I was reading a book the other day and I came across this idea. I think that I’ve heard the phrase “The tragedy of the commons” but wasn’t familiar with what it meant.
The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic theory put forth by Garret Hardin in 1968. I think this theory applies to a lot of things in our world of business so I thought I’d share the theory and the application I have been thinking about.
In medieval Europe, herders would share a common plot of land, or The Commons. If these herders were raising cows, each individual, acting in his own self interest, would want to increase the size of his herd to help feed his family and become more successful. But as each herder increases his herd size, the land becomes depleted to the detriment of all. In the end, they will even get to the point where the herds are unsustainable by “the commons” and their herds will perish. So, since no one really owns the commons, they aren’t worried about it they way they would be if they owned the land.
Obviously this can be applied to a lot of the things around us. The atmosphere, oceans, rivers, state parks or the kitchen area at the office are all part of “the commons”. But I’d like to take another look at this based on how it could be applied to some of the problems around me at work.
Let’s say we talk about phones at the office. A while ago we switched to the iPhone 4S as a standard for our employees. At the time, they hadn’t quite released the iPhone 5 so this was the most current model. Shortly after people got their phones, the iPhone 5 came out and since then they have just released the iPhone 6. A current employee might be wondering when and if we are going to upgrade. They might think something like “our phones are out of date. When are they going to upgrade my phone?”. Well the truth is, the phones in our company are part of “the commons”. There are people who are responsible to purchase phones, who are responsible to make sure they work right and other people who check and pay the phone bills. But there is no one person who is responsible to review the technology and decide when things will get upgraded. So, there is no current plan in place to make an upgrade. Many things that frustrate people at work are probably part of “the commons”. Sometimes I’m walking the shop floor and Chris (who runs our shop) will come up to me and show me a problem he is running into. Now Chris might think “I told Steve about that”, but in fact, this particular problem doesn’t have an owner. So, since there is no one specifically in the company who I can go and have them work on it, it just falls through the cracks and becomes a frustration.
Another example. I get a call from one of my PM’s. They are very frustrated. They have a problem on a project and they sent an email to 5 people and no one responded. I look and sure enough, there it is. But the problem? They sent it to 5 people. Since it was addressed to all these people, I assumed someone else would handle it. They all assumed the same. This email is “the commons”. Since no one personally owns it, then you can’t really expect anyone specifically to answer it. I suggested that they should send the email to the person they thought would be best able to help them and just copy the other people. This way it is clear on who owns that problem and who is expected to reply.
The more I look around the more I see this issue in practice. Without specific ownership, things fall through the cracks and are not handled. I know it is not exactly what Hardin was describing, but it helps me now see why some things are happening and a possible way to make things better.