Spolsky’s latest piece is about Brook’s law, and how adding people to projects can make them worse.
For those unfamiliar with it, Brook’s law states that when you add a person to a project, you geometrically increase the amount of communication people have to manage, suggesting it’s a bad idea. While I agree with the law, there are important exceptions I’ve identified – depending who the person in question is (elite or bozo), how good they are at jumping into tough territory (ninja or bozo), and how much they already know about the project (familiar or bozo newbie). Spolsky’s points are generally sound, but I believe there’s a deeper cause for over-communication.
The reason committees are so miserable to work with is authority is distributed across a large number of people. This makes everyone feel like everyone needs to know about everything. And worse, people fight in the backroom to obtain control over the committee, so the visible authority and real authority can be far apart.
Over-communication is a symptom of lack of clarity over power. If you want better communication, clarify the following:
- Who is the single person who has decision making authority for decision X
- Who should have input into that decision
- Who should be informed when the decision has been made
This sets everyone’s expectations for who needs to know what. It reduces endless forwarding of fyi material on the hopes someone might need it.
The person with decision making authority should be collaborating with others, and can delegate their authority, but no one should ever be confused that they have the power to make the call.
45 people can not effectively make a decision together. But 44 people can council one wise, empowered person to make a more effective decision.
Like Spolsky, I agree things would be better if there were 5 people in the room, instead of 45, but the clear distribution of power is the problem I’d solve first.