By Kevin Meyer
Nearly a month ago I read a fascinating article in The Economist that still has me pondering a bit. The actual topic didn't really interest me, but the implications outside of the topic did. So here we go…
IMAGINE that the world consists of 20 men and 20 women, all of them
heterosexual and in search of a mate. Since the numbers are even,
everyone can find a partner. But what happens if you take away one man?
You might not think this would make much difference.
Yep, pretty much what I would have thought. Along similar lines I've wondered how the disproportionate and involuntary male/female ratio in countries like China affect social stability.
You would be wrong, argues Tim Harford, a British economist, in a book
called “The Logic of Life”. With 20 women pursuing 19 men, one woman
faces the prospect of spinsterhood. So she ups her game. Perhaps she
dresses more seductively. Perhaps she makes an extra effort to be
obliging. Somehow or other, she “steals” a man from one of her fellow
women. That newly single woman then ups her game, too, to steal a man
from someone else. A chain reaction ensues. Before long, every woman has
to try harder, and every man can relax a little.
A cascading effect from a relatively minor change. The article goes into considerable more detail on how the incarceration of large numbers of black males thereby affects black females, but that's not going to be my point.
We all know how a small improvement, a single kaizen, can cascade into large financial or operational savings. However perhaps closer to the point of the article is the negative impact of even a tiny amount of scarcity.
Let's take project budgets, for example. Multiple projects, regardless of size, operating within a traditional organizational budget process. What's that process? Always a scarcity – not enough dollars to go around. Maybe just a single dollar short. So what happens, analogous to the plight of the single woman?
Projects "up their game"… perhaps not always in the most up-and-up way. Potential results are inflated, costs reduced, risks hidden. All to capture that one additional elusive dollar. We've all seen it. The end result? Failure, or disappointment. Projects delayed, over budget, results not meeting expectations.
Hmmm… I also wonder what happens when politicians compete for that one additional, scarce, vote…
Dean Reimer says
Your point about projects is spot on. In a previous job I was a project engineer. A good part of my job was trying to dream up justifications for (very valid) capital projects. While we did not deliberately try to deceive, we often had to exaggerate returns (or credit the proposal with bigger savings than were probably reasonable) to try to get the payback period down under 2 years.
I was proud of my on-budget performance, but there is no way the projects met their expected results. It was just the way the game was played.