful today as it was forty years ago.
According to Peters Principle (1969) «people are
promoted to the level of their incompetence.» The
idea of meritocracy is that people doing a good
job are promoted. If they perform well in their new role,
they are prompted again. This goes on until they are assigned
a task for which they are incompetent and there they stay.
Also in this case things are worse today than they were
when Laurence Peter wrote his book because the notion of
merit is confused. People are often chosen or
promoted (or re-assigned, or fired, or scared) for reasons
that have nothing to do with competence or efficiency.
And... its blatantly confirmed by facts that many
companies have handled new business areas vaguely
and superficially in the silly assumption that growth
would fix everything. And assigned to those tasks people who
were not competent to handle them. The results are sadly visible.
Other articles on related subjects
Dancing bulls and fat cows (December 1999)
Is hasty really fast? (January 2000)
Do androids dream of electric money? (February 2000)
Dot com tantrums (May 2000)
The millennium and the bubble
Above all, of course, there are the fundamental
laws of human stupidity so brilliantly defined by Carlo
Cipolla in 1988. It has always been obvious that
stupidity is the biggest destructive
force in the history of humanity. And another law
is appropriate in this context, known as Hanlons Razor:
«never attribute to malice that which can be adequately
explained by stupidity.»
Whats making it worse today is the homogenized
worldwide media systems. The silliest statement or the least reliable
news can be perceived as true simply
because they are repeated by so many apparently independent sources.
Hanlons Razor applies here as well: false or inaccurate
information can be spread deliberately or simply multiplied by stupidity.
Its a crucial task for each one of us to be constantly on guard
against the dangers of stupidity. Non only what other stupid people can do,
but also what we can make happen because of those elements
of stupidity that exist in every human being. The worst fools are those
who dont realize how foolish they are. And when human
stupidity is multiplied blindly by technology...
But we can make an intelligent use of technology. If we
use the internet (as well as, and in combination with, other sources
of information) to check the reliability of what we are told
and to understand if our opinions and perceptions are reasonably
accurate or need to be corrected.