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Business & Work ● May 2016

The mythical couch-lift

As my brother and I have gotten older, we’ve taken up some chores around my parents’ home that they can no longer safely do themselves. One of these chores is moving furniture around. This near-annual routine goes something like this: My parents live in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It rains a lot in the summer. Their basement floods periodically from the rain. We get the call to move the basement furniture upstairs, through the kitchen, and into the garage.

The hardest piece of furniture to move up a flight of stairs is a long couch. It’s especially difficult if the stairway entrance sits at the corner of a hallway extending from the basement and the ceilings are particularly low. Through some adequate muscle, fuzzy geometry, and a touch of faith, my brother and I are somehow able to turn a hundred-pound, six-foot couch on a right angle and up the cramped staircase.

However, during these lifts, and particularly as we contort our way up the staircase, my parents inevitably intervene. My mom watches in anguish as her two poor sons (particularly me—her youngest—who had surgery as a child to fix up a lower-right inguinal hernia obtained at birth) huff their way up the steps. My dad inevitably steps in as a third lifter, situating his head awkwardly between the stairway wall and my brother’s right arm. My mom now has three people to worry about.

It’s around this time that my brother and I plead for my dad to step away. For years, we’ve been trying to convince my parents that having a third person help lift the couch up the stairs actually makes it a whole lot harder to lift the couch up the stairs. You’d be surprised at how hard it has been to convince my parents of this.

The reason is simple. While having three people move something heavy reduces the weight burdened upon each person, the coordination needed to get everyone moving along the same three-dimensional vector is much harder. For the very same reason a three-legged stool is so sturdy, moving a big block of furniture with three people proves quite rigid and difficult. The strain my body takes in the awkward repositionings and added time for said repositionings is much worse than bearing the extra pounds with consistent movement.

If you’re a software engineer, perhaps you can see the analogy unfolding here. This is essentially Frederick Brooks’ Mythical Man Month—the idea that adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. In most aspects of life, adding people to help fix a problem of any complexity doesn’t make the resolution faster; in fact, it more often makes it slower.

My couch lifting experience, however, has taught me an even more insightful lesson. In our more recent adventures, my parents have assuaged us by no longer trying to help us lift the couch. Instead, they make sure the couch corners don’t catch on other kitchen items on our way out to the garage. They push things out of the way if there is an impending obstacle around our feet. Rather than focus on the weight of the couches, they focus on what can make us spend less time lifting the couch. Nowadays, we move the furniture much more efficiently. My mother can breathe easier.

For nearly four decades, the Mythical Man-Month has championed the idea that throwing more resources at a problem rarely works. But, it also depends on where those extra resources are fixated. Sometimes, focusing everyone on fixing the obvious problem-at-hand isn’t the best solution. There might be other neglected areas of a project that actually could use more manpower which, miraculously, solves the original problem even more elegantly.

Originally published May 26, 2016 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Sometimes archaic technology is the most effective kind”.