Monks and water

Ah, the wisdom of Chinese parents-in-law.

We are visiting the in-laws. The Gibber bumps his head on a chair; much crying. Three or four people converge with various remedies (an ice pack, another ice pack, a cold towel). Presently the adults are bickering over the best thing and the child (who had stopped crying and was on the verge of getting over the bump) starts crying again because of the fuss.

A while later, after quiet has returned, the mom-in-law says to me, “Three monks, no water.”


She makes a drawing:


– One monk with a pole, carrying two buckets of water

– Two monks with a pole, with a bucket of water between them

… she didn’t draw the logical conclusion: Three monks returning with no water (no mention of what happened to the pole or buckets. I gather that monks are a notoriously flakey, sometimes malingering bunch).


Over the years I’ve seen a bunch of thrashes, variously driven by politics, someone’s lack of something to do or greed, that lead to the monks returning with no water. Too many people get involved in a project. Some even get so disgusted at the number of people involved in something that they go off and “do it right,” returning with their efforts to stir the confusion of competing solutions even further.

This isn’t a disease particularly specific to large companies (which can afford multiple efforts). I’ve seen it happen in six engineer start-ups, and I’ve seen it happen in three hundred person groups. You get a lot of people involved in something and (lacking a clear, powerfully repeated direction) the result is somehow less than the sum of the pieces; probably the result of repeated multiplication by values less than one.

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