Tragedy of the commons

An interesting post by John Hunter at Curious Cat Management about the Tragedy of the Commons.  The Tragedy of the Commons refers to an economic concept that shared goods get abused.  The traditional commons story that is told is to imagine you have a group of farmers with cows who have their own fields and a common field.  Logic follows that to preserve the field you own, you will send your cows to feed on the common as often as possible because it’s “free” – you don’t have to manage the commons, nobody does.  But, because of this, every farmer will do the same and soon the commons will be destroyed.

On one hand, I agree with John, centralized services seem to function like a commons.  Everyone abuses them because we don’t directly feel the impact of doing so until having been so abused suddenly the common service isn’t available anymore.  And when that happens, little teams spring up to fill the gaps the common team cannot.  For example, I’ve quite commonly observed centralized reporting teams surrounded by mini reporting teams in each group because the central team cannot deliver.

However, from another angle, I disagree with John.  Unlike the physical commons where a finite amount of resources is available, software has the potential (as does any process improvement) to effectively expand the boundaries of what the team can do.  Sure, there are certain theoretical limits on how much work a person can perform, but leveraging LEAN techniques, the “commons” isn’t so much bound by physical constraints as it is by the artificial constraints we put in via the 8 wastes. 

I’m not sure that Agile’s prioritization or Kanban goes far enough.  That recognizes a limitation and essentially gives into it, rather than looking for ways to eliminate the constraint.  Certainly, establishing respect for the current limitations may be necessary, but I don’t think it’ll prevent the pressure to do ever more work with the same or less resource.  In order to accomplish that, we need to do more than set the boundaries of the commons, we need to find ways to make the commons bigger, so to speak.

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