Sunday, August 14, 2011

The ‘Ideal Free Distribution’ of Professional Incompetence: Applying Patch Dynamics to the Workplace

There is a model in behavioral ecology called the “Ideal Free Distribution.”[1] It argues that as animals look for resources they will deplete the ‘patches’ in their range to the same level of yield (an ‘equal reward rate’). A highly productive patch will attract more organisms until competition is sufficient to justify moving to a lesser quality patch that is less densely populated (and, therefore, has a higher yield of food or mates[2]). Therefore, if the basic assumptions hold[3], all patches, regardless of quality, will be depleted to the same yield or reward rate. Any higher quality or less populated patch would simply attract more organisms until the yield drops to the level of the other patches making the migration unprofitable.

The longer I work, the more I think that this is similar to how the workplace operates. I call it my theory of the equilibrium of workplace incompetence. Any workplace is composed of individuals of varying capability and capacity. Every organization has high capacity people[4] and others that are not so much. But if an organization is looking to optimize total performance, rather than individual performance[5] the high capacity people, with a track record for finishing difficult tasks efficiently, will attract more and harder tasks until their capacity is exceeded, relegating them to a level of incompetence comparable to a low capacity worker muddling through a couple projects.

So, regardless of our capability and capacity, we all go home at night feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. This is part of what Genesis 3 calls the ‘toilsome’ nature of work. But it is also what makes work such an intoxicating and devastating ‘god’[6]. Working harder and building your capacity only make you available for more and harder work. The quest to transcend incompetence has inescapable negative feedbacks.

Post Script[7]: Implications for Sabbath

I am convinced that this ‘ideal distribution of workplace incompetence’ is just one of the reasons why we have to build a stopgap of Sabbath and rest into our lives and refuse to allow our vocation to define our value. I love my job, but it does not love me. It makes a vicious god.[8] It needs to be carefully ‘bounded’ by the discipline of Sabbath. But I think one of the reasons Sabbath is underrated is that it is poorly executed.

In John Walton’s commentary on the opening verses of Genesis 2 he argues that “Both roots (of the word Sabbath) sbt and nwh, move away from the all-too-common misconception of rest and relaxation…The idea of refreshment is most likely.”

We tend to equate the idea of a cessation of work with a commencement of entertainment. The common idea is that “I’ve worked hard, now I just want to veg.” But the discipline of Sabbath is meant to create a boundary around your work to keep it from rising to the level of idolatry and to fill the other time with activities that ennoble and rehabilitate our human capacities that the toils of work deaden. By bounding our work with deliberate and purposeful refreshing we might be able to destabilize the incompetence feedbacks…or at least, we can break their psychological power over us.

This blog was written while listening to Sigh no More[9] by Mumford and Sons
[1] Fretwell and Lucas 1970
[2] If there is not a sociology study that tests this model with the Friday/Saturday evening bar scene there should be.
[3] And, ecology, like economics, is mostly a study of where, when and how the assumptions don’t hold. The interesting thing about patch dynamics is that it is built on an economic model, so many of the assumptions violated are the same assumptions violated in economics (e.g. rational actors).
[4] Note: I did not come up with this theory initially by observing my own career, but the career of one of my co-workers who is the highest capacity engineer I know, and always has more work than he can execute.
[5] Engineering (and other professional) offices try to individualize productivity and build in accountability with ‘billable hours’. But at the end of the day, you have to pay everyone (especially if you refuse to get rid of poor performers – or even – in the case of federal organizations - non-tryers) so project funds end up spread around at the managerial level. This is an inter-cubicle performance subsidy. It is a helpful way to distribute risk (e.g. sometimes projects run into trouble and take longer than expected and sometimes you bang them out more quickly than expected)…but in most offices there are consistent ‘givers’ and ‘receivers.’
[6] A pole around which we center our lives and derive our meaning and value.
[7] Frequent readers of this blog know (1) that most of my favorite content is in the footnotes and (2) if I add a post script it was probably the point of the post all along.
[8] I really think this is what the Scriptures mean by an ‘idol’. Something that we love that does not love us back. Unrequited love creates a situation of asymmetrical relational power which can diminish the dignity of the lover. In the language of the Bible ‘God’ is different from an idol because he is into the relationship for more love than we are. He subverts the standard power relations of asymmetrical affection by holding all the power but also most of the affection. This allows us to totally vest in him without doing violence to our dignity.
[9] I love this album. I don’t care if everyone else does too. Isn’t it interesting that in most things you have to apologize for loving something people hate, but in music the more popular something is the more embarrassed you are to admit you love it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cities Part 4b: Return to Kansas City

I traveled to Kansas City last winter and wrote a post about it despite spending less than 48 hours in the city. So when I returned there last week, I figured it was worth a brief follow up travel post.

The first thing of note is that in the 6 days I have spent in Kansas City in my life, I have been there for near record highs and near record lows. It was 109 on Wednesday and was well into the negative double digits when I visited in February. That is a 120 degree swing. I left an apple in my car on Wednesday and when I came back it was literally baked. Which was delicious – I love baked apples. I’m just sayin…

But Kansas City really is a surprisingly fun place…with enough stuff for a second (mostly picture) post.

I was teaching a joint sediment workshop with another sediment specialist. His material included a field day at the Blue River.

This was an urban river which was the site of the biggest civil war battle west of the Mississippi (adding archeological issues to the standard economic, statistical, hydrological, hydraulic and ecological complexities). There are severe flooding and channel degradation issues[1] and we did some cool hydro-geotech testing.

I went running at night when it cooled to a mere 96 degrees. Usually I ran along Brush Creek, which has a really nice running trail along it and is surrounded by classic hotels and one of the higher end shopping and cultural districts. There is even a gondola.

But my last day in town, I went running early in the morning

around the World War I museum.[2]

I also made it to a Royals Game. I love going to ballparks. Especially nice ones. And Kaufman field is a really nice one.

One of the reason I enjoy going to sporting events when visiting a city, is that it is one of the few things you can do with 20,000 to 40,000 of the cities inhabitants. It is a social experience of the place. Unfortunately, the Royals are terrible…only they are better than the hapless Orioles who they were playing…so 20,000 Kansas Cityans is a little on the generous side.

But there was a hilarious moment. Before the game teams often play a montage of the team highlights. So before the game they flashed up this graphic on the big screen.[3]

I thought it was hilarious that they would call their highlight reel ‘Major League Moments’ as if that is the best they can hope for. Even better, they left the screen up there for about 3 minutes…and then just took it down. No highlights. Apparently, the Royals were not even able to clear the bar of moments that seem characteristic of the Major Leagues.

Then there was this building.

I heard a rumor that it was the building used for the climactic scene of Ghostbusters. I didn’t bother to verify this, because it seems like the sort of thing that makes a better story in rumor form. But that is pretty cool and highlights the eclectic nature of Kansas City architecture.

This post was written while listening to the Mumford and Sons channel on Pandora

[1] It also runs through the zoo, near the ‘Lagoons of Africa’ which led to a number of jokes about it being a unique ‘habitat enhancement’ project…for hippos.
[2] At the base of the tower is a mural that I found pretty moving, with soldiers and civilians, some antagonistic, others battered by war, all converging on a strong angelic figure in the center and four verses from the Bible:

“Behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was death and hell followed with him.”
“Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders.”
“What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
“Then shall the earth yield her increase and God even our own God shall bless us.”

[3] Apparently it was the biggest screen in the country until the cowboys put their monstrosity in.