George Carlin and Addition Sickness

My colleague and co-conspirator Huggy Rao and I have spent way too much time over the past five years trying to figure out why organizations are prone to add too much of the wrong stuff and too little of the right stuff. We call this The Friction Project. As part of this effort, I hosted The Friction Podcast at Stanford for a couple years, we wrote a number of articles at places including The McKinsey Quarterly and Wall Street Journal, and are currently working on a book (out in 2022, I hope!).

I thought it would be fun and instructive to talk about one of the puzzles we are wrestling with—why organizations, as they grow and age, create so many incentives for adding too much stuff. And so few incentives for subtracting stuff. Indeed, to twist the old Mae West line, too much of even a good thing kind be terrible.

Consider some of our ideas about the causes of such addition sickness. We would love your thoughts about how smart leaders, teams, and organizations avert and reverse this malady.

The late comedian George Carlin captured a major cause of such organizational muck when he said,"My shit is stuff.  Your stuff is shit."  That line explains much about why we humans can't resist adding more and more stuff to our workplaces: staff, space, gizmos, software platforms and apps, meetings, emails, Slack threads, rules, training sessions, the latest management fads. You name it.   We are wired to see the stuff we add as righteous and essential. And to see the stuff that others add as naughty and unnecessary shit.

Such "self-serving biases," as psychologists call them, make it easy for us to justify--indeed glorify--creating that new form or rule that makes your job easier (and everyone else's harder), using your favorite app to schedule a meeting (even though no one else uses it), hiring just one more person for your team (even though your colleagues believe it's too big already), calling that extra meeting about your pet project (even though no one else cares about it), and then holding people hostage for an extra 15 minutes to make your last VERY IMPORTANT point (which pisses them off further).  

Addition sickness persists even though it wastes money, heaps unnecessary chores on others, slows the work, and provokes beleaguered customers to leave stores and websites (and never return). Perverse incentives bolster this disease. Too many companies reward people who add more shit with promotions, prestige, and money.And too many ignore--or punish--people who subtract (or don't add) unnecessary shit. Leaders who start big programs are celebrated, not those who end old, obsolete, and ineffective programs and traditions. Managers who lord over big teams and build bloated bureaucracies get prestigious titles and big raises—even when their ever-expanding army of underlings adds red tape that saps time and energy from people who do the most important work.

OK. So those are some thoughts on why organizations suffer from this malady. I would love to hear your ideas about how to avoid and treat this disease.