Monday, November 14, 2016

Limits To Growth

I love thinking about systems. The Fifth Discipline has some great insight into understanding common systems that occur in different contexts in our live. One of them is the concept that in order to grow, you can't just push growth. The world has underlying systems and these systems will have limits on them. At some point if you push to much the systems resists and pushes back.

For example, lets look at growing the engineering org at a typical company. You will do so by making more hires. This in turn will make the complexity of the system more difficult to manage. The senior engineers will be pushed to management and thus pulled away from developing product. At first there is a very noticeable increase in productivity. This is good so you add more people. At some point the system starts becoming pretty complex and the increase in hierarchy and difficulty of communication means that the rate of getting things done slows to a crawl. You can't just keep growing in the same way. The system has reached a limit here.

Another example is dieting. If you go on a diet you will probably see immediate results, but in not so long your rate of weight loss will decrease and you may hit a limit on how much weight you can lose.

A naive way of thinking is to push harder into the system and add more workers or eat or push the diet even harder. But this will solve nothing as the limits are already reached. More workers will cause morality issues as workers realize it is impossible to get things done and are overburdened by complexity. Dieters will be overcome by hunger pains and unable to cut calories any further.

In each of these situations the solution is not to push growth but to really take a step back and see what the limits are on the system. Focus on removing the limits. This might mean decentralizing the hierarchy or starting an exercise plan in addition to the diet. It might mean keeping the management hierarchy flat and introducing a new software management methodology. It might mean changing the diet completely; maybe your body responds differently to the Paleo diet than the Ketogenic.

Whenever you see a situation where there is growth at first but then the growth starts to slow to a halt, it is likely that the system is hitting a limit. The way past that limit is not more of what has been successful before but instead changing the system in a way that raises the limit.