Appx 02 Partioning Tasks

On a large projects, how much do you partition the tasks?  Consider learning curves and conceptual integrity before over-partioning.


Costs of Collaboration

“Many hands make light work”—Often

But many hands make more work—Always

We all know the first adage. And it is true for tasks that are partitionable. The burden on each worker is lighter, hence the time to completion is shorter. But no design tasks are perfectly partitionable, and few are highly partitionable.4 So collaboration brings extra costs.

Partitioning Cost

Partitioning a design task is itself an added task. The crisp and precise definition of the interfaces between subtasks is a lot of work, slighted at peril. As the design proceeds, the interfaces will need continually to be interpreted, no matter how precisely delineated. There will be gaps. There will be inconsistencies in definition and conflicts in interpretation; these must be reconciled. To simplify manufacture, there must be standardization of common elements across all the components; some commonality of design style must be established. And then the separate pieces must be integrated—the ultimate test of interface consistency. It is not just in shipyards where the reality of integration is “Cut to plan; bang to fit.”5

Learning/Teaching Cost

If n people collaborate on a design, each must come up to speed on the goals, desiderata, constraints, utility function. The group must share a common vision of all of these things—of what is to be designed.

To a first approximation, if a one-person design job consists of two parts—learning l and designing d—the total work when the job is shared out n ways is no longer work= l + d but now at least

work= n l + d

Moreover, someone with the vision and knowledge must do the teaching, hence will not be designing. One hopes that the efficiencies of specialization will buy back some of these costs.


Cost during Design During the design process, the collaborating designers must be sure their pieces will fit together. This requires structured communication among them.

Change Control

A mechanism for change control must be put into place so that each designer makes only those changes that (1) affect only his part or (2) have been negotiated with the designers of the affected parts. Since much of the cost of design is indeed change and rework, the cost of change control is substantial. The cost of not having formal change control is much greater.6

The Challenge Is Conceptual Integrity!

Much of what we consider elegance in a design is the integrity, the consistency of its concepts.

Consider Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral (Figure 6-3).

One sees this pattern—physical isolation, small teams, intense concentration, and leadership by one mind—repeated again and again in the design of truly innovative, as opposed to follow-on, products: for example, the Spitfire team under Joe Mitchell, off at Hursley House, a stately home in Hampshire, UK; Lockheed’s Skunk Works under Kelly Johnson, from which the U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter came;

How to Get Conceptual Integrity with Team Design?

Any product so big, so technically complex, or so urgent as to require the design effort of many minds must nevertheless be conceptually coherent to the single mind of the user.(14) Whereas such coherence is usually a natural consequence of solo design, achieving it in collaborative design is a management feat, requiring a great deal of attention. So, how does one organize design efforts to achieve conceptual integrity?

(14) R. Joseph Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, warned one of his test pilots (the user!) about engineers: “If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all balls.” SWS: reminds me of warren Buffet on investing – if you can’t understand it, don’t invest in it.


Specialization versus Unification (Conceptual Integrity)


From Carver Mead, student of the physicist  Richard Feynman (and maybe even smarter?), from his forward to “Collective Electrodynamics”, “Remarks upon (Mead’s) acceptance of the 1999 Lemelson-MIT prize”:

“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.  To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks a real advance in science.”  A. Einstein and L. Infeld

How do we, as a human culture, prepare ourselves and our children for this world in which the knowledge base turns over many times in a single human lifetime?

One answer to this dilemma is specialization:  One can become an expert in a specialty that is narrow enough to permit one to keep up with the changes as they come along.  This is the default solution.  In this manner we can, as it has been said, learn more and more about less and less, until eventually, we know everything about nothing.  Specialization, as we all know, has its merits; however, if specialization were our only response to rapidly evolving knowledge, I would view our prospects as a culture with deep concern, even alarm.

In his wonderful book, “The Act of Creation” Arthur Koestler defines the creative process with a juxtaposition of two concepts from separate conceptual spaces.  Such a conjunction creates not merely a new idea but an enlargement of the space of ideas, a cross-fertilization that is the very stuff of which innovation is made.

Many phenomena that in the past were seen as separate are now understood to be the same:  Fire is a chemical reaction, not a separate element; temperature is (a measure of) energy; light is electromagnetic radiation; molecules are aggregations of atoms; mechanical forces are electromagnetic in origin;… each of these equivalences represents a major unification and simplification.

It is this unification and simplification of knowledge that gives us hope for the future of our culture.  To the extent that we encourage future generations to understand deeply, to see previously unseen connections, and to follow their conviction that such endeavors are noble undertakings of the human spirit, we will have contributed to a brighter future.




Brooks, Frederick P. (2010-03-22). The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist (Kindle Locations 1435-1437). Addison-Wesley Professional. Kindle Edition.

SWS: that electrodynamics guy has a good related theme in his intro…Carver A mead: “Collective Electrodynamics”.  Have to get back to Montana Library to quote his Foreward.  starts:


Partioning 160

Leave a Reply

Please use your real name instead of you company name or keyword spam.