Economies of Snail

A few years ago, I was invited to give a presentation to a very large financial services company's project managers. I spoke about maturity, which was a hot topic at that time there. Their definition of maturity included consistency, prescription, prediction, where big things proposed become big things achieved. I presented a different notion of maturity, one which more closely matches what I've experienced as I've matured. I am, for instance, no better at predicting outcomes than I ever was, unless I'm doing something I've done many, many, many times before. Of course, no one's ever done their latest project before, so project maturity might be about out-growing the naive notion that one could consistently achieve by prescribing and predicting.

But this was a huge enterprise aiming at getting even larger, targeting economies of scale. Hypothetically, getting larger creates ever greater leverage, even faster growth, even more profits.

I once calculated that if my newborn son continued growing at the rate he grew that first month, he'd outweigh the Empire State Building before he was twenty. Economies of Scale seem to work fine until they don't. Once they cross over the point separating working from failing, they crumble. Big might have been better. Humungous gets horrible. Bigger-faster-cheaper only works until it doesn't.

Then we try hard to preserve the status quo, though the leg bone can't be scaled up to support weight distributed that way. Wylie Coyote- like, we keep running even after we've exceeded the mesa beneath us. Then we fall.

Looking around my small city, I see some struggling organizations and some thriving ones. The thriving ones seem to be the ones that never grew bigger than their britches. The struggling ones choose economy of scale, the grow or die strategy. The thriving ones chose an identity more focused upon sustaining their identity. A bank satisfied with their market share. A specialty manufacturer who doesn't demand ever more customers to survive. A lot of wineries that pre-sell everything they produce and don't aspire to get any bigger than they've ever been.

The seduction to keep growing seems certain to satisfy for a while. It seems certain that, mastering growth, we've mastered life. But life is not just about growth, but about sustenance. The part of life that grows endlessly is most closely correlated with death, not life. After eighty five years of sustainability, my dad's doctor diagnosed him with cancer. For the first few months following the diagnosis, nothing much changed, though the doctor assured us that the tumor was growing. The collapse came rather quickly. One day, everything seemed the same. Next day, we knew it would never be the same again.

Credit-default swaps were a great idea when they represented a tiny portion of the overall financial market. When their value outgrew the volume of all other trades, they became an ever-taller house of cards balanced on the head of a relatively ever-tinier pin. Unsustainable. When everyone rushes to the same side of the boat, it flips.

My talk at that financial institution was not warmly received. It seemed irrelevant, and probably was. I said that every project is personal, and depends upon not ever-greater control, but ever smaller. As their projects had grown to larger proportions, they had become increasingly impersonal. Planning became increasingly hands-off. Self- control morphed into distant oversight. Work itself became more and more a matter of complying rather than creating. Though this created ever more jobs for managers, it resulted in ever less space for the people populating those positions to do what people do well.

Well, now the masters of that universe have crashed back to earth. And what do they plead for? Bailout money. Help to sustain what was never going to be sustainable. They'd become too big to fail and too big to thrive. Damned whatever they do.

Those who embraced something less than the industrial ideal of growing to produce an ever-larger scale slime trail were marginalized during the recent run-up. We're still here. Deeply discounted. Humbled, yet wise. Working still at economies of snail. Our shells might be a bit harder. Our bodies slimier. Our antennae still searching for something our DNA compels us to pursue. We are not through. Perhaps just beginning anew.

(from a post on my SlowWork Google Group. Request to join this group at http://groups.google.com/group/Slow-Work?hl=en)

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