Scarcity tax

· November 6, 2018

A number of my conversations yesterday turned around the idea of taking action towards a larger goal while being overwhelmed with day-to-day work. This kind of “everything is on fire” operating is demoralizing - the team only achieves a proportion of the work they know needs to be done, and they will rarely do the surprising work which wins plaudits. 

It also promotes tunnel vision. The book Scarcity describes the tunnelling that occurs to people under conditions of scarcity, and notes that it happens across many different types of scarcity - not just the things low on Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. 

In this case, the scarcity is time, but the tunnel vision impedes the kind of laddering up of perspective that is needed to really make meaningful changes. The team’s focus is entirely on managing their backlog, preventing new things being added and finding ways of casting off old commitments. 

In a lean sense, these problems often seem to be flow problems, caused by siloing and misaligned incentives. The organizational structure is such that no one has a full perspective of the value chain, and therefore no one is in a position to resolve these kind of mismatches. 

When you combine structural problems with tunnel vision you have a recipe for a really unpleasant and very ineffectual work environment. The only way out is bringing together people who have a view of the different parts of the process, building enough respect and trust between them that they are genuinely curious about each other’s perspective, and then defining goals with them that are bigger than any one group. This is significantly easier said than done.