Rank times IntelligenceMany years ago when I was a young officer at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, I got to be friends with the head of the Management Information System (MIS) – what would be called IT today. I was just starting to use personal computers to use information from the mainframe computer to manage projects in the shipyard and getting access to the mainframe meant I got to know the head of MIS real well. He was an experienced professional – which is why he had a sign behind his desk that said,

“Just write a program.”

At that point in my life I had been programming for nearly 10 years and so one day I asked him about the sign. With a sigh, he spoke of the many times that some higher up had told him to “just write a program” without understanding what was required. We both had a good laugh – it’s a common complaint among those who program.

But I saw the consequences of this attitude a few months later in the same shipyard. I had come up with a process to extract the information about the jobs on my submarine from the mainframe and organize them into a daily schedule that was easy to follow using a personal computer. Within two months, everyone wanted to do what I was doing.

  • First, they got personal computers – but couldn’t duplicate what I had been doing.
  • Secondly, they wanted daily schedules – but couldn’t create them themselves.
  • Third, have MIS write a program – which they did
  • Fourth, MIS’ program put one job on a separate sheet of paper – one ship’s schedule was a foot high. (Mine had been three pages long.) Bog down the entire shipyard by using up the entire computer capacity, not to mention all the paper being generated.
  • Fifth, assign a scheduler to each ship to develop the schedule by hand.

It’s a great example of the law of unintended consequences.

So what did I learn? It was summed up for me many years later by Blaise Durante so said,

Rank times intelligence equals a constant.

Simple solutions are what busy and overwhelmed managers seek – they’re easy to understand and usually straightforward. And they almost always result in a mess. Why? Because the simple solution would have like already been done if it worked- and most situations are dynamically complex, not detail complex. And understanding dynamics takes times and experience.

So the next time you hear someone say “just write a program” or “Just anything” – stand by for a mess.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.