Know Your Scarcity

Fred Brooks, the computer scientist who 35 years ago wrote the still-relevant The Mythical Man-Month, has written a new book, The Design of Design, and Kevin Kelly interviews him in Wired. It’s interesting throughout, but the following struck me as particularly insightful:

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

I believe Brooks’s point about money often not being the scarcest resource is spot-on; as Stella Adler used to say, “your talent is in your choice.”

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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    I’d say that The MMM is a) scarcely known at all, and b) revered by those who do know it.

    But I think that snippet may be oversimplifying. Money may not be scarce in a politicking-up-the-wall contest like a moonshot, but if the cost of shaving 5Kg off the weight of your lander outweighs the cost of the fuel needed to get that 5Kg to the moon, then it’s still money that calls the shots. If it doesn’t, it;s the weight that calls the shots. Or maybe it doesn’t, but the time taken for the redesign means you get to the moon second. Which is scarcest, money, lightness, or time, can change from moment to moment in a complex dance. (Something I’m sure Mr Brooks understands thoroughly!)

    Let’s just hope this book doesn’t lead to a glut of pointy-haired bosses deciding that the first thing they need to do in their project is to decide what’s scarce and set that decision in stone for all time….

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  2. ryan says:

    whats up with the lack of wolfers? I miss his post

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Moon Landing Economics: I think you have it slightly wrong. It’s the safety of the human cargo that called the shots. Everything is subservient to safely landing and returning the human cargo.

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  4. considerationkilledtheradiostar says:

    Were that so, Eric M Jones, we’d never have gone in the first place…

    I really liked this when I read it in Wired and it’s just as impactful reading it again today. Thanks for it.

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  5. trace says:

    In Ian McHarg’s layer cake for designing with nature, one was supposed to be determining what where the ‘knock-out constraints’ on the design… Sort of the negative side of ‘know your scarcity’ concept..

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  6. R.M. 'Auros' Harman says:

    I disagree with the idea that most projects have a single binding constraint that renders the others irrelevant. It’s much more likely that optimizing against any one constraint will pessimize several others.

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  7. Devinder K.Sharma says:

    Brooks’s comment on the criticality of various inputs in the design process is right on target. Finding out the scarcest resource in the process is like knowing one’s constraints in advance. It definitely leads to better appreciation of the problem being tackled and optimising the output to suit the caller’s demand. Money certainly is no longer the scarcest resource today, as Dubner says.

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  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    @6- R.M. ‘Auros’ Harman

    I agree with you (but you mean refudiate, not pessimize, you betcha…).

    In my earlier post, I was too quick to pooh-pooh the notion that weight is the limiting resource (or so). What I should have said was that weight (actually mass) is only one of several variables that are important to consider.

    Like most things in life there are tradeoffs. If one had had more thrust or money or time (or Russian propulsion engineers); then mass would have been less important.

    It is tautological that everything should be as light as it can be for a particular application, but no lighter. Everything should be as simple as it can be but no simpler….

    But my main disagreement is simply that Fred Brooks paints a simpler picture than can be supported by the task of real engineering. Of course I didn’t read his book, but I read the MMM and that’s why I won’t read it.

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