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The Inverse Square Law
Entry 1919, on 2018-06-20 at 20:01:38 (Rating 4, Comments)
The inverse square law is well known in physics. It states that some physical quantity becomes less strong at a rate relative to the square of the distance to the source. For example, if one planet is twice as far from the Sun as another, the gravity of the Sun won't be half as strong, it will just be a quarter as strong, because a quarter is a half squared.
And the same applies to the light from the Sun. If one planet gets 1 unit of light, then another planet 10 times closer won't get 10 times as much light, it will get 100 times as much, because the difference in distance is a factor of 10, and the difference in light is 10 squared, which is 100.
Basically it means that as the defining number (in this case distance) gets higher, the resulting number (gravity, light, etc) doesn't just get lower, it gets much lower.
Of course, this blog post is not a lesson about physics, it is a rant about modern society. By the way, if any of my readers would prefer a lesson about physics please leave a comment because I know my basic physics fairly well!
Anyway, to get back to the inverse square law in relation to society. I always think of it in relation to large organisations and why they are so hopelessly inefficient.
If one person is responsible for getting a job done there is a good chance that it will happen fairly quickly and reliably. But add another and suddenly misunderstanding, miscommunications, poor relationships, and poor procedures suddenly become an issue.
Add another person and the total sources of issues increases exponentially. Imagine the two people situation (let's call them A and B), then A could interact poorly with B or vice versa. There are just 2 sources of problems. But with 3 (A, B, and C) A could have issues with B or C, B could have them with A or C, and C could have them with A or B, additionally A could have issues with C via B, etc. The total chance of poor communication becomes high very quickly.
Now imagine an organisation where 50 or 100 people interact!
Yes, it's not surprising that large organisations rarely work efficiently, is it?
In fact, this is far worse than an inverse square law because the number of interactions between a certain number (and therefore the potential confusion and inefficiency) is related to a factorial law, not a squared law. So a squared law would say that 10 people are 100 time as confused as one but a factorial law would say they are 3.6 million times as confused!
Of course, I'm not really saying that there is a simple mathematical law describing human behaviour in groups, I'm just saying the general principle applies in a general qualitative way instead of an exact quantitative one.
Now it's time for an example. We haven't heard from my friend Fred (not his real name) for a while, but just to remind you, he works in a large organisation in a similar role to me, so I sometimes identimes identify with his difficulties. Anyway, here's the story...
A staff member needed help with a technical issue (I need to be vague here to avoid any repercussions to Fred or his employer). The staff member called the helpdesk which, after confusing the client with irrelevant questions, logged a call which went to a coordinator. That person forwarded it to someone they thought specialised in that area but that turned out to be the wrong person so they sent it back to the coordinator who then forwarded it to Fred.
Fred received the request and tried to contact the client, who was away and not answering their phone. He left a message in the system which the client didn't notice, because the system is horrible to use and totally user-unfriendly. Fred got on with other work while he waited for a response from the client.
After about a week the client called the helpdesk again for an update and the request was sent to Fred (they got the right person this time). Again Fred could not contact the person but he left a voice-mail message, instead of using the system, which the client replied to the next day.
So Fred asked about the problem which turned out to be quite different from what was recorded in the system. Once he figured out the real problem he organised a time to visit the client. Unfortunately they didn't have any time until the next week, but then Fred did meet the client, and figured out what needed to be done.
It turned out the client had to get her HOD to organise the required service, but because of her limited technical skills she asked for the wrong thing and the HOD sent the wrong information to the helpdesk. A request was sent to another support person who eventually figured out Fred was involved and sent it to him instead.
Fred corrected the information and re-submitted the request. When the helpdesk person received it they cancelled it because they thought it was a duplicate of the previous request which had just been corrected. So the wrong service was supplied, or at least the right service with the wrong settings.
After a while the client asked for another update from the helpdesk who gave the wrong information on how to fix it. When this didn't work another request was sent and luckily the client mentioned Fred this time so the request ended up with him.
Fred visited the helpdesk staff in person and figured out who had made the error, which he then asked to be corrected. That went to the admins who ran that service and they assigned it to a technician who eventually got the service working properly. They noted this in the system. Unfortunately Fred was busy and missed the notification that the change was done.
So the client called for another update which went to Fred (they were getting used to who was coordinating it by now) and he organised another visit to undo all the wrong stuff which had been done after the first attempt, and to set up things correctly.
The total span of time was about a month and about 10 different people were involved. The client had to delay their work for that period because the service they needed wasn't available. I cannot imagine what the total cost to the organisation was, but it could easily have been tens of thousands of dollars.
And do you know how long it would have taken if the client had been allowed to contact Fred directly, because he had an established working relationship with the client, and if Fred had been allowed to make the small change to settings to the system that was required? Fred estimates it would have taken about 5 minutes.
And this is the inverse square law in action: involving 10 people instead of one means it takes 100 times as long. A month is about 40,000 minutes. Fred estimated 5 minutes, so in fact it was a lot worse than the inverse square law, although I do have to admit this was an unusually dysfunctional interaction. On average, and allowing for somewhat more efficient examples, the inverse square is probably not too far off.
But if our systems are so obviously inefficient why doesn't somebody create something better? Well first, I have to say that not every system run by a large organisation is as bad as what I have portrayed here, although they are all fairly bad. And sometimes the people involved in the day to day running these systems are not particularly skilled, or well-trained, or motivated, usually because they are not paid very well and not treated with much respect.
But the real problem in most cases is that the people who design these systems are idiots. They are the failures in life who can't do anything except become managers. They have no ideas themselves and are not prepared to listen to those who do. Instead they just regurgitate what they see in a management magazine or what they learned in their MBA course. In other words: mediocrity and ignorance begets more mediocrity and ignorance.
Corporate processes tend to go through phases. Managers just latch on to the latest fad and blindly follow it. Eventually the pendulum might swing back to more sensible systems again, but who knows how long that might take. Until then we are all victims of the inverse square law!
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Contact: OJB, OJB@mac.com. Features: Blog, RSS Feeds, Podcasts, Feedback, Log. Modified: 03 Mar 2007. Hits: 30,213,370.