Well, maybe it won’t be to you, but it was to me. I’m talking about a comparison I made while driving to Asheville recently: a comparison between my pedestrian family car – an ’06 Accord (Don’t laugh, it’s nearly paid for, damn it.) – and what I saw on the road: a mid-eighties Jeep Grand Wagoneer. It was A Stunning Contrast in Complexity and Other Thoughts.
Now, you might be asking yourself “So what? You’re comparing two vehicles that are at least 20 years apart. In fact, that Grand Wagoneer could probably go into a bar and buy a beer if it was a person.” I’d respond by saying you’re correct. But then I started looking up statistics about both vehicles. Frankly, I was a bit surprised.
But first, a bit of level setting. The Grand Wagoneer is a 4 x 4; an SUV that existed right around the time SUVs became popular, but not like the SUVs that have come since. It was rugged, utilitarian and with just enough in creature comforts to not be totally barbaric. The modern family sedan? Comfortable, quiet and with performance that’s just good enough to not be boring. But it does have features you couldn’t get in a Grand Wagoneer, or if you could, you’d have to hand over your first-born. And that’s totally unacceptable, especially from your first-born’s perspective.
The modern family sedan is also remarkably close in length and width to the Grand Wagoneer. I thought the two were about the same size when we were on the road, but I needed to confirm that after the drive. Turns out, I was right about most of the dimensions, with the exception of the weight. But I can tell you the Accord weighs about 50% more than it did in the late 80s.
Why? Because of the new features and comforts, of course. The airbags. The CD changers. The other features like power mirrors, windows and door locks which were around then but are now almost ubiquitous in a family car.
And a lot of those things run on processors with embedded code. In fact, a new Mercedes S-class uses more lines of code than either the space shuttle, the new Joint Strike Fighter, or the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. That. Is. Stunning. No other description would be apt for it.
But then that got me thinking: are more lines of code necessarily better? Is more complexity in anything better? If your answer is “no”, you appear to be right. I found this post from The Agile Executive and was drawn to the graph, which is below:
This graph is a regression looking to answer the question I posed. As you can see, quality tends to decrease while size – measured in thousands of lines of code (KLOC) – increases. It makes sense: the more complicated you make the system, the more chances of breakdowns, the more time spent in break-fix status (something breaks, take the system down and fix it, retest, then send everyone on their merry way), in short, it just makes things more complex than they already are.
Health care reform? Dodd-Frank? The tax code? No Child Left Behind? How complicated are the rules we’re supposed to abide by? How is anyone expected to reasonably enforce them? Will these actually make our lives better? I’d say no because if they did, we’d be happy to leave well enough alone and be done with it. Our legislators would essentially be doing “mops and brooms” rulemaking: fine tuning law already on the books. But apparently there are enough squeaky wheels out there who are so unhappy with the current frameworks of well, everything that they must say something loud and proud to get noticed and force someone to take action. To try and be placated, somehow.
But systems don’t work that way. There are always inclusions and exclusions and you aren’t going to please everyone all the time. That’s just the way it is. And while I thought about this in terms of public policy, the same also can be applied to other systems as well. Corporate policies & procedures and trading/portfolio management systems for investing could be thought of this way, too.
So what should we do about it? I don’t know for certain, but it seems like folks out there want, perhaps yearn for, simplicity again. That means pulling back from things. It means filtering out the static and finding the essence. It can also mean learning to do less, but doing it better. Having more for the sake of having more doesn’t seem to have the answers we’re looking for.
But that doesn’t mean I want to trade in my family sedan for a Grand Wagoneer…