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. Dave says:

    In a particular optimizing situation money may not be the scarce resource, but from a general economic perspective money can always buy more of whatever is scarce.
    Extreme cases (like space travel etc) are … extreme cases.

    This seems to be more a managerial point than an economic point.

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  2. Young Lee says:

    Fascinating perspective. Applied to healthcare reform, it is the ethics that is scarce – doctors and hospitals charging too much; insurance companies denying weak people. In case of financial reform, again it is ethics that is scarce – bankers and traders earning too much money.
    Adam Smith assumed plenty of ethics when he proposed market economy. Now that we know ethics is a scarce commodity, we should redesign healthcare and financial systems from this scarcity perspective.

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  3. Walt French says:

    @Auros Harman: take a simple assumption – that marginal costs are rising in the relevant zone, e.g., that to increase production you need to pay more for a lower quality employee than the ones you hired earlier – and then the optimum point, assuming good divisibility, is where each cost tradeoff is equal.

    A more restricted example, easier to grok if harder to generalize: there’s no sense building one tunnel 40 feet wide if all the others for a train route are only 25 feet wide. Each bottleneck should be a similar constraint.

    This is design as practiced by, say, Apple. To the best of their ability, just enough “headroom” over the capabilities required, in each of several ways, so that as your needs/usage expand, you haven’t paid for 4X the memory that you need while your CPU is maxed out. I’m sure others do similarly.

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  4. Frost Knight says:

    It sounds very similar to Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. Design around your bottlenecks (or scarce resources).

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  5. Owinurame says:

    On the other hand, Mr Brooks also observes that frequent failure of the rational design process “is due to the desire to enter into binding contracts with specified requirements much too soon.”

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  6. Juan Camilo Esguerra says:

    Hmm….esxcessive weight means you need more fuel, and fuel is expensive so you need more money… I think at the end is always money. You think the problem is the lack of talent in your company you can hire someone more qualified but it will cost you more money (money again) and the beach house problem… you want more ocean front footage, guess what, money, more money to buy a little more… so the scarce resource always becomes money.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    @14- Juan Camilo Esguerra


    I was priviledged to attend a seminar run by one of the top NASA project engineers during the 1960’s. I discussed with him my own problem that once our design work commenced, management was inclined to “add features”. while not allowing a revision of the schedule. While I was smart enough to try to add time for these unspecified and unknown features that I knew would be added– beforehand, this was not permitted. This was a formula for stress, and schedule problems, and over-budgets.

    His answer was, “I just say fine…then I just tell them to bring money and lots of it, otherwise I won’t talk to them”.

    Money is the only limiting resource in building or designing anything. Money plays the same part in making stuff as energy does in physics.

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  8. vincent says:

    If money is not scarce, why do not just hire three teams instead of one and let them compete.

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