Maybe you only need it because you have it

Some cities need traffic lights because they have traffic lights. If one traffic light goes out, it causes a traffic jam. But sometimes when all traffic lights go out, say due to a storm, traffic flows better than before.

Some buildings need air conditioning because they have air conditioning. Because they were designed to be air conditioned, they have no natural ventilation and would be miserable to inhabit without air conditioning.

Some people need to work because they work. A family may find that their second income is going entirely to expenses that would go away if one person stayed home.

It’s hard to tell when you’ve gotten into a situation where you need something because you have it. I had a friend that worked for a company that sold expensive software development tools. He said that one of the best perks of his job was that he could buy these tools at a deep discount. But he didn’t realize that without his job, he wouldn’t need these tools! He wasn’t using them to develop software. He was only using them so he could demonstrate and sell them.

It may be even harder for organizations to realize it has been caught in a cascade of needs. Suppose a useless project adds staff. These staff need to be managed, so they hire a manager. Then they hire people for IT, accounting, marketing, etc. Eventually they have their own building. This building needs security, maintenance, and housekeeping. No one questions the need for the security guard, but the guard would not have been necessary without the original useless project.

When something seems absolutely necessary, maybe it’s only necessary because of something else that isn’t necessary.

Related post:

Defining minimalism

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9 comments on “Maybe you only need it because you have it
  1. Tim H. says:

    Interesting.

  2. Another great article of John D. Cock. I really like your article, keep up the good work <3

  3. wheaties says:

    “It may be even harder for organizations to realize it has been caught in a cascade of needs. Suppose a useless project adds staff. These staff need to be managed, so they hire a manager. Then they hire people for IT, accounting, marketing, etc. Eventually they have their own building. This building needs security, maintenance, and housekeeping. No one questions the need for the security guard, but the guard would not have been necessary without the original useless project.”

    It’s called half of every single government program or lab that I’ve encountered. They have people because without them they wouldn’t need more people.

  4. Kaiser says:

    John: you stumbled upon the Fundamental Theorem of Marketing. Congrats!

  5. John says:

    Wheaties: Yes, I can think of a few examples of the kind of government waste you’re talking about. I worked for the federal government briefly and saw some of this from the inside.

    Kaiser: I agree. See Teaching women to smoke

    I thought about including iatrogenic disease, harm caused by the treatment of disease, as one of the examples in the post.

  6. Mike Swaim says:

    The example that comes to mind to me is reports, where for some reason a report fails, and nobody complains. After some digging, it gets discovered that while somebody used it in the past, nobody has for years. (And if it’s printed, it just gets thrown away.)

  7. Ali says:

    Nice post. Reminds me of some advice — when moving homes, don’t unpack all your belongings; leave the boxes in the basement or elsewhere and only remove items as needed. Take stock of how much remains untouched after a year. If only to enforce how unessential many of your belongings are and how much “junk” occupies your living space. It’s almost like the YAGNI principle in Agile programming. There ought to be a similar exercise one can perform where organizational “needs” are concerned.

  8. Kyle says:

    Ali: I would leave unpacked things like old IRS tax forms — which “need” to be kept for an external purpose, not my own.

    Sadly, I can’t eliminate the IRS.

  9. Sam says:

    Has research been done on this traffic lights idea?

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John D. Cook, Mohammad Elsheimy. Mohammad Elsheimy said: Another great article of @johndcook ~> Maybe you only need it because you have it http://t.co/cSq0D9a [...]

  2. [...] December 14th, 2010 Sean Murphy “Some buildings need air conditioning because they have air conditioning. Because they were designed to be air conditioned, they have no natural ventilation and would be miserable to inhabit without air conditioning.” John Cook in “Maybe You Only Need It Because You Have It“ [...]

  3. [...] Maybe you only need it because you have it Simplicity is hard to sell Four reasons we don’t we apply the 80-20 rule [...]