When two non-linearities collide

What happens if exponential growth of productivity continues?

Most tech managers will laugh at exponential growth of productivity. However, it is quite achievable. OK, OK! For now, let us assume it is possible to take steps that improve 20%-50% productivity improvements year over year. [Later I will charge consultancy fee if you want to know how :-)]

Over four separate occasions, I have experienced that while such a streak of improvements is possible, it is not practical to continue exponential growth for longer than 3 or 4 steps. Let me rephrase it for better understanding. While it is technically possible to make things better, faster and cheaper, it doesn’t happen after 3 or 4 such steps.

Typically I have seen such a growth hitting one of the following limits:

  • Problem domain limit: For example, when subatomic particles were discovered, they were discovered at a phenomenal rate. In a few decades it was predicted that there will be a particle for each person on the earth. Two things stopped that explosion. First, human beings out-produced themselves over papers 🙂 and second, Standard Model gave a very succinct presentation and the race ended. Similarly, when I mounted on designing game boards, I went exponentially inventing new boards (like cylindrical, helical, …) till I found the principle behind what I was doing. After that, I could predict all and there was an end
  • Operational limit: For example, if you could meta-automate tests, wrote libraries in a way that test cases generate themselves. I have reached to meta-automation stages 3 times in my career so far. It found bugs by tons. However, soon I hit operational limits in terms of the lab. I was able to generate tens of thousands of tests on demand but I still needed physical time and setups to run them
  • Organizational limit: For example, you followed “Decision-less Programming” to its extreme or designed tools to crank out near-faultless code, other organizations (like your users or testers) may not be ready for such an assault. Once I eliminated my team’s jobs doing something like this. All the foreseen projects were done when our homegrown “web-page flow to code converter” and “DB to web-page designer” worked perfectly in tandem. [The pages sucked aesthetically but hey, who cared about the UI of internal tools?]
  • Financial/market limit: For example, the market for cars can’t accept cars going faster than some kmph. Any faster and roads or human reflexes may end up in accidents
  • Social limit: For example, I remember someone from Siemens complaining about selling thermal power plants in India. While the plant technology was improved exponentially to the level that it could be run by less than half a dozen engineers, the government insisted on specifying the need more than a hundred to be employed. The power problem wasn’t so much of that of power generation but of employment generation, he noted

What other limits cross your mind?

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