Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Work Patterns

When I signed up for the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, I wasn’t in a hurry to finish it. I had no external deadline and no personal one either. I thought that this was good, I could take my time over it, really learn, and an artificial end date would be restrictive.

I was wrong, it was a bad thing. One of the reasons was the, funny but true-ish, pattern identified by C. Northcote Parkinson and formulated by him as ‘Parkinson’s Law’ in The Economist of November 19, 1955 (read online here):

‘It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’

I recognise this pattern in myself and it seems a little too close for comfort to what Bill Mollison describes as ‘protracted and thoughtless action’. A permaculture approach should be design intensive rather than labour or energy intensive, if my approach to the Diploma is creating more work for myself than necessary, I am clearly not using permaculture design to complete it. Mollison has suggested that in a permaculture system ‘one's major energy… is devoted to the initial designing of the system, not to the maintenance of it’ (interview in Mother Earth News, November/December 1980, read online here).

A related pattern that might appear to be useful in moving forward is the ‘Pareto principle’ named after polymath Vilfredo Pareto by the management consultant Joseph M. Juran, which supposedly expanded on a mathematical pattern first recognised by Pareto: the 80/20 distribution. In Volume 2 of his Cours d’économie politique (1897) Pareto allegedly noticed the pattern first in the unequal distribution of wealth in the British population, where 20% of the population owned 80% of the wealth, and then subsequently in horticulture when, as an amateur gardener, he found that 20% of his peapods produced 80% of the peas he harvested. Juran later recalled the distribution pattern when he recognised that for many events roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – a huge discrepancy between inputs and outputs.

This straight off sounds like it’s got some great permaculture design applications right? It’s a pattern found in nature, expressed as a principle, observed by a gardener but also applicable in economics and beyond. There’s stuff about inputs and outputs. It’s got numbers, a ratio even – giving it a quantifiable sheen and a kind of sciencey veneer.

The only problem is: Vilfredo Pareto, while he indeed noticed wealth disparity in many European countries and believed that the disparity was predictability unbalanced, doesn’t appear to have ever expressed that using an 80:20 ratio or indeed any other ratio (although the evidence he gathered from income tax records indicated that about 30% of the British population earned about 70% of the income[read about it here) . Nor does there appear to be any record of him noticing a ratio in peas and peapods, nor of him even growing peas. Joseph Juran introduced the Pareto Principle in his 1951 book Quality Control Handbook, where he writes that:

‘This principle states that in any population that contributes to a common effect, a relative few of the contributors—the vital few—account for the bulk of the effect. The principle applies widely in human affairs. Relatively small percentages of the individuals write most of the books, commit most of the crimes, own most of the wealth, and so on.’

Juran does not however use the 80:20 ratio, the popularisation of this formulation appears to begin with Richard Koch’s  1997  work The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less - one of those primary coloured covered popular business books with big title text that I used to see sold in airports back when I still flew.  A look inside this book reveals that Koch is more equivocal than his title, he writes that:

‘The 80/20 Principle asserts that when two sets of data, relating to causes and results, can be examined and analysed, the most likely result is that there will be a pattern of imbalance. The imbalance may be 65/35, 70/30, 75/25, 80/20, 95/5, or 99.9/0.1, or any set of numbers in between. However, the two numbers in the comparison don’t have to add up to 100.’

Koch suggest that rather than assuming ‘that 50 per cent of causes or inputs will account for 50 per cent of results or outputs’ we actually examine and analyse collected data, so as to be able to draw out the particular pattern of imbalance . I have to say that, for me, this moves the ‘Pareto Principle’ or 80:20 rule out of the realm of observed natural pattern usable in design and in to the realm of “no-shit Sherlock”.

I guess from a permaculture perspective we could see this as an affirmation of the value of the Analysis phase in a design process. It also suggests something that we might analyse in that phase, and evaluate in a later one, and that could point us towards areas for tweaking.

In my own case, relating to the Diploma I can see that very little of the time since I signed up for the Diploma has been spent on producing my portfolio. The work I have done on my portfolio has been most productive when these conditions have been true:

  • I have concentrated on writing up one design rather than working on loads simultaneously.
  • I have gathered all my notes and relevant materials together before beginning writing.
  • I have applied a framework to my writing up and filled in what I can, identifying where more work is required.
  • I have had the Diploma Guidebook at hand for reference
  • I haven’t felt scared about getting it ‘wrong’,
  • I have realised that perfection is the enemy of the good.

I could usefully recognise these as my own effective working patterns, and repeat them to optimise my effectiveness. I'm not sure the 'Pareto Principle' is particularly useful to me however, I dislike its pseudo-science 80:20 faux precision. It's part of a larger concern I have in permaculture about the use/misuse of concepts originating in management theory that may have little basis in actual research, and the use of quotations (inevitably mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, Gandhi or some other super-luminary). There may be useful stuff in these quotations and these theories, but that utility must be verified not assumed - and we should be alert to and inquisitive about the actual provenance of these words and ideas before we share and repeat them with others.

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