June 4, 2008
The magical power of LEDs induces in the hearts and minds of engineers and the technically minded an unequivocal knowledge: The product needs to have LEDs. The understanding of this truth arises at a deep, almost emotional level in ones being and develops into, at the cognitive level, an unshakable axiom. Few will notice that they have become gripped by a mystical alien force but all have experienced it.
The pressure of this knowledge that the LEDs are needed is all but irresistible. A weaker engineer will simply add LEDs without much thought. But in a stronger, more disciplined engineer it can lead to difficulties brought about by a cognitive dissonance between the magical knowledge on the on hand and, on the other, the widely held belief that a product’s features ought to bear up to rational justification.
The uses of LEDs that we see in the products that surround us are all examples of the various resolutions of this cognitive dissonance. Occasionally an actually useful function can be found – a rare and happy outcome. Sometimes the designer seems to have accepted ornamentation as sufficient excuse. But the more common outcome is a contrivance of utility. On the one hand it can be a plainly pathetic apology for function, as exemplified by the entire category of “debugging by LEDs” applications (see diagram). At the other extreme it can be a truly brilliant contrivance that succeeds in creating the illusion of a purpose; an outcome that reflects an uncommon creative talent of the designer. Nevertheless it remains a contrivance – a fig leaf concealing an ineffable.
In organizations the cognitive dissonance can become collective. The scenario is not unfamiliar: certain stakeholders advocating utility, others hiding behind tradition (i.e. standards) but none challenging the authority of the magical truth that the LEDs are needed. The time spent searching for a compromise acceptable to all can run into years.
And who has not experienced the classic cop-out of a hardware designer who, unable to find a plausible pretext on his own, passes the buck by placing the LEDs under software control? It is in this situation that it has been know to happen that a lowly programmer might inadvertently utter the taboo question “What are these LEDs supposed to be for?”
You may wonder but you may not ask.
June 4, 2008
People who still like and use vinyl are probably aware of this already but just in case, here’s how CDs make you immoral.
Most LPs, and sometimes other vinyl disks, ask their owners to cherish them. They can wear out and do so very fast if not looked after. The sleeves can get dog-eared. But they reward loving care by being a delight to hold, admire and use. They are tactile. They actually sound like the touch of a touch of that tiny rigid finger caressing their shapely grooves. And this sound reflects the users’ physical relationship with them over time. LPs report to you on the care and love given them as they were mastered, pressed and previously owned. They are entirely submissive, tolerating abuse with graceful degradation that measures but does not judge their treatment. And they respond passionately to a new owner’s loving restoration.
LPs are large enough to offer satisfying presentation for a wide spectrum of sleeve art.
Most CDs ask you to regard them as disposable consumer ephemera. Molded plastic disks that hurt you fingers and molded plastic cases that crack, chip and break, usually before you can get the CD into a player. Their inserts can’t be extracted without bending, scratching or kinking, are nearly impossible to put pack. Handling them, you risk a paper cut or getting them under a fingernail.
The measly little space available for CD artwork allows only miniatures, a constraint that, judging by most covers, frustrates the cover artists.
And CDs, being digital, ask you to back them up, store the music files elsewhere, mutilate them with MP3 and other compressions, and use the data other than for listening. Thus they ask for the medium to be regarded as irrelevant.
So they force us into the morally murky realm of how we should reward artists for their efforts while we copy, share and modify the bit streams. So far we mostly don’t. How this will resolve itself is unclear but I doubt that musicians will be the winners. Cover artists are in mortal danger. CD users are complicit in these crimes.
The only thing a CD can do to redeem anything from this situation is to turn our attention away from itself with packaging. The more effective this stratagem, the more the CD itself is devalued and made irrelevant by its precious container. But this is a fetish — a perversion of the art and aesthetics of recorded music. Not even a gatefold LP with pages inside can be seriously accused of such falsification. Redemption demands equilibrium between disk and cover that engenders enduring love for the music as object. Mere arousal over an aestheticized prophylactic enclosure is no substitute.
So LPs encourage love and CDs selfishness. LPs espouse corporeal longevity and integrity while CDs are a mere throwaway delivery envelope for bits of information as durable and significant as an email.
Certainly there are exceptions on both sides. Some LPs are genuinely not worth a damn while some CDs are. (The 4CD issue of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Opera From The Works Of Tadanori Yokoo” comes to mind – but this, like so many nice CDs, is a sort of homage to LPs.) Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis: Compact Disks make you immoral.
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.