Saturday, March 08, 2008

Path of least resistance

Last couple of months, i have slowly started realizing the theme of path of least resistance (PLR) in areas as diverse as national external affairs strategy and getting a small chore done over weekend.

What is PLR? It is the thing that is most likely to happen. It is empirical, not planned or desired. What is the big significance of it? It is useful to know the PLR before drawing big plans. In short, there is only so far you can go from PLR with a given level of effort. Luck can of course come in handy. Unfortunately you cannot factor that in!

How should one handle PLR? It is simple. However, it calls for observation. It also calls for patience. Often enough people run away from PLR and keep getting stressed about it. I am not proposing that PLR be accepted as given. In fact often enough, PLR is detrimental and needs to be altered. However, owing to ideology, liking, expectations, moral sense and so on, people end up mistaking desired path as PLR and then either underprepare for a looming crisis or just despair.

An example is due. Think of the organization reformer in a large company. She is keen to get people to reduce wasteful use of time in mundane activities. She figures out some brilliant methods to do so. However, she faces major challenges in implementing these. On the other hand, think of the social reformer who is trying to awaken the people of a village against their political apathy. People agree with him but shy away from action. Closer home, think of the kid who is told to behave in front of guests. But does not!

All these are examples of underestimating the inertia in PLR. At times, people completely ignore PLR and declare that tomorrow onwards life needs to look different! Alas, PLR is strengthened by so many factors that it is a very highly non-trivial task to alter it. Interestingly, one can use the same inertia to get a desirable activity into PLR. That of course is a matter of skill.

To start with let us understand the factors contributing to PLR. First and foremost, it is faith in what is seen, has been done repeatedly and successfully as against what can be!
Secondly change upsets intricately linked factors. E.g. asking people to be punctual in the morning may force them to travel in times of high commuting traffic and hence add stress to their lives which may negate the purpose of punctuality (productivity enhancement)
Thirdly, PLR often has a set of soft protocols around it. Without explicitly agreeing or negotiating, people often create protocols which are woven around a certain way of doing things. New process is new protocol and that is tough to establish.

All the above things hold for the PLR as a habit. There is also another type of PLR. It is one without habit - even for something done or proposed for the first time (without anything it is likely to replace) there is a PLR.
This is tougher to understand because it is tougher to analyse and assess beforehand, unlike a habit driven PLR.

In fact, some might say that this type of PLR is a tautology. I believe it is not. With adequate attention and observation, one can indeed estimate what is likely to be people's reaction to a certain proposal/order/request/suggestion. This is where PLR assessment helps. One can then chart out what portions of a proposed set of activities deviate the most from PLR and require highest attention. Also, which portions can be scheduled for later or taken out entirely post a cost benefit analysis. Much human energy goes into trying to enforce a proposal very far from PLR.
One can almost think of the energy as a resource and then prudently use it to deviate from PLR.

Is there something innovative one can do to alter PLR before proposing a new activity or thought? Probably yes. There is no law of conservation here. I believe sufficient ground work can alter a future PLR suitably such that the new proposal then deviates less from it.

Another example is due. Suppose, the central government wants to reduce the corruption in the employment guarantee scheme. Now one way to generally take out a dictate saying we are sending inspectors to check the corruption and actually do it. A better way is to send across volunteers to sensitize the potential corrupt officials of the ill-service they are doing to the nation and the poor as also warn them softly of the potential punishments. To add to the preparation, stories of a few officials caught doing it and thus suspended without pension can be spread around (irrespective of whether they are true). Then the inspectors can be sent to actually perform their duties of checking corruption. This is probably not the best example. The idea is to simply think through the possibilities of altering the potential PLR before taking a major action in deviation of it.

In personal life as well, much of the above applies. A large number of people are unhappy with their jobs but are unlikely to change them. More often than not they seem to be waiting for an opportunity that they have never sought!
Anyways, this almost enters the sticky domain of a person taking charge of his/her life. I will not dig deeper here. But it would suffice to say that this taking charge of one's life is also essentially about estimating one's own PLR and living by incrementally altering it over time.

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