Fourth quadrant work

I’ve written a lot about open allocation, so I think it’s obvious where I stand on the issue. One of the questions that is always brought up in that discussion is: so who answers the phones? The implicit assumption, with which I don’t agree, is that there are certain categories of work that simply will not be performed unless people are coerced into doing it. To counter this, I’m going to answer the question directly. Who does the unpleasant work in an open-allocation company? What characterizes the work that doesn’t get done under open allocation?

First, define “unpleasant”. 

Most people in most jobs dislike going to work, but it’s not clear to me how much of that is an issue of fit as opposed to objectively unpleasant work. The problem comes from two sources. First, companies often determine their project load based on “requirements” whose importance is assessed according to the social status of the person proposing it rather than any reasonable notion of business, aesthetic, or technological value, so that generates a lot of low-yield busywork that people prefer to avoid because it’s not very important. Second, companies and hiring managers tend to be ill-equipped at matching people to their specialties, especially in technology. Hence, you have machine learning experts working on payroll systems. It’s not clear to me, however, that there’s this massive battery of objectively undesirable work on which companies rely. There’s probably someone who’d gladly take on a payroll-system project as an excuse to learn Python.

Additionally, most of what makes work unpleasant isn’t the work itself but the subordinate context: nonsensical requirements, lack of choice in one’s tools, and unfair evaluation systems. This is probably the most important insight that a manager should have about work: most people genuinely want to work. They don’t need to be coerced, and doing that will only reduce their intrinsic incentives in the long run. In that light, open allocation’s mission is to remove the command system that turns work that would otherwise be fulfilling into drudgery. Thus, even if we accept that there’s some quantity of unpleasant work that any company will generate, it’s likely that the amount of it will decrease under open allocation, especially as people are freed to find work that fits their interests and specialty. What’s left is work that no one wants to do: a smaller set of the workload. In most companies, there isn’t much of that work to go around, and it can almost always be automated.

The Four Quadrants

We define work as interesting if there are people who would enjoy doing it or find it fulfilling– some people like answering phones– and unpleasant if it’s drudgery that no one wants to do. We call work essential if it’s critical to a main function of the business– money is lost in large amounts if it’s not completed, or not done well– and discretionary if it’s less important. Exploratory work and support work tend to fall into the “discretionary” set. These two variables split work into four quadrants:

  • First Quadrant: Interesting and essential. This is work that is intellectually challenging, reputable in the job market, and important to the company’s success. Example: the machine learning “secret sauce” that powers Netflix’s recommendations or Google’s web search.
  • Second Quadrant: Unpleasant but essential. These tasks are often called “hero projects”. Few people enjoy doing them, but they’re critical to the company’s success. Example: maintaining or refactoring a badly-written legacy module on which the firm depends.
  • Third Quadrant: Interesting but discretionary. This type of work might become essential to the company in the future, but for now, it’s not in the company’s critical path. Third Quadrant work is important for the long-term creative health of the company and morale, but the company has not been (and should not be) bet on it.  Example: robotics research in a consumer web company.
  • Fourth Quadrant: Unpleasant and discretionary. This work isn’t especially desirable, nor is it important to the company. This is toxic sludge to be avoided if possible, because in addition to being unpleasant to perform, it doesn’t look good in a person’s promotion packet. This is the slop work that managers delegate out of a false perception of a pet project’s importance. Example: at least 80 percent of what software engineers are assigned at their day jobs.

The mediocrity that besets large companies over time is a direct consequence of the Fourth Quadrant work that closed allocation generates. When employees’ projects are assigned, without appeal, by managers, the most reliable mechanism for project-value discovery– whether capable workers are willing to entwine their careers with it– is shut down. The result, under closed allocation, is that management does not get this information regarding what projects the employees consider important, and therefore won’t even know what the Fourth Quadrant work is. Can they recover this “market information” by asking their reports? I would say no. If the employees have learned (possibly the hard way) how to survive a subordinate role, they won’t voice the opinion that their assigned project is a dead end, even if they know it to be true.

Closed allocation simply lacks the garbage-collection mechanism that companies need in order to clear away useless projects. Perversely, companies are much more comfortable with cutting people than projects. On the latter, they tend to be “write-only”, removing projects only years after they’ve failed. Most of the time, when companies perform layoffs, they do so without reducing the project load, expecting the survivors to put up with an increased workload. This isn’t sustainable, and the result often is that, instead of reducing scope, the company starts to underperform in an unplanned way: you get necrosis instead of apoptosis.

So what happens in each quadrant under open allocation? First Quadrant work gets done, and done well. That’s never an issue in any company, because there’s no shortage of good people who want to do it. Third Quadrant work also gets enough attention, likewise, because people enjoy doing it. As for Second Quadrant work, that also gets done, but management often finds that it has to pay for it, in bonuses, title upgrades, or pay raises. Structuring such rewards is a delicate art, since promotions should represent respect but not confer power that might undermine open allocation. However, I believe it can be done. I think the best solution is to have promotions and a “ladder”, but for its main purpose to be informing decisions about pay, and not an excuse to create power relationships that make no sense.

So, First and Third Quadrant work are not a problem under open allocation. That stuff is desirable and allocates itself. Second Quadrant work is done, and well, but expensive. Is this so bad, though? The purpose of these rewards is to compensate people for freely choosing work that would otherwise be averse to their interests and careers. That seems quite fair to me. Isn’t that how we justify CEO compensation? They do risky work, assume lots of responsibilities other people don’t want, and are rewarded for it? At least, that’s the story. Still, a “weakness” of open allocation is that it requires management to pay for work that they could get “for free” in a more coercive system. The counterpoint is that coerced workers are generally not going to perform as well as people with more pleasant motivations. If the work is truly Second Quadrant, it’s worth every damn penny to have it done well.

Thus, I think it’s a fair claim that open allocation wins in the First, Second, and Third Quadrant. What about the Fourth? Well, under open allocation, that stuff doesn’t get done. The company won’t pay for it, and no one is going to volunteer to do it, so it doesn’t happen. The question is: is that a problem?

I won’t argue that Fourth Quadrant work doesn’t have some value, because from the perspective of the business, it does. Fixing bugs in a dying legacy module might make its demise a bit slower. However, I would say that the value of most Fourth Quadrant work is low, and much of it is negative in value on account of the complexity that it imposes, in the same way that half the stuff in a typical apartment is of negative value. Where does it come from, and why does it exist? The source of Fourth Quadrant work is usually a project that begins as a Third Quadrant “pet project”. It’s not critical to the business’s success, but someone influential wants to do it and decides that it’s important. Later on, he manages to get “head count” for it: people who will be assigned to complete the less glamorous work that this pet project generates as it scales; or, in other words, people whose time is being traded, effectively, as a political token. If the project never becomes essential but its owner is active enough in defending it to keep it from ever being killed, it will continue to generate Fourth Quadrant work. That’s where most of this stuff comes from. So what is it used for? Often, companies allocate Third Quadrant work to interns and Fourth Quadrant work to new hires, not wanting to “risk” essential work on new people. The purpose is evaluative: to see if this person is a “team player” by watching his behavior on relatively unimportant, but unattractive, work. It’s the “dues paying” period and it’s horrible, because a bad review can render a year or two of a person’s working life completely wasted.

Under open allocation, the Fourth Quadrant work goes away. No one does any. I think that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t serve much of a purpose. People should be diving into relevant and interesting work as soon as they’re qualified for it. If someone’s not ready to be working on First and Second Quadrant (e.g. essential) work, then have that person in the Third Quadrant until she learns the ropes.

Closed-allocation companies need the Fourth Quadrant work because they hire people but don’t trust them. The ideology of open allocation is: we hired you, so we trust you to do your best to deliver useful work. That doesn’t mean that employees are given unlimited expense accounts on the first day, but it means that they’re trusted with their own time. For a contrast, the ideology of closed allocation is: just because we’re paying you doesn’t mean we trust, like, or respect you; you’re not a real member of the team until we say you are. This brings us to the real “original sin” at the heart of closed allocation: the duplicitous tendency of growing-too-fast software industries to hire before they trust.

22 thoughts on “Fourth quadrant work

  1. “Closed-allocation companies need the Fourth Quadrant work because they hire people but don’t trust them. The ideology of open allocation is: we hired you, so we trust you to do your best to deliver useful work.”

    A lot of this comes back to the hiring process at companies. If your only hiring second sigma IQ+ with good track records then open allocation can work because you have reason to trust everyone. If you have reason to believe you are hiring a high enough % of trash then it becomes difficult.

    Valve is a top firm that pays top dollars and recruits top talent. Internally the work is also reasonably easy to judge. That is why it works for them.

    I’m not sure how well this all works outside of the of the elite firm model. It certainly wouldn’t have worked at the lower end employers that I took jobs at in my youth. Those people really were trying to steal from the company and shouldn’t be trusted.

    • What kind of stealing from the company were they trying to do? Do you mean that they were prioritizing their own career objectives, or actually doing things that were unethical and illegal?

      I think that, if you have more junior people, you probably need to impose some voluntary structure: a long-term learning plan that brings them up to speed so they can thrive in an open allocation environment. You can’t do this (and, therefore, shouldn’t be hiring junior people) until you have a well-established culture of open-allocation, and enough safeguards in place that you can handle people who will make a few mistakes.

      Why would anyone hire a “high enough % of trash”? The mistake that most companies make is that they hire people they don’t really trust. I call this “growing too fast”. It’s sloppy and ruins the culture.

      I agree: open allocation can’t save you if you hire bad people, but if you’re hiring bad people, I don’t know what can.

      • I’m talking about things like retail. Where you are lucky if the person shows up for their shift and isn’t high.

        Less egregious forms would apply to low and mid end white collar work.

        I’m not really talking about what high end firms hiring second sigma IQ+ people. I’m more just pointing out that this is a change whose benefits would mainly be limited to elite firms. I’m not taking anything away from it, just pointing out that most of the economy can’t work that way.

  2. I have a specific case where I don’t see how open allocation could be made to work. My company sell custom software for a living, mostly government associated contracts. It goes like this: (i) there’s a call for tender, (ii) my company allocate some people to craft an answer, (iii) if we won the contract, we better get to work, and (iv) we deliver, after which there may be a maintenance phase.

    As far as I know, nearly all those projects need more than 12 man months. And if they get late, not only does the payment get late, it may even be cut (by how much depends on the contract). We’re a relatively small company (100-150 employees), and some projects are so big that their failure would be quickly followed by a major lay-off for economic reasons. (I work on one such project, and I can tell that despite its importance, it’s definitely not first quadrant —or maybe that’s only because I personally hate it so much?¹.)

    Now the question is, do you see a way to make open allocation work with this particular business model? I foresee difficulties with the business model, which naturally leads to relatively big projects. (Note that I’m not asking how to _change_ my company. I reckon this is doomed to fail.)

    [1]: (read the headings and the last section)

    • That’s going to be hard. First, it goes without saying that you have to hire mature people. You don’t want to stake a hard deadline on a 23-year-old (at least, not me at 23) who might not hold up under the pressure. You need an older crowd: people who are in their earning years rather than the learning years. (Personally, I don’t foresee my learning years ever ending, not even at 90, but I assume this is a typical attitude for 29-year-olds.)

      Second, you need to make the workers / engineers participate in the work-seeking and project-defining process. Don’t decide to take a client on and make other people do the work while you get all the glory (I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing; but I have seen companies like that). Explain your constraints to them, let them decide whether to commit, but mandate that they follow through.

      Also, you’re going to have to pay well. Once OA becomes more common, environments with hard deadlines are going to have to be competing on price. But there are plenty of people who don’t place a high priority on picking their own projects– in particular, older people who’d rather have 300k/40h with no defined career path than 180k/60h and interesting work + career growth.

      So, the best strategy for a manager, I would say, is:

      * Be as open in allocation as you reasonably can be, but make it clear to everyone involved that the work must be done, and deadlines must be met, and that anyone who can’t tolerate such an environment should leave.

      * Have engineers who will be doing the work participate in the project-definition process, and hold people to their commitments.

      * Reward them. Pay 10-40% over market and large bonuses to people who meet the deadlines. (This gives them an incentive to take on work, instead of saying “we can’t do that” in the work-seeking process with clients.) Fire the ones who don’t.

      • Whoa, I didn’t expect such a precise answer. It might actually work. Too bad the upper management is overwhelmingly likely to refuse the “pay 10-40% over market” and “large bonuses” parts, even though in the project on which I’m assigned, it would probably have cost less in the end.

        Actually, my project violated all your three advices: I was hired for it as a beginner with little experience, after the contract was made, and after most architectural decisions have been made (most notably leaning on a 2 Millions lines C++ Chtuloïd horror). Many programmers were in over their head, and it shows in the code (hundred lines functions, 5 level deep nested ifs…). And now that we enter maintenance phase, I am in over my head. Finally, because this line of work is the norm here, there’s no financial compensation to speak of.

        Your suggestion also happen to be actionable for me personally. I cannot tolerate such an environment indeed. I knew that I should seek something else for some time now, but you just narrowed my search, so thank you.

        PS: only 29? You sound at least 10 years older… Hmm, so do other people I know of, now that I think of it. Maybe it’s just me believing I’m still 20 (I’m 30). Either way my esteem for you just went up.

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