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.


JMBower said...

I think I have lived this concept on both ends of the spectrum. Excellent connections made here.

Tyler said...


Once again the clarity of your thought rings true to "what is" in the world. While my reaction to the idea of becoming "incompetent" is "no way!"; upon further review I think you are correct. I have come to enjoy building a great team of people as much as creating the product of wine. I think a reason for this is because I enjoy increasing the productivity and yield of the team as much as my own results. And at some point you can see yourself being so stretched that you are not producing as well until you add an excellent team member.

I have had to develop a discipline of mental down time that includes mental ENGAGEMENT with a different task! Right now that is revisiting Francis Schaeffer's commentary on the future of the church. Eerily prophetic stuff!