Too much of a good thing

They have a concept in medicine called the minimum effective dose. We need the same thing in management. 

There is a tendency, when we find something that works, to do as much of it as we can. This was my approach to cooking as well. A little spice worked well. Keep adding more and an urgent trip to the fridge for a gallon of milk was next on the agenda. Who knew that I’d finally grasp the concept of diminishing marginal returns in my cooking lessons rather than my economics class? We also find this in education: marking can be an effective form of feedback; let’s see just how much of it we can cram into 24 hours. A bit of accountability definitely improves things; let’s see just how we can make the stakes.

“This is good, let’s do more,” sounds sensible but I think we should more often say: “This is good, how little of it can we get away with?”

Back to the minimum effective dose. Caveat: I have no expertise in medicine (surprisingly therefore I haven’t been invited on to daytime television to share my views on the appropriate response to the Coronavirus). This an illustrative analogy only. As I understand it, once the efficacy of a medicine has been established, the next phase of testing is to gradually reduce the dosage to establish the minimum amount that can be given and still have a beneficial effect. 

This is because all medicines, however useful, have side effects. You do not want to give someone more medicine than is absolutely necessary. And all medicines come with opportunity costs: what you spend on one treatment, you cannot spend on another.

Too often we forget that all management actions come with side effects. And all choices have opportunity costs. Every initiative, every programme, every procedure, every measurement, every bright idea and fad or fashion. They all consume precious resources, not least time and attention. They all have unexpected effects and perverse consequences. The data you collect on a key output is altering behaviour in strange ways in another part of the organisation. The emphasis you place on individual ownership is reducing the amount of collaboration.

Some of these costs and side effects can be hard to see from the management side. An initiative can appear free and safe. But people may be taking work home, neglecting tasks that are not measured, cutting corners, even just reducing resilience and redundancy. It’s practically a law of physics: nothing is entirely free or safe. That’s probably something to do with thermodynamics. 

So the next time you discover something that works, congratulations, but before you go all in and devote massive resources to it, maybe step back and ask “how little of this can we do and still get most of the benefit?” Yes, you may leave some gains on the table. But once you’ve got 80% of the benefits, getting the next 10% will consume a disproportionate amount of effort. Getting the 10% after that will probably consume the same amount of effort as the previous 90%. (These are entirely made up statistics for rhetorical effect.)

To create a workplace that is calm, focused and sustainable, wherever possible use the minimum effective dose.

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