Saturday, April 08, 2006

Low Hanging Fruits

Many years ago, I read a paper by Dijkstra, a very accomplished Computer Scientist, on how to conduct scientific research. Although my undergraduate research quickly convinced me that doing a PhD and conducting research in general was not for me, Dijkstra made one key point that has stuck with me. The goal of the scientific community is to create new knowledge. For this, each scientist must work at his/her limit of knowledge. In other words, if you know that someone else in the field can solve a particular problem, leave it and solve a harder one. This strategy maximizes for the total output of the community by trading off the success rate of the best scientists for total output. Most people have a natural tendency of going after the low hanging fruits. But Dijkstra's point is that if a group wants to maximize the number of fruits it picks from a tree, each person has to work at his/her limits -- leave the low hanging fruits for someone who is afraid of heights or someone who is not as able.

Granted, practicalities of project management might not allow this to happen all the time in a work setting. But I really believe that this attitude also helps in a work setting. It's sometimes tempting to go after low hanging problems. But it's often best to leave them for someone new or with less experience in order to give them the experience and the confidence to reach higher next time. Sadly, in many organizations, people run after the low hanging fruits as it provides the shortest path to getting rewarded. This sadly fits in well with the super short-term view of most corporations as everyone scrambles to optimize the quarterly EPS number.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Kaushik said...

Very interesting post!

Might it have been Richard Hamming rather than Dijkstra? See [*] and search for "If you do not work on an important problem".

I dare say it may well have been Dijkstra. He wrote a lot of interesting and sometimes provocative papers.

-K

[*] http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

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