Is Bigger Really Better?

In the first of the original Pern trilogy, The Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffery established a culture that was facing a scalability problem.

Pern – the planet on which the series takes place – experiences a recurring natural disaster that happens pretty much like clockwork. Every X days, death rains down from the skies. The people of Pern have, centuries prior to the book’s start, developed methods for dealing with this cycle: they live in settlements that are engineered to tolerate the disaster more effectively; they have developed an army of elite fighting teams (dragonriders) with tools (dragons) that protect them from the disaster; they keep their communities constricted to a size that can be protected; their cultural norms and education system support habits promoting sustainability.

But then things changed. The recurring disaster abated and they didn’t know why. They assumed it had gone forever. Their society flourished under the new freedom from fear that they experienced. They expanded out of their disaster-tolerant settlements, abandoned the norms and educational practices that supported the more constricted lifestyles essential to their survival. The elite cadre who had been so celebrated, appreciated, and valued when they were under siege by natural elements became inessential and were scaled back to a minimum force. As the book starts, power has shifted until the political class begins to question even the need for that minimum force.

Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age describes a similar period in our own history (without dragons, alas). For reasons having to do with the Atlantic currents – the “conveyer belt” that has been so popular in the news recently – the ice in the northern Atlantic melted, England’s temperature increased to wine-growing ideals; throughout Europe, families grew and communities expanded onto marginal land; the Vikings settled Greenland.

In our own time, we can see something similar happening in California, for example. There was a temporary abeyance in the drought-cycles due to La Nina/El Nino weather patterns at the same time that the U.S. was expanding. We filled California assuming that it could support a population and lifestyles that were historically developed in more verdant lands.

Eventually, California returned to normal rainfall levels – or lack thereof. The ice returned to the seas around Greenland, cutting off the settlements from food supplies and escape routes. The marginal lands of Europe became marginal once again.

And, on Pern, the monthly disaster cycle resumed. Only now there were minimal numbers of trained fighting teams. The communities had expanded past the capacity of even the maximum number available at their historical peak. And people were unwilling to admit that they needed to change their own behaviors, abandon the preferred lifestyles that they had grown accustomed to.

In the books, McCaffery solves the problem by having a character accidentally discover time travel. At first, the people are cautious: they will send a small team of dragonriders into the near past, to an isolated island where they can train and increase their numbers to supplement their numbers. But this brings its own problems: even before they send the first team back in time, one of the people they plan to send appears at their council to warn them. He has actually gone back in time and is now coming forward in time to warn them of the emotional toll of living in two places at the same time.

As a project manager, I often think about this moment in this book when I am working on project that is suffering from scalability issues.

Some projects are small, manageable, linear. You start at the beginning, plan the work, and work the plan. Oh, you experience some risk. Executive sponsors argue about how well the work is actually going – often concerned that the execution team is not doing their work at the quality, speed, or cost that they need to; sometimes concerned that the PM is over-indexing the risk and setting off alarms unnecessarily. But you basically march from one end of the project to the other with some level of success.

Other project are huge, monstrous beasts with many moving parts. They carry so much opportunity that they touch every area of the business and, across the organization, scope creep accumulates. A new product generates a new web page, which makes you realize how much the rest of the website requires updating, for example. As you begin to build marketing materials to align with the new product, you are faced with how outdated materials for existing products are and you want to apply some of the innovations to existing materials. You bring on additional resources to supplement existing teams and those resources introduce new methods, ideas, and tools that disrupt The Way We Do Things Around Here. Existing teams who functioned at high levels before your expansion begin to recognize that they haven’t scaled up appropriately in capacity or capability – or cling desperately to the idea that they don’t need to, if only the PMO would reorganize the work, find more time somewhere, send a team of dragonriders back in time to expand capacity. Only now you’re in the thick of it and, even if you could snap your fingers and bring on skilled workers today, you still have to onboard them to the culture, the processes, the standards.

Scalability.

I have been reflecting lately on a question: is bigger really better?

The signs and symptoms around us are everywhere. A healthcare system dependent on large hospitals. An auto industry whose success depends on creating demand. Supply chain breakdowns. The continual boom and bust cycle of retail businesses, which leaves holes in communities. A culture of online shopping and hoarding and unsustainable gift-giving and bridezillas. The number of people flocking to the south and the west – the areas most likely to be negatively impacted by the extremes of climate change. Banks too big to fail, who do fail. Taller and taller luxury buildings that block out the sunlight and sit empty because their apartments are purchased by offshore buyers looking to hide their money, while families desperate for affordable housing wander from place to place like Mary and Joseph. Those with disposable income spending it on disposable objects that fill landfills and pollute our oceans.

Yes, there is good in the world. And I count my gratitudes. I don’t mean to add to the doomscrolling culture.

I just keep looking at how we are living, me included, and ask myself: is bigger really better?

Unlike McCaffery, we can’t just invent time travel to solve our scalability problems. Even she, in the second book of the trilogy, shows that every solution brings new problems to solve. Even while you enjoy the fruits of your solution – the unusually abundant rainfall in California’s early 20th century; the unusually warm weather of the early middle ages – you are pushed toward a future of overpopulation and unsustainability.

The more the archaeologists and engineers apply lidar to peek beneath the rainforests of Latin America, the more they recognize the impressive scope of the Mayan empire. It may not appear that way to us now, looking at a few ruins, with a complex language and cultural norms that make them challenging for us to literally and figuratively understand. We are only now beginning to glimpse the extent of their communities, the complexity of their civilization.

They had huge cities with urban populations consisting of grand houses that sat empty except for their dead ancestors; a ruling class that promised to (literally) make it rain; and a rural underclass – what the 21st century U.S. calls “flyover country” – that was called on to do more and more, while around them, the water dried up and the soil was depleted. Despite this, the Mayans were wealthy and powerful; although they had conflicts internally and with their neighbors, they were highly successful.

Too big to fail.

And they are gone.

Is bigger really better?

All that I have and everyone that I love is of the nature of change. I cannot escape their loss. I came here empty-handed and I will leave empty-handed. My actions are my only true possessions; I cannot escape the consequence of my actions. My actions are the path on which I walk.

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