Sunday, April 28, 2013

Real Responsibility

Taking responsibility for the consequences of what we do – or don't do – is often portrayed as optional, yet I would argue that responsibility, in the most basic sense, is synonymous with causality. The only thing that's optional is what we choose to do about it.

An observer of the consequences of my actions will, given the proper tools and enough time, be able to trace those consequences back to my actions, and to me, regardless of whether or not I choose to accept that my actions led to the consequences. That I took the actions makes me responsible for the consequences, just as not taking the actions would make me responsible for the consequences not occurring.

I may not have been aware of the link between my actions and its consequences, and may still not be. That's irrelevant in determining responsibility, but it does offer a way for me to decide whether or not to take the actions in the future. If I refuse to learn about the link, I am surrendering awareness and the ability to make conscious decisions about the events I cause, which risks my being responsible for far more than I'm willing to accept.

Because consequences can include damage and death, it is reasonable for any system (such as a society or ecosystem) that could suffer such consequences to restrict the ability and willingness of its members to take actions that cause them. Restricting ability can involve limiting access to the resources that enable the action. Restricting willingness can involve providing personal feedback that either makes alternatives more attractive or makes the taking of the action more unattractive (which in extreme cases can include pain or threat of death, which is on a smaller scale than the potential consequences for the system). Similarly, actions whose consequences have the potential to improve the condition of a system can be encouraged, by providing positive feedback to its members, making alternatives less attractive, and providing more resources for taking those actions.

This should be kept in mind any time someone says they are willing to assume "personal responsibility," implicitly asking for the freedom to act without interference from society. Are they capable of anticipating the consequences of their actions, as their statement implies? Are the consequences positive or at least neutral for the people experiencing them? If the answers to either of these questions is "no," then it is dangerous to let them proceed, and we will be just as responsible for the outcome if we don't stop them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Efficiency and Completion Time

For a long time I've been puzzled by why it seems to take much longer to do something than I first guess. I think I may now have an answer.

A typical task has three components: preparation, action, and luck. If we know exactly what to do, have the resources we need, and have no bad luck, then we can accomplish a task in a minimum amount of time. There is no preparation, and we will be 100% efficient in completing the task. If these conditions are not met, then in the same amount of time we will only accomplish a fraction of the task, with some of that time taken learning, acquiring resources, and dealing with the impact of more normal luck. In my experience, the first attempt at doing something within an ideal timeframe (what I call an "iteration") will result in the task being, at best, about 70% complete. If you're familiar with the normal probability (or "bell") curve, that's the area under the curve that's roughly within plus-or-minus one standard deviation of the mean.

Sometimes we don't even know that we haven't completed the task. With writing, for example, reading what I've written often uncovers problems with what I wrote. When the remaining amount of the task is identified, and if I have the opportunity to work on it, I may be able to knock out 70% of it on the second iteration, which began with the review that uncovered the remainder. This still leaves 9% of the original task left undone. In many situations, the 91% that I've accomplished may be good enough; for others, even that isn't acceptable.

On my third iteration, I will typically spend most of my time preparing: finding out what's left to do, and then getting what I need to do it. Once again, with typical luck, I'll at best complete 70% of what's left, driving the total up to more than 97%. In most situations where someone else decides what I'm working on and how long it should take, anything more than two iterations is a luxury (and I often have to take the second iteration out of my hide), with three iterations being the absolute maximum.

I am considerably worse at bowling than at writing and editing. I recently played five games following a 13 year hiatus. The first game, which counts as an iteration, was better than I expected: 68. From this starting point, which was no doubt the result of my previous experience, my efficiency averaged less than 2% (attempting the maximum score of 300, with values per game varying from -6.5% to 22.7%). If the model holds true and my efficiency doesn't change, I'll need to play at least 322 additional games to consistently score 299 points.

The amount of time involved in action (working directly on the task), what I call "effort," is simply the reciprocal of efficiency. My 70% best case corresponds to 1/0.7 = 1.43, or 43% more time than if I was working at 100%, while the productive part of my bowling amounts to more than 60 times what it would take to bowl a perfect game.

Interestingly, the actual time, in iterations, is closely approximated by a linear function of effort, whose coefficients vary with how much of the task we expect to achieve. For example, to achieve 99.7% of a task (plus-or-minus 3 standard deviations on the bell curve), the number of iterations is approximated by multiplying effort by 6 and subtracting 3. A more modest goal of 95.5% (2 standard deviations) takes 3 times effort minus 1.5 iterations. The lowest amount I've seen professionals accept is 80% (part of the so-called "eighty-twenty rule"), which interestingly is nearly as close as the iteration approximation gets to a pure multiple of effort: 1.5 times effort.

Both my major professions, test engineering and technical writing (the editing part), involve identifying the parts of tasks that have not been completed by other people. Based on that experience alone, I expect this model to apply to everyone, with efficiencies comparable to mine. Without in-depth scientific research to back it up, I can only propose it as an hypothesis, and explore some potential consequences and questions that derive from it, if it is true.

Education is an obvious area of exploration. Should education be redefined as a means of enabling people to perform multiple iterations of the components of tasks they will encounter elsewhere, so they can use their innate efficiencies to achieve acceptable starting points for those future tasks (much as my bowling games built on experience from years ago, which built on component tasks of walking and throwing)? Is efficiency innate, or can it be modified (and if so, is this task-dependent)?

How does this affect planning and execution of complex projects that have multiple dependent and independent tasks being completed by people with different efficiencies and access to resources? What are the implications for waste from such projects, at scales up to and including global civilization, especially on the survival of everyone and everything impacted by it?