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VOL. 127 | NO. 39 | Monday, February 27, 2012

Chris Crouch

‘If Only’ Answer Is Balance

By Chris Crouch

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A lot of you probably have to manage your fair share of “if only” employees. People who love to constantly and vocally proclaim, “I could do a better job if only I had this, or if only I had that. If only I had more people, or more time, or more money, or more whatever – I could make big things happen around here.”

Are these people correct? Are their comments or complaints valid? According to some examples in nature and an interesting experiment going on at Michigan State University, the correct answer seems to be no, and then yes, and then no again.

In nature, when there is a shortage of a critical resource (such as food, water, sunlight, etc.) one species tends to dominate the environment. As the critical resource becomes more abundant, a balanced ecosystem develops and many species survive and prosper.

For example, in a forest, tall trees survive and prosper when they catch an adequate supply of sunlight. They, in turn, form a canopy that allows other species that require less sunlight to survive, such as ferns and moss. As the critical resource continues to increase and becomes overabundant, one species dominates the environment again. So yes, we can have too much of a good thing at times.

Years ago, researchers at Michigan State University developed what they refer to as a Digital Evolution Laboratory and launched a computer experiment called Avida. To make a long story short, Avida tracks the birth, life and death of many generations of digital organisms that each have the potential to evolve and solve a math problem.

I know it sounds a bit weird, but solving math problems is to these digital organisms as having a successful life is to humans.

Since this is all done on computers, the critical resource in this case is digits or numbers. When the researchers feed a low supply of numbers into the program, only one type of digital organism survives. As they increase the number supply, three or four different digital organisms emerge and coexist. However, when they feed an overabundant supply of numbers into the program, once again, only one digital organism survives.

There are some other very interesting discoveries related to the Avida experiment. Remember, success in this experiment involves solving a mathematical problem. When they cut back on the resources, researchers also discovered that the digital organisms increased their success rate (from 23 of 50 successful trials, to 50 of 50 successful trials) and solved the problem five times faster. Less resources, more success, quicker results – isn’t that a bit odd?

This evidence seems to support the fact that flooding a business with resources is not the answer to the “if only” complaints. This also supports the fact that people often perform best when they have a 50/50 chance of success. If things are too difficult, they get frustrated. If things are too easy, they get bored. Humans seem to perform best when they encounter reasonable but achievable challenges.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.

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