Systems Thinking – System Archetypes – Tragedy of the Commons


Today we talk about the fifth and final system archetype we’ll cover in this series — The Tragedy of the Commons. It is a system that starts with independent and rational behavior, but it leads to a disaster. It starts with a shared resource with a number of individuals sharing this same resource. Each individual tries to optimize the use of the resource to his or her best advantage. That is to say, to grow their use of the resource. The individual that grows the use of their resource captures 100% of the benefit of the resource, but the cost of the resource is shared amongst all of the people that use the resource. That 100% of the gain and only a small portion of the cost drives increasing use of the resource and sometimes leads to the resource being overused.

Here is a related example – if you go to a restaurant with three of your friends and, to make things easier, you decide ahead of time that you’re just going to split the tab 4 ways. When this happens you’re likely to consume more food and drink than if you were picking up your own tab because you want to make sure you’re not being cheated. So this use of a common shared resource drives increasing utilization.

The growth of every individual’s use of a common resource ends up abusing the resource and the resource, if it’s a renewable resource, the resource can be destroyed. It’s the problem of overgrazing, overfishing of the oceans, the behavior that lead to the elimination of all the trees on Easter Island.

In non-renewable resource situations you have overburdening of the shared resource. This overburdening, as we learn from Don Reinertsen in queuing theory, can lead to a decrease in efficiency and availability of the resource.

In product development, if we look to engineering as a shared resource, we see that we have a lot of people using this resource somewhat independently. You have marketing making requirements, you have the executive team, you have manufacturing that has needs that are brought to engineering, and customer support also gives input to engineering addressing market issues. Each of these resources looks to optimize the use of the resource and this drives the system archetype of the Tragedy of the Commons where engineering ends up being overburdened and as queuing theory says it’s efficiency drops off dramatically.

The antidote for the Tragedy of the Commons system is simply management of the resource. Instead of letting everyone operate it independently it’s to put a management system in place that doles out access to the resource. In product development or engineering this management takes the form of a single queue for engineering requests, clearly defining engineering requirements and requests, and prioritization of all the requests that come engineering sot he most important tasks are getting the available resources and the resources are not taxed or overburdened. The interesting thing to me is that these three management antidotes to the problem of the shared resource of engineering are the three practices — engineering requests, requirements management, and prioritization — are core to an Agile product development system that EAC promotes that is finding increased usage and utilization even in hardware and systems engineering organizations.

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