The Worster Principle

June 3, 2008

In office life, people do strange and mysterious things — things clearly not directed towards the goals of the organization. Examples:

  • convening completely unnecessary meetings
  • counter-productive business development projects, mergers and acquisitions
  • long carefully written emails when a short phone call would work better
  • micro-management of perfectly competent workers

The Worster Principle can help us understand such strangeness and mystery. It is provides a straightforward explanation that can be stated thus:

When an obstacle prevents somebody from doing what he or she ought, the person will do something else instead – and the person will normally do something that he or she knows how to do and that looks approximately like work.

So the Worster Principle separates real-work, what the person ought to be doing, from not-work, the strange actual behavior that approximately imitates work. It also isolates the obstacle that impedes the real-work.

Thus the three key elements to look for when applying the Worster Principle are:

  • real-work – what the person ought to be doing
  • obstacle – what prevents the person for doing real-work
  • not-work – what the person is actually doing instead

The principle can apply regardless of what each of these are and only requires a little bit of strangeness and mystery in order to work correctly. In particular, it works regardless of the obstacle. Incompetence, laziness, organizational blocks, lack of motive, lack of needed tools or resources, or almost anything else can all be valid obstacles in a case of the Worster Principle.

Further, the principle says nothing about the connection between real-work and not-work. In fact, there is usually no direct link. The specific not-work is determined much more by factors intrinsic to the person and by his or her circumstances than it is by the specific real-work that isn’t being done.

Let’s practice using the Worster Principle in a few example cases.

The first example is the easiest: the endemic problem of micro-management. Competence in management is rare and managers often don’t have the skills needed to manage sensibly. So incompetence can be an obstacle that prevents some managers from doing their real-work. And many of those will choose micro-management as their not-work. It’s easy to do, it has the approximate appearance of work, and corporations typically supply role-model micro-managers for newbies to learn from.

In the next example the obstacle is more mysterious. Most people in corporate life experience unnecessary meetings or unnecessarily protracted meetings without resolution. Since these are clearly examples of not-work—activities that look approximately like work but are in fact not what anybody ought to do—the Worster Principle may apply. If so, you can sometimes be lucky enough to identify the obstacle. In practice, it can be very diverse. Boredom with real-work is not uncommon. Personal insecurity is another possibility: a manager might organize meetings aimed at the diffusion of responsibility for decisions that he or she ought to accept individually.

Another endemic problem in business is inappropriate mergers and acquisitions. Studies from reputable authorities consistently show that the vast majority (probably around 80%) of M&As lead to net destruction of business value. So very likely most of them are not-work. The reasons why this particular kind of not-work is so popularly chosen over the others are probably not hard to guess (try machismo, braggadocchio, add your own Latinate words). But more interesting, assuming we’ve decided that the Worster Principle probably applies, is figuring out the real-work and the obstacle. More often than not, the real-work is the old-fashioned way of making your business more valuable, e.g. expanding sales, increasing operational efficiency, reducing costs due to quality problems, keeping customers happy, etc., blah, blah, yawn,… all that tired old advice filling so many sleepy-making business manuals. But why are these important things not being done? First it’s because they are difficult, require considerable insight and honesty, involve a lot of hard work that’s not much fun and they attract very little attention to an ambitious executive. Moreover, if one succeeds at the real-work, one is normally punished by budget reductions reflecting the cost savings achieved and/or setting of bold “stretch goals” for next year based the metrics of the recently achieved successes.

Try applying the Worster Principal yourself when things in the office seem more silly than need be. It’s very simple at one level, but it really does help one understand real world situations. We sometimes tend to focus on the manifest problem, i.e. the not-work, and the Worster Principal helps redirect our attention back to what should be happening and why it isn’t. When the obstacle to real-work can be identified, you may find a practical way to remove it.

 

 


Mr. Worster has been enjoying office life since 1987. Surprised that the principle described above appears not to be a standard chapter in the mighty cannon of management studies, he gave it his own name hoping that, once publicized, acknowledged for its truth, acclaimed for its breadth and depth of utility, and installed in every respectable MBA curriculum, it will afford him a measure of immortality.

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “The Worster Principle”

  1. thefsb said

    Jeffrey Goldberg was on the Reporto Colberto this week. His description of american airport security as “security theater” (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200811/airport-security) is a good example of The Worster Principle.

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