Completism is the desire to create or acquire a complete set of something. In our personal lives, it drives collectors to pay high prices for rare items that "complete the set." In business it drives us to squander our resources in surprising ways.
Peter Farrell and Andrew Kulyk of Buffalo, New York, aren't ordinary sports fans. In 1999, attending the All-Star game of the National Hockey League in Tampa, Florida, they decided to try to attend games at all the venues of the four major U.S. sports leagues: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. They "finished" in December 2002, but since new venues are opening all the time, their odyssey continues.
William Ross Ashby. Self-portrait, 10 Dec 1955. W.R. Ashby (1903-1972) was one of the founders of the field of cybernetics. In 1956, shortly after the photo above was taken, Ashby published Introduction to Cybernetics (Chapman & Hall). It contained a statement and proof of his "Law of Requisite Variety," which describes a necessary condition for a system to maintain stable equilibrium. That condition is that the controller must be capable of assuming any of a set of states, in variety equal to or greater than the variety of the perturbations of its environment. Ashby's Law implies that a business system needs a certain minimum variety of internal states to cope with perturbations of its environment. But since variety isn't free, we must select the elements of the controlling system's state library carefully. Completism can lead us to populate the system's state library with variety that is of little use in coping with environmental perturbation, thus saturating the system's capacity without providing the coping variety it requires. Introduction to Cybernetics is also available in Acrobat format from Principia Cybernetica. Photo is Copyleft 2002, no rights reserved.
Projects of this kind appear in almost every field of human endeavor. You can buy an anthology of ; you can join the New England 4,000 Footers Club by climbing every peak in New England exceeding 4,000 feet; or you can join the Seven Continents Club by running a marathon on each of the seven continents.
This pattern is so common that we have a name for it: completism. In pop culture, completist activities are somewhat amusing (if sometimes questionable) hobbies, provided they don't interfere with one's health and well-being.
In business, completism is often an indicator of trouble. Here are some of the forms completism takes in business.
The lopsided product line
We sometimes offer products that exist mostly to "complete the set" — to make our offering span the entire market. We use descriptors like "full spectrum" or "complete" to describe these offerings.
Does it make sense to offer products that serve less than 1% of the market? Perhaps, but we could ask the question more often than we do. Sometimes full coverage is important — it can simplify the buyer's decision process. But often, full coverage is simply completism and provides no advantage to buyer or seller.
The overfull benefits menu
Packing the menu of employee benefits is one approach to solving the problem of inadequate benefits. Some companies offer options that few people want and still fewer elect, but the menu appears to be complete, which makes it an attractive recruiting tool. The complexity of the offering is confusing in itself.
Offering a simpler array of truly valuable benefits might be cheaper for the company, and more useful to its employees.
In product Does it make sense to offer products that serve less than 1% of the market?design, completism sometimes leads to offering numerous capabilities that only a few users can understand and most wouldn't use even if they could understand them. To make the products look simple, we hide these features, which further reduces their accessibility.
Simpler products are cheaper and easier to use. Reducing the feature array might make marketing more difficult, but let's solve marketing problems with marketing, not featuremongering.
Perhaps the most common and expensive example of completism at work is the compound failure — the failure to cancel the zombie project that has already failed but lives on. What are you or your company doing only for the sake of completeness? What would happen if you stopped? TopNext Issue
Perhaps the most interesting element of the marathon collection is the Antarctic Marathon.
Unless you execute all your action items immediately, they probably end up on your To-Do list. Since they're a source of stress, you'll feel better if you can find a way to avoid acquiring them. Having a Not-To-Do list reminds you that some things are really not your problem.
Some people in your organization have done really outstanding work. You want to recognize that work, but the budget is so small that anything you could do would be insulting. What can you do? Express your Appreciation and Trust.
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
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On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
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