Principles of OR:
By Robert E. Machol
Editor's Note: This is the 15th in a set of articles on the Principles of Operations Research. As the reader will note, their content is different from similarly titled material in the usual textbooks.
Lerner's law, promulgated by Professor Eugene Lerner of Northwestern University, states that no good deed goes unpunished. He has helped me with this article, and in accordance with the law, I hereby give him unwanted publicity.
As another example, much of what I write was suggested by Paul Gray, and in all cases, he has always edited and improved my writings before they are published. In return, I never mention his name unless somebody points out an error in one of my publications, in which case I always say, "Paul Gray told me that."
The examples are legion. You offer to help with the dishes, drop one, and are assured that you must pay for it (and discover that it is very expensive). You volunteer to drive your neighbor with her sick dog to the vet, and the dog vomits all over your car. Someone asks you to recommend a stock, or to give your opinion on a stock (or some other investment - of money or even of time and effort or of one's good name) and you decline because it might go wrong, but he insists, and you finally give in and give him your opinion. Then he buys the stock, it goes down, and he covers you with obloquy and never lets you forget it.
You acknowledge help from a colleague - although his contribution was actually minimal - and he goes around telling everybody that he did the whole thing but you wrote it up and submitted it under your own name. You complete a brilliant piece of OR and decide to give your boss credit, although he had nothing to do with it. He then takes it to the higher level as his own work and never mentions your name.
It can be less trivial. Russia built the Aswan Dam for the Egyptians and were promptly kicked out of Egypt. The United States went to Somalia for humanitarian reasons and had soldiers not only killed, but publicly humiliated after their deaths.
In each of these cases, a good OR policy study would have pointed out the risks involved. However, there is a tendency in doing good deeds not to look at the downside risks. Thus, the OR studies often don't get commissioned or, if they are done, are ignored by the decision makers who are eager to do the good deed and don't want to look at the unintended consequences.
So don't allow yourself to get caught in this kind of predicament. If someone asks you to do a good deed for an eleemosynary organization, say the Red Cross, don't be foolish. The subsequent demands on your time are never-ending. The next time someone comes to you with a few bits of obvious flattery ("You're so good at this kind of thing") and the implication that this chore they are asking you to do will look wonderful on your resume and vastly improve your career, remember Lerner's Law.
The former chief scientist for the FAA, Robert E. Machol is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant.
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