It needs to get worse before it gets better

One way to approach the benefits and costs of changing your ways of working.

Ville Kuosmanen
3 min readOct 28, 2023
Cartoon illustration set in Victorian London at dusk. A man in a suit, top hat, beard, and monocle, and a woman in a long lace dress, both read by candlelight. Beside them, an engineer struggles with a burned-out prototype of an electric light, a hole burned in his glove. The gentleman remarks to the lady, ‘I knew it, these electric lightbulbs would never take off!’

Almost all changes require a period of lower productivity before the new, more advanced workflow becomes more efficient. This is because The Old Ways have been optimised to a local maximum — while the new workflow has a higher potential, it starts out unoptimised. New ways of doing things also require a period of learning. Before reaching competence, you will have go through a period where every basic action requires thinking or searching through the manual. Us humans are biased towards short-term thinking, so such inefficiency feels like a waste of time, leading to a a painful transition period before the efficiencies start bearing dividends.

I could do my job so much faster with my old spreadsheet than with the new cloud-based system IT installed
Illustration generated using matplotlib and the xkcd-script font.

Is it always worth upgrading to a new system? After all, you wouldn’t want to be a Luddite holding back the engines of progress? Before you jump all in abroad the Current Thing™ hype train, do consider a few more arguments.

Firstly, just because a product is new or more advanced than an old one doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. For example, traditional paper-based books still have many advantages over e-books: they won’t run out of battery, can be read in bright sunlight better than backlit screens, are less likely to be stolen, won’t expire due to format changes or the sales platform going out of business, and can easily be skimmed through.

Secondly, even if a new product or system is better than the existing one, one must consider the opportunity cost in changing to it. The decline in productivity until it gets better should be estimated and evaluated against other investments. If the changing costs are high, you should probably stick to your old system. This is why core business software such as CRMs, databases, and programming languages are considered “sticky”, and their annual recurring revenues (ARRs) are valued highly by investors. Once it’s in, it’s never coming out.

Cartoon illustration in Victorian London style. The bearded man with a top hat and monocle from the previous image sits in a candlelit drawing room, reading a newspaper. The news article shows a zig-zagging line taking a steep dive, symbolizing a falling share price. He looks shocked with sweat dripping from his forehead. The room has subtle hints of his failing investments, indicating he’s losing money.
”What do you mean my Metaverse NFT land parcel is worthless? It’s Artificially Scarce™! Even Snoop Dogg promoted it!”

On AI investment

This post began its life as a commentary on the recent advances in AI. AI-powered tools have the potential to disrupt workflows and processes across industries. While some products like Google Docs promise to mix AI seamlessly into existing tools, many others will require large changes to existing workflows. Not every company will choose to adopt them. It will be too expensive and difficult to do so. “Blah blah regulation blah intellectual property blah blah legal uncertainty blah copyright blah blah GDPR blah blah safety”.

To adopt AI in your organisation, your workflow needs to get worse before it gets better.

Many fear AGI will take over jobs from humans. The more likely scenario in the short term is that the jobs will be taken by users of AI. Generative AI tools can make a junior employee perform at a level of a senior, by reducing the time taken to learn internal processes and master technical skills, while senior employees can work as a small team with AI automating the most menial parts of a job. Would you like to double your organisation’s output?

This time, take the time to learn the Current Thing™ and embrace disruption. It will get so much better.

But first, it must get worse.

Images generated by Dall-E 3 and GPT-4. All writing is my own.