Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 41;   October 10, 2007: Completism



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.
William Ross Ashby, who discovered the Law of Requisite Variety

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's 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.

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.

Projects of this kind appear in almost every field of human endeavor. You can buy an anthology of every video ever released by Bruce Springsteen; 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[1].

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.
Creeping featurism
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? Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Conflict  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!


Perhaps the most interesting element of the marathon collection is the Antarctic Marathon. Back

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Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

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