In April of 2011 while driving to work I got a phone call from my department head. It was pretty uncommon and I was curious, and a little apprehensive when I answered. He asked me if I had heard what happened at Yale the night before. I said no, He explained. A student had been killed in an accident in one of their machine shops. After giving me the details as he knew them, he asked me how we could make sure that it never happened at WPI.
My initial response was defensive and I said “We have good policies,” but even as I thought it, before the words even cleared my lips, I knew that Yale had to have good policies too. The real question we needed to answer was how do we know that the students / staff / visitors will obey the policies. And, what can we do to ensure that they do.
We have thought alot about this question over the years and have updated policies and made a significant effort to understand how to influence people to make good decisions. Every year as we get close to important deadlines for graduation we see evidence of bad decision making by some people, and observe others to consistently make good decisions. Pareto’s Law and a corelary that I propose here may explain this phenomenon entirely and may in fact help save lives in the future.
Pareto with his peas has managed to change the thoughts and expectations of people throughout the world and through the centuries. I wonder if there has been a bestselling business book in the last 20 years that didn’t mention Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 rule as many have come to know it.
Now, of course, we know that he didn’t create the principle, he observed the phenomenon and reported on it.
Over the last 30 years as an engineer, scientist, and now an educator I’ve observed a phenomenon that may well be a corollary to Pareto’s Principle. I’ve observed myself, my colleagues, and my students, and I’ve told many of you about this, already, as the idea formed in my mind over the years.
First we can all agree, I think, that when we take on a new project the farther away, in time, the deadline is, the less motivation we have to complete the project immediately. I think even whether we call it the 80/20 Rule or not, we know in our hearts that we will do 80% of the required work in 20% of the available time so there is no real need for that motivation in the beginning. I’m not talking about what we should do. I’m talking about what we tend to do. I’ve observed plenty of exceptions, usually resulting in outstanding work.
Now as the deadline gets closer day by day the rule still applies. Our motivation does creep up slowly but we still have plenty of time. eventually we reach what Malcolm Gladwell might call a tipping point in motivation and it begins to grow exponentially and we feel like the deadline is flying at us at supersonic speed. This is when we get our ass in gear and we really get to work.
We all know about potential energy. We talk about chemical potential energy everytime we count calories. And anyone who had Physics I can explain kinetic potential energy. I say we also have potential skills. These are skills that we still have time to acquire. I call this set of potential skills that we have our Apparent Skill or Apparent Skill Level. It’s a combination of the things we already know (the skills we have) and the things we still have time to learn before we need to use them to complete the project.
Let’s say our project is to drive from Boston to LA and we have 6 years to complete the project. We have the Apparent Skill to complete this task even if we are 11 years old and have never driven a car because we still have time to learn. If we have 6 months to complete the project we can still pull it off if we are old enough to get a license. With 6 weeks to pull off the project we could probably learn to drive in time, but we would need to dedicate a lot of time to doing it and the risk would go up. Inexperienced drivers are more likely to make mistakes, more likely to have accidents, more likely to get hurt, and more likely to die. At six days out if we still don’t know how to drive it would be a stupid decision for us to try to learn “along the way” even though it would be possible. At 6 years out our Apparent Skill was 100% of that needed. At 6 days out our Apparent Skill is zero for all intents and purposes.
Remember our Apparent Skill Level includes the things we know how to do (our current skills,) and the skills we can acquire (the things we can learn.) Since learning takes a finite amount of time, apparent skill falls off as the deadline approaches, unless we are proactively learning along the way.
If we plot apparent skill and motivation on the same time scale we see that the two lines cross at some point close to the deadline. I call this the point of desperation. Motivation has becomes desperation at this point and this is the time when we make bad decisions. It’s when we decide we can learn to drive on the way to LA. It’s the point where we decide to stay up all night to finish, when we know we need to be sharp and make good decisions in the morning. It’s the time we decide to work alone in the lab even though we know that is against the rules and unsafe.
In the past 30 years of observing this phenomenon I’ve made my share of bad decisions, and I’ve seen, and and seen the evidence of, so many more. I’ve also learned that it is possible to change the equation that defines apparent skill. It’s possible to maintain the apparent skill required to complete projects even as the deadlines are flying at you. It’s even possible to make good decisions after you have crossed the desperation point.
Making Good Decisions
The best way to avoid the desperation point of course is to never get there. To acquire the skills and complete the project before the deadline arrives. Acquiring the skills and taking action to complete the project early on will keep your Apparent Skill Level curve from declining.
But let’s face it, if we wait to the last minute to finish our projects, we probably will wait to learn too. When this is the case, consider the possibility of moving the deadline. People hardly ever die on the drop dead date for a project. Think up a good excuse and talk to the customer (the person who set the deadline.) Even better than a good excuse, tell them the truth, some thing like: “I screwed up, and didn’t realize how much time I would need to invest to complete this project so I waited too long to start, and now cannot complete it on time without sacrificing safety, and or, quality.” Own the mistake and ask them to cut you some slack.
If that doesn’t work, or if you are too afraid to talk to the customer, ask for some help. Even if you cannot meet the deadline maybe you know someone who can help. If you don’t know someone who can help, find them. If they won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart they might do it for cash, the promise of a returned favor, or possibly as sixpack.
And, if all else fails, accept the fact that your not gonna make it. Accept the fact that the deadline is going to wiz past with a zinging sound. Own up to it, and move on (with a little more experience.) There is no true value in the bad decisions you might make and there can be significant risk to yourself and others. It was just a few years ago that, Michele Dufault died while working on a project in one of her campus labs, I don’t know if she was rushing to meet a deadline or not, but she was working alone, in a lab, late at night, and these are the kind of things we do when we are rushing to complete deadlines. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/nyregion/yale-student-dies-in-machine-shop-accident.html)
Please, please, please, if the deadline is tomorrow or if it’s six years away, stop and think for a second. If your at the edge of your knowledge, ask for help. If there’s not enough time to finish, ask for an extension. If you think you need to stay up all night to finish, then there is not enough time to finish safely…
Making good decisions usually only takes a short pause.