Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Virtue of Scarcity

Several years ago, I served on a committee composed of representatives of various fire departments. One of the chiefs, in reviewing the committee's mission, made an observation that has stayed with me. He said, "It's good that we don't have a lot of money. If we did, we'd be tempted to throw money here and there and would get distracted from the necessity to carefully think this thing through."

You can find the problem of excessive resources in Hollywood whenever a director chooses to film a bunch of unnecessary scenes. You find it in other corporate settings when committees are formed to handle problems that would be better resolved by a decisive first-line supervisor. It is echoed in consultant reports that go nowhere and cosmetic studies that are ordered solely for the sake of having a study. Ross Perot's observation about General Motors's tendency to appoint a committee on snakes instead of just shooting the nearest rattler comes to mind.

How can the problem be avoided? By starting with a bias for simplicity and placing the burden on those who would complicate matters. Some matters, of course, do require a baroque approach but those are in the minority. Making sure that the decision making process includes creative skeptics is another grand way to restrain those who would complicate. Often, less is more and scarcity can be a virtue.

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