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May 22, 2006

"Collapse" Idea #1: Creeping Normalcy

I just finished reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. As with GG&S it's a fascinating book full of great stories that Diamond links together well. He doesn't deliver a result as surprising as the one in the earlier book--his basic point is that shocking as it may seem, societies really do do things to their own environment that destroys them; but since I'm not surprised that they do this, I don't find it that shocking. Still an excellent book however.

The book is subtitled How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and you could substitute "companies" for "societies" in many of the examples. With that in mind, there are three quotes I pulled from the book that could be applied to Microsoft. I'll blog them one at a time.

The first is this one from page 425:

Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations...Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficulty to recognize that each successive year is on average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards.

There's not much I need to add here. Diamond is talking about environmental change, but this could be applied to any particular problem at Microsoft where you think things were better in the "good old days". Diamond gives the example of a valley in Montana that he saw as a teenager and then again 42 years later; he immediately noticed how much less snow there was in the mountains, a change that the permanent residents had not noticed because it was so gradual.

Posted by AdamBa at May 22, 2006 10:17 PM

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This doesn't strike me as a particularly earth-shattering observation. I've heard the parable about the frog in boiling water since I was a small child.

If you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a pan of warm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will happily stay in the pan until it boils to death.

This is also inter-related to the inertia you sometimes see in a company. When I worked in television operations, the daily log of what had to be played was dropped off on a counter in the lunchroom. Why such an odd place? Well, the Operations Manager's office used to be where the lunchroom was and the daily logs were dropped off outside his office. Even though the office had not been there for more than 10 years, the logs continued to be dropped off there because "that's the place we've always put them." The environment had changed, but even though the change was not all that gradual, the inertia to that change was incredibly hard to overcome.

Posted by: Squire at May 23, 2006 01:03 PM