Many hands make more work

Frederick Brooks is best known as the author of The Mythical Man-Month, a book on software project management first written in 1975 and still popular 35 years later. Brooks has a new collection of essays entitled The Design of Design that was just released this month. In his chapter on collaboration in design, Brooks notes

“Many hands make light work” — Often
But many hands make more work — Always

Collaboration may reduce the amount of work per person, but it will certainly increase the total amount of work to be done. In addition, collaboration is likely to reduce the quality of a design. Earlier in the same chapter Brooks says

Most great works have been made by one mind. The exceptions have been made by two minds.

He gives a long list of designers to support this claim: Homer, Bach, Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, Michelangelo, Watt, Edison, the Wright Brothers …

The great works Brooks alludes to may have been implemented by teams, but they were not designed by teams.

You can hear Brooks explain why he believes design work doesn’t partition well in his talk “Collaboration and Telecollaboration in Design.” There’s a link to the audio in my blog post on Brooks and conceptual integrity.

8 thoughts on “Many hands make more work

  1. Is there another book on design that any of you found useful? this one seems great, but way too expensive in India…want to start on something smaller first :)

  2. I always thought “Many hands make light work” should be the punchline to a lightbulb joke.

  3. Machines aren’t minds, but machines may be akin to bodies. So, I wonder, with all the emphasis upon decentralized ways of handling “big data”, has anyone come up with an estimate of how much intercommunications and coordination overhead is applied atop of the bare computation that needs to be done? And for what kinds of problems and architectures is it a win?

  4. I had just read your entry “Best management decision” and recognized Brooks’ name from reading “The Mythical Man-Month” perhaps three decades ago, and in my programming career I’ve seen innumerable references to it and his name. The big takeaway from the book is the formula that as the number of people working on a task doubles, the amount of work to complete the task goes up by a factor of about (as best I recall) 1.5. Of course, the hope is that since the personpower goes up faster than the amount of work, applying more people will allow the task to be completed in less time, though it’s still substantially more than the linear assumption would give.

    So when I saw “Many hands make more work” I LOLed! Rarely have I seen such a complicated (exponential) mathematical expression translate so well into a few short words.

    I’ve just started reading “How To Create A Mind,” but I should read Brooks’ recent book as well.

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