Sometimes, insight arrives a couple of decades later.

I’m referring to George Will and his recent column, “Think you’re living in a ‘hellhole’ today? Try being a billionaire in 1916.” (Washington Post, 5/5/2017) and research he cites from economist Don Boudreaux, who makes points identical to those made here more than twenty years ago (“A holiday card to the industry,” InfoWorld, 12/16/1996).

Beyond my chronic whining about how little I’m appreciated by folks like this is a point about human psychology that has broad applicability in your dealings with everyone you work with in the humdrum world of business. Namely, luxury is comparative, not absolute.

To understand the point, look inward: Given a choice, would you prefer to live John D. Rockefeller’s 1916 lifestyle as Boudreaux describes it, or your own? Even, better, ask the question inside out: Given how much better your life is today than his was back then in so many different ways, why is this even a hard decision?

It’s a hard decision because as Rockefeller, you (or I; I’m hardly immune from the syndrome) would have been the envy of everyone else, while today you’re just another schmuck.

Luxury is comparative, not absolute.

How can you use this insight?

Start with program governance. It’s well established that, as the figure shows, when projects are fewer and fully staffed, they all complete earlier than any project does when project staff are spread thin. Businesses that schedule projects this way receive, not just their first benefits, but all benefits earlier than those that rely on multitasking so as to make progress on more fronts all at once.

Everyone benefits. Even business managers whose pet projects launch last get their benefits earlier than they would if everyone’s projects had been approved to launch at the same time.

And yet, this style of project governance is, in my experience, extraordinarily rare. Why? It’s the Ursine Comparative Velocity Strategy in action: I don’t have to outrun the bear, just you, which is to say, I don’t care if everyone does better. I care that compared to everyone else, I’m not last in line.

Luxury is comparative, not absolute, so if you have any influence over your company’s project governance practices, this insight is the starting point for making them more effective.

Example #2: Much to everyone’s astonishment, Microsoft’s Surface Pro line of detachable computers has, according to my informal surveys, become the top I-don’t-care-if-I-need-it-I-want-it end-user device in corporate America. (In case you’re curious, at the bottom of the list are virtual desktops, where the not-personal computer in front of you only provides the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, with everything else happening on a server in the data center.)

If you’re responsible for end-user provisioning, you’d best remember the point about luxury being comparative: If I hold a high-clout position in the enterprise and I want a Surface Pro, you’d best give me a Surface Book, which I’ve never heard of but which is the Bentley to the Surface Pro’s BMW, which in turn is more luxurious than the MacBook’s Lexus, let alone the virtual desktop’s Dodge Neon.

What’s best for the corporation? What do different types of user actually need to get their jobs done? This only matters for those whose positions don’t entitle them to luxury.

Then there’s the ever-popular help desk. In many enterprises executive perks are part of the landscape — executives expect luxury and you’re in trouble if they don’t get it from you if you’re in a position to deliver it.

CIOs in companies where this is part of executive culture know to include an AEE (automated executive escalation) function in their help desk ACDs. The AEE routes calls from known executive telephone numbers to the most senior analyst available, or, failing that, jumps their call to the front of the ACD queue.

Further, help desk analysis are instructed to always ask AEE callers if they’d like an in-person visit to resolve their issue.

If one of these executives asks the CIO if this is standard operating procedure for the help desk, the CIO explains that it isn’t, but that a small list of executives receives “white glove” treatment because, given their role, downtime has a higher impact than it would for most employees.

Does it really? That doesn’t matter. Telling the exec she’s among the exclusive few — that’s what matters.

And it will matter even more come budget season, when the CIO needs executive support for the proposed IT budget.

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On an entirely different subject, my daughter and webmaster Kimberly Lewis recently posted a nice piece on the business value of 508 compliance. Worth your time. You’ll find it here.

Business managers who don’t understand the point of diminishing returns quickly become former business managers, discredited by their failure to recognize when its time to stop throwing good money after good.

The point of diminishing returns, also known as the 80/20 rule and, in this space, as the exalted state of good enough, is backed by a significant body of theory built around Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto’s century-old insight that many cost/benefit curves are asymptotic, not linear.

Pareto’s critical insight: Just because some of something is good, that doesn’t mean more of it is better.

But sometimes, Pareto’s law turns out to be horribly optimistic. Many cases are like vitamin A, where some is good, but more is highly toxic.

It’s the sweet spot, less-explored but probably more important than Pareto analysis. It’s where the point of diminishing returns turns into the point of impending deterioration. Where Pareto’s investment/benefit curve is asymptotic, the sweet spot sits atop a bell-shaped curve, where stability is to be found at the two extremes but the best results are delivered from the midpoint.

The poster child for sweet spot violation was Neutron Jack Welch’s policy of terminating the bottom 10% of General Electric’s workforce every year.

For the first few years this policy made sense. GE was complacent, and many employees had “retired in place.”

But if we also assume GE did a good job of deciding who its worst performers were, it’s a statistical certainty that after a few years GE’s recruiters found it nearly impossible to track down replacements in sufficient numbers who were (1) as good or better than the employees remaining in GE’s workforce; and (2) willing to work in such a chilling atmosphere.

Second example: process management. Take a cowboy organization — one in which fierce independence reigns and each employee figures out the best way of handling things each and every time situations arise, no matter how common the situations are.

There’s little doubt that figuring out how to handle a situation once and then perfecting how the organization handles it over time will lead to better results than constantly starting from scratch. Which is to say, standardizing the processes and procedures used to deal with common situations generally makes sense.

When starting with chaos, a focus on process leads to performance improvements.

Some organizations, seeing these improvements, figure investing even more in process will deliver even more improvement.

And so they do, but what they end up with instead is a stifling choking bureaucracy in which employees, terrified of the consequences of failing to follow standard operating procedure (SOP), use what little initiative they have left to find the SOP that’s close enough to get by. Does it, or any of the other documented SOPs make even a tiny bit of sense for the situation at hand?

Asking this question is a mode of thinking that’s been excised from the corporate culture. And so, customers, frustrated by such evident unwillingness to do what makes obvious sense, depart for friendlier competitors.

Eventually, sadder but wiser, these organizations will sometimes bring in “bureaucracy busters” to restore at least a semblance of life to things. But sadly, while sadder but wiser, they don’t reach wise enough: They overshoot the sweet spot in the opposite direction, returning to the state of chaos from whence they came. (If you’re interested, see “A matter of gravity,” 4/16/2007 for a more complete account.)

Want another example? Of course you do. Good things come in threes, after all.

Oh, wait. We already explored our third example last week (see “In praise of slack,” KJR, 4/24/2017). It’s the importance of not trying to achieve 100% staff utilization, instead building slack into the company’s project master schedule so that minor delays in completing one project don’t throw the entire schedule into chaos.

The moral of this story goes beyond the importance of recognizing when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns or a sweet spot, and what to do when you have: for Pareto situations, stop pushing; for a sweet spot, start nudging in the opposite direction.

Most important: When it comes to identifying things to improve and figuring out ways to improve them, have a bag of tricks to draw on, not just a single technique you’ve perfected.

That’s because those whose bag only contains one trick will keep repeating the one trick they have, because of what the cliché doesn’t say but should:

When all you have are thumbs, every hammer looks like a problem.