Little’s Second Law: “People are remarkably good at doing…”

Little’s Law is justly famous. I highly advise that your firm think about it, and use it as a justification for reducing the number of projects “in the system,” and also to justify having team members only work on one project. There are other reasons to do this, but Little’s Law is enough.

Now I want to discuss Little’s Second Law. (This time it is a different Mr. Little, your humble writer.)

It is: “People are remarkably good at doing what they want to do.”

This is a law of human nature. Linked to the top value of Agile (in my opinion): Humanity or People, and to one of my favorite documents, The Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Since we are free, we do what we want. We can be advised or commanded, but we will ultimately do what we want (and this is probably a good thing, especially if you want us to do it well at all).

In one sense, it is another way of saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

The law also directly implies that people are remarkably good at not doing what they don’t want to do.

To me, the law suggests to managers and those on teams who would lead, that they convince and influence people to understand why they want to do something. You are not changing motivation, you are revealing motivation.

To me, it implies one should work with good people who generally will want to do the right thing, once they see and understand it. If you work in alignment with the energy of this law, success can come easily. If you work against this law, success can be difficult.

In my opinion, Lean-Agile has this law embedded in many of its practices. For example, it reminds me of one of the Poppendiecks’ seven principles: Respect People.

What this law does not say or imply (in my opinion):

  • This law does not imply that people will always want the right things.
  • This law does not imply that people will always have the courage to do the right thing.
  • The law does not imply that people will never be lazy.

Origin: I am fond of quotes, as some of you will have guessed by now. This phrase came to me one day, as I was thinking of some quotes. In fact, I thought it was a quote in the first moments after I thought of the words — someone else’s quote — and I remember thinking: “This is really kind of obvious.” Certainly, it was to me, but the phrase would not leave me. I used it in several teaching and coaching situations, and it struck me as an obvious truth, a truth that some managers seem to want to avoid. (I suppose many of them want to live in the fantasy that they can control other people. To a degree this might really be true, this is slavery, a most abhorrent thing.) And it is a truth that many of us, including myself, do not recognize and work in accordance with often enough.

By and by, it struck me that this phrase, which just came to me, was important enough to call a law. Surely it is not without meaning that “it just came to me.” So, I call it Little’s Second Law rather modestly, and somewhat jokingly, in deference to Little’s Law, which also needs more recognition.

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2 thoughts on “Little’s Second Law: “People are remarkably good at doing…”

  1. Harishankar


    I beleive, you had coined one of the would be ‘most famous’ quote for the software development process, either Agile or water fall.

    The importance of human value, cant be stressed any better than this quote, which is gonna determine the success of any process models.

    Kudos to you.

  2. Joe Little


    Thanks for your kind comments. As I said, “it just came to me”, perhaps we might say, from God. I was honored to “receive” the quote, and by your compliment.

    Of course, this might be said of many things we create. They come to us.

    As a related thought: We are still learning why God gave us so much freedom.

    Regards, Joe

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