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Avoiding the Two Taxi Problem

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Calling a cab is a smart way to ensure that you have reliable transportation without having to deal with the hassles of parking. Calling two cabs, however, is potentially a disaster.

At first, it might seem like it’s a great idea to call two taxicabs from two different companies to schedule a pick up. Although each driver is probably highly reliable, there could be delays due to weather, traffic, or mechanical issues. Placing two individual requests just seems like clever thinking.

However, if two cab drivers from different companies realize that they’ve been called out to retrieve the same passenger, they will often exchange a wave and drive off. That’s because each cab driver knows he has a 50-50 chance of the trip being a waste of time and total loss of the fare. They don’t want this to happen, so they punish the passenger by leaving them stranded.

This is the two-taxi problem. Calling one taxi might not work out, but calling two isn’t less risky—it’s disastrous. The reason that this strategy does not work is because it is inadvertently disrespectful. The passenger is telling both cab drivers he’s tremendously concerned about their reliability but still only willing to pay the standard rate.

The two-taxi problem pops up all of the time in business and personal life. Consider an email sent to multiple recipients via CC, asking if “anyone knows” the answer to a particular question. In effect, the message says: “One of you probably has the answer and I’m willing to waste everyone’s time to find out.” There’s not much incentive to reply to this message, since somebody else probably will.

small business consultant calling a taxi

© Flickr user Matt Erasmus

Examples of the two-taxi problem can be easily identified when we give the same work to multiple people but ensure only one can receive the reward. If a company runs a monthly sales contest with only a prize for first place, why bother to work hard once it’s clear you are no longer the front runner? Why would a vendor go through a long request-for-proposal (RFP) process and generate dozens of pages of documentation if they know that the customer is simply required to get extra bids and has already selected the vendor they will go with?

Moreover, the two-taxi problem shows that when we try to increase productivity, we end up ignoring the impact it has on stakeholders. It certainly seems more efficient to send a second reminder note about completing the survey to everyone, even if some of them have already completed the survey. But really, you are just wasting their time to save a few minutes of your own. And worse, you may make them second guess if they actually did the work or wonder if their results have been lost.

Calling two taxis is an idea that seems like a clever way to increase productivity but actually has the opposite effect. If you give the same task or the same information to multiple people, it’s entirely possible that the time you save will be far outweighed by the time you’ve wasted. Putting your trust in those around you is immensely important. And if you’re in a situation where you can’t trust the people you work with, it may be time to either re-evaluate your workflow or find new, trustworthy people to work with. All sending extra reminders does is make stakeholders feel like they can’t be trusted to do a task they’ve been asked to do.

Learn more about ways to be more efficient, more effective and more satisfied at work without driving people away. Contact our business process transformation specialists for more information today!

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