The mantra of modern life (if there is one) is to leave nothing on the table; after all, why would we? The gurus tell us we should try harder and seize all of the efficiency we can get out of our work. We should cut all waste in our organizations. We should take all of the other counterparties' money in a negotiation. The list goes on and on. However, as we will see nearly all systems in nature and many successful systems built by humans leave lots of juice in the fruit without ever squeezing it.
Why would nature ever waste any capacity? To answer that, we must find out what happens if we squeeze too much.
The human brain is a lot less squeezed than it could be. On a per-weight basis, human brains pack in more neurons than any other species on the planet, yet it is well-understood that we humans do not use our entire brain's capacity. In adult humans, brains make up 2% of our body mass, yet they consume 20% of the glucose our body burns. In Children, the brain consumes 50% of all glucose burned, and in infants, it's 60%, which makes sense as they are learning and growing. Why do humans have all those neurons, all that brain capacity, only to remember so little, all of it consuming so much energy only to leave it on the table?
In the 1920s, we stumbled upon a human who could, in fact, remember everything that ever happened to him; his name was Shereshevsky. In the book Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer we learn about Shereshevsky fantastic memory:
“the Russian psychologist A. R. Luria began to investigate Shereshevsky’s fantastic memory. Luria read to him as many as thirty words, numbers, or letters at a time, and asked him to repeat these. Whereas ordinary humans can correctly repeat about seven (plus or minus two), the reporter recalled all thirty. Luria increased the elements to fifty, then to seventy, but the reporter recalled all correctly, and could even repeat them in reverse order. Luria studied him for three decades without being able to find any limits to his memory.
Some fifteen years after their first meeting, Luria asked Shereshevsky to reproduce the series of words, numbers, or letters from that meeting. Shereshevsky paused, his eyes closed, and recalled the situation. They had been in Luria’s apartment; Luria was wearing a gray suit and was sitting in a rocking chair and reading the series to him. Then, after all those years, Shereshevsky recited the series precisely
....Why did Mother Nature give perfect memory to him, and not to you and me?...
There is a downside to such unlimited memory. Shereshevsky could recollect in detail virtually everything that had happened to him—both the important and the trivial. There was only one thing his brilliant memory failed to do. It could not forget. It was flooded by images of his childhood, for example, which could cause him acute malaise and chagrin. With a memory that was all details, he was unable to think on an abstract level.
He complained of having a poor ability to recognize faces. “People’s faces are constantly changing,” he said, “it’s the different shades of expression that confuse me and make it so hard to remember faces.” When reading a story, he could recite it word for word, but when asked to summarize the gist of the same story, he had to struggle. In general, when a task required going beyond the information given, such as understanding metaphors, poems, synonyms, and homonyms, Shereshevsky was more or less lost. Details that other people would forget occupied his mind and made it hard to move from this flow of images and sensations to some higher level of awareness about what was happening in life—gist, abstraction, or meaning....
The psychologist William James held a similar view when he said: “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.””
As we saw with Shereshevsky, the human brain is in fact capable of remembering everything. Perhaps at some point in our past, all of us may have remembered everything that happened to us and nature through evolution, or some other mechanism, figured out that this was a terrible idea. As psychologists have since learned, forgetting in the brain is a feature, not a bug. The human brain, of course, is not unique as an artifact of nature with lots of capacity left to spare. We can observe it in the animal kingdom with lots of play, moping around, lazy sleeping, and many other activities that may qualify as sub-optimal. All of it, of course, to leave plenty of room to burst should the opportune time appear.
In the book Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb, we learn what our minds might be for:
“Our minds do not seem made to think and introspect; if they were, things would be easier for us today, but then we would not be here today and I would not have been here to talk about it—my counterfactual, introspective, and hard-thinking ancestor would have been eaten by a lion while his nonthinking but faster-reacting cousin would have run for cover. Consider that thinking is time-consuming and generally a great waste of energy, that our predecessors spent more than a hundred million years as nonthinking mammals and that in the blip in our history during which we have used our brain we have used it on subjects too peripheral to matter. Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do—except, of course, when we think about it.”
Our lives may have depended on our ability to leave some slack for bursts of effort in the wild. In the software engineering field, we always leave some room in our systems so that should we, for whatever reason, get a massive burst of traffic, we can handle that additional load. It may sound wasteful to do that, and a great deal of energy in organizations goes into solving this problem, but like the brain leaving spare capacity, it is not wasteful, and it is to keep the system from a catastrophic outage.
When we try to squeeze too much out of our brains, we may inadvertently leave no slack to survive difficult situations, or just as bad we may leave nothing for the things that make us human.
Squeezing too much out of data and information.
If there was one sin we are all guilty of in our modern information age, it is trying to squeeze more out of data and information. Yet, as we learn from Gigerenzer, it is this exact ability to ignore information that makes us so capable.
“Even when information is free, situations exist where more information is detrimental. More memory is not always better. More time is not always better.”
“Our brains seem to have built-in mechanisms, such as forgetting and starting small, that protect us from some of the dangers of possessing too much information. Without cognitive limitations, we would not function as intelligently as we do.”
“The evolved brain keeps us from looking too long and thinking too much.”
Many modern organizations today, large tech companies are especially prone to it, are recording everything their users do, hoping that it will be useful someday. Companies do this just because they can, the storage is cheap, and they can record it all. Of course, based on recent societal events, this may very well be the thing that ends up being their undoing.
This insight about more information not always being better applies to people, teams, and companies alike and as we learn from Taleb:
“The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will formulate along the way, and the worse off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information.”
I have learned firsthand that it is rarely if ever the data-driven decisions that lead to a 10x step up in innovation. It is almost always someone's intuition about what's best coupled with talking to their customers that does that. Data-driven decisions based on what we can record, the past, lead to maximizing local-maxima such as which color or button works best in feature; they will almost never tell us what features to build next. Apple, for example, is famous for running almost no A/B tests. They collect far less data than any of the other giants, yet they dwarf many of them in revenues.
Squeezing too much out of teams.
When a great team loses its ability to run at a new problem, they stand at risk of no longer being able to perform and be a great team. Perhaps you have seen what happens to sports teams when they have drained everything they have and they are exhausted. When this happens, it doesn't matter if the team is playing sports or building software. The outcome will be the same, defeat.
As the legendary football coach Bill Walsh explains in his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, what can happen when leaders are not focused on the steady-state but on squeezing every drop.
“Some leaders drive their team past being able to perform with poise and presence and into a state of anxiety where they’re not thinking as clearly as they should. They pump them up so much for the “big game” that they can’t perform well; it’s like a balloon that bursts when you blow too much air into it.”
In his most recent article aptly titled “Thanks for the Bonus I quit”, Mad Ned also describes what can happen when management tries to squeeze the teams harder and harder:
“Management was pushing to build new projects faster and cheaper than had ever been done before, attempting to squeeze what used to take years down into months. So they launched a secret incentive program, available to a small group of R&D engineers on key projects, to try to achieve these goals.…
Meanwhile I was waking up at 4AM on most days, in full-stress-insomnia. Sometimes I would just give up on sleep and go into work at that early hour, and while there, sometimes run into other stressed-out engineers who also could not sleep. I had shaved as much time as I could possibly get off the schedule, and a little cost.…
We were all furious. Furious about the sweat, tears, and most likely blood shed for this project over the past months, only to have what had turned from a bonus into an entitlement in our minds, taken away. Furious about the inequity of it all, about others making so much more money, even though we worked equally hard. I refused to attend the celebration event following, and was even on the phone with a tech recruiter, looking to see what our competitors would offer me if I went to work for them.”
Good leaders can sense when their teams are running too hot for too long and will go to great lengths to create some slack. Like a CPU running at 100% all the time, or a brain on overload, it’s only a matter of time until it all burns out.
Squeezing too much out of organizations.
We learn about the pediatric staff of a leading American teaching hospital, one of the best in the country, in the book Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer:
“Years ago, the hospital admitted a twenty-one-month-old boy; let us call him Kevin. Nearly everything was wrong with him: pale and withdrawn, he was drastically underweight for his age, refused to eat, and had constant ear infections. When Kevin was seven months old, his father moved out of the house, and his mother, who was often out “partying,” sometimes missed feeding him altogether or tried to force-feed him jarred baby food and potato chips. A young doctor took charge of the case; he felt uncomfortable having to draw blood from this emaciated child and noticed that Kevin refused to eat after being poked with needles. Intuitively, he limited any invasive testing to the minimum, and instead tried to provide the child with a caring environment. The boy began to eat, and his condition improved.
The young doctor’s superiors, however, did not encourage him in his unconventional efforts. Eventually, the young doctor could no longer impede the diagnostic machinery, and responsibility for Kevin was divided among a coterie of specialists, each interested in applying a particular diagnostic technology. According to their conception of medicine, the doctor’s responsibility was to find the cause of the tiny boy’s illness. They felt that they couldn’t take chances: “If he dies without a diagnosis, then we have failed.” Over the next nine weeks, Kevin was subjected to batteries of tests: CT scan, barium swallow, numerous biopsies and cultures of blood, six lumbar punctures, ultrasounds, and dozens of other clinical tests. What did the tests reveal? Nothing decisive. But under the bombardment of tests, Kevin stopped eating again. The specialists then countered the combined effects of infection, starvation, and testing with intravenous nutrition lines and blood infusions. Kevin died before his next scheduled test, a biopsy of the thymus gland.
The physicians continued testing at the autopsy, hoping to find the hidden cause. One resident doctor commented after the boy died: “Why, at one time he had three IV drips going at once! He was spared no test to find out what was really going on. He died in spite of everything we did!”
The boy died because of everything they did, not in spite of it. Gerd illustrates the perils of what can happen in hospitals when they try too hard. This, of course, is not unique to hospitals and there is a much larger metaphor here about the rest of our human organizations. There are so many modern companies trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity, trying to run every test possible, and burning people to the ground only to shortly find out later that they've killed the patient. They've burned out, demoralized, and pushed out their best talent and hurt their own organization.
Trying to squeeze too much out of yourself.
This idea of trying to squeeze a little more out of something is not unique to nature or human-made systems and organizations. Squeezing is also present in all of us; we all like to think, if we just tried harder, that would make all the difference.
As we find out from the legendary football coach Bill Walsh, what matters most is that we build a system. For Bill, it was a comprehensive Standard of Performance that left plenty of slack for bursting at problems, listening to each other, and performing:
“I have a terrible time closing out a set in tennis. Why? Because I tell myself to try harder and harder, to hit the ball better and better. I become a victim of myself and go into a kind of stupor because I’m trying so hard without really knowing what the heck I’m trying to do. The same thing can happen to you professionally. Individuals or organizations can get almost mesmerized by pressure and stress and be unable to function as cleanly as they are capable of doing. It happens everywhere all the time.
Have you noticed, however, that great players and great companies don’t suddenly start hunching up, grimacing, and trying to “hit the ball harder” at a critical point? Rather, they’re in a mode, a zone in which they’re performing and depending on their “game,” which they’ve mastered over many months and years of intelligently directed hard work. There’s only so much thinking you can isolate and focus on during that kind of extreme competitive pressure. It has to be tactical more than a conscious effort to really “try harder.”
You just want to function very well, up to your potential, effortlessly—do what you already know how to do at the level of excellence you’ve acquired—whether in making a presentation or coaching a game or anything else. That’s why I’m no good in tennis at crunch time. In football, I was a master at crunch time because I had put in years of smart hard work in mastering my craft and creating a comprehensive Standard of Performance for my organization. In tennis, I haven’t done that, but it doesn’t matter much because I’m playing just for fun. The business of football, however, was not something I did just for fun. It was deadly serious.”
Why I stopped squeezing.
I stopped squeezing myself for every single ounce of strength in the gym because I started getting injuries when I pushed so hard. I still get the reps in and lift plenty heavy, but there is no need to push to a breaking point continually.
I stopped trying to squeeze every last ounce of profit out of every single real estate deal I do and instead decided to let the people helping me secure the deal make their money. I decided to let the contractors make money too. In the past, I might have shopped around for every single thing; now, I focus on making sure I have great partners. I am not advocating for waste, but if you squeeze your partners so hard they make nothing, you'll have no partners. This is true of teammates too by the way.
I stopped worrying so much about about squeezing even more out of data and information because that all comes at a great cost.
“Information costs. As in the case of the pediatric staff at the teaching hospital, extracting too much information can harm a patient. Similarly, at the workplace or in relationships, being overly curious can destroy trust”
I never squeezed my teams to a breaking point and they were always ready to burst for big wins when the opportunities arose.
At the risk of hurting my credibility and my own points in this article, I would also like to answer a few of the top questions on Google of "What happens if you squeeze too much?"
“What happens if you squeeze too hard when you poop?”
You can get hemorrhoids.
“What happens if you squeeze your testicles too much?”
You can become infertile.
I will stop there, but you can see what I am trying to say; squeeze the crap out of everything rarely leads to the best outcomes.