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Running With The Red Queen

By Dave Convery,

Most days I lurk on the SSC, Ask SSC and Simple-Talk forums, concerning myself with other lurkers - spammers. Day after day, they post links to shady tools, unrelated sites, pirated HBO shows, and so on. And every day they're spotted, posts are taken down, accounts are deleted, IP addresses are ringfenced, the Earth is salted, and names are cursed unto the third generation. Normality is restored.

You have to wonder what the point is. No one clicks these links. They don't stay up long enough to get indexed by Google. There's no net gain for the spammers. Just a lot of wasted effort for something that will only be seen for a few minutes at best. And yet for every effort we make to block them, they come back, and the whole thing repeats. In the battle of two people doing their jobs to opposing purposes, no one wins.

In biology, this is called the Red Queen Hypothesis, named after an exchange from Alice in Wonderland. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Every step taken by one side is matched by the other, in what is dubbed antagonistic coevolution.

It's the same with work. There are often strong commensurate pressures to change how you work, to make processes faster, to take on more - to keep running just to stay where you are. Automate one thing, something else expands to free the time you've salvaged (if you're lucky or skilled enough to get time back at all). Taking the time to step aside and fix the things that need to be streamlined means not getting something else done.

Most companies are not great at dealing with changes that interrupt, or changes that seek to improve a task that "gets done", although not optimally. And yet, when you recognize such deficiencies, either in a task you manage or in your own skillset, you do yourself and your organization a disservice in not finding a time and a way to improve it. Talk to your manager, talk to people controlling the processes, make clear the business costs of going without the changes you need. Sometimes the only choice is to step aside from the race, change on your own terms, and rejoin stronger.

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