The Beginning

The Doom Loop appeared first in Boston in 1978.

It didn’t come as a blinding flash; not the sort that Saul experienced on the way to Damascus; but it was an epiphany of sorts – one of those “Ah Ha! moments.”

I was interviewing a Harvard Business School student who wanted to become a management consultant.  While he clearly did not have the sort of skills needed to do such work, I wanted to let him down gently rather than summarily reject him.

So I asked him if he wanted to do a little consulting experience on himself.  He agreed.

We then made a list of the sorts of tasks that entry level management consultants need to do as part of their development; and since we were in Boston – home of the Boston Consulting Group which was famous for its 2 x 2 matrices, we drew a simple matrix where we could put the tasks as follows:

Job and Quadrants
Job and Quadrants

In each quadrant (Q1 through Q4) we listed how he would “feel” if he were doing the tasks required of a management consultant.

Matrix With Feelings
Matrix – With Feelings

For each task on his list, we then indicated if he was “not good at” them or “good at” them; and we indicated that he either “liked” them or “didn’t like them.”  We then plotted the results in the matrix.

Consultant Skills on Matrix
Consultant’s Skills Plotted

It didn’t take him long to conclude that management consulting was not the place for him – it just didn’t match his skills.  (He actually looked relieved!)

He left . . . and I sat there for awhile marveling at how one could tie psychological feelings to what one was doing on the job.  The idea began to stew in my mind.

Later in the week, I was chatting with the school’s lead counselor (a psychiatrist) and showed him the matrix.  What he said gave me the “Ah Ha!” experience!

He said, “Well, that’s very interesting.  I’ll bet it gets really intriguing when you look at it over time.”

“Ah Ha!”  Time for a little calculus!

I started to play with the idea and thought about how an individual feels when he/she first takes a job.  In that situation, I assumed that he/she would “like” most of the tasks to be done and skills needed on the job, and I assumed that he/she would be “good at” some and “not good” at others.  So I listed the tasks and rated them in terms of “Good at” or “Not good at” and “Like” and “Don’t like.”

In terms of the matrix, this is where his/her situation would be found:

Skill Plot in Q1
Skill Plot in Q1

I called this time, “T1.”  The individual would “feel” a combination of satisfaction and motivation.  He/she would be happy doing those things where competence had been attained and a bit challenged with those things where competence had not yet been achieved.  And over time, he/she would gain competence simply because of the ability to “learn.”

Now here is where the fun comes in.

I made several assumptions:  1) that the tasks for the job remained the same over time; 2) that other things about the workplace and at home did not change during this period.  In other words, I assumed that the only ‘variables’ that would change over time would be the individual’s being able to learn on the job (gain competence – or “get good at”) and how he/she would feel on the job (preferences).  I assumed that any other variables involved with the job would remain constant.

Over time – say a few months later – the individual would have gained competence in the various tasks and, if everything else remained constant, the individual would have still “liked” what he/she was doing.  Gaining competence in the tasks would change where the cluster of tasks would plot in the matrix.

In terms of the matrix, this is where his/her situation would plot:

Skill Plot in Q2
Skill Plot in Q1

The location of the points would have moved up from quadrant 1 (Q1) to quadrant 2 (Q2).  I called the location of the points “T2.”

Interesting result – and something that really happens in life.  As the person learns on the job and feels more confident, he/she becomes happier and more satisfied.

Then, I assumed that the individual would stay in the same job – that the job tasks would not change and this would occur over an extended period of time, such as a year or so.  I also assumed that everything else would remain constant during that time.

The result is shown in the image below.

Skill Plot in Q3
Skill Plot in Q3

The location of the points would have moved up from quadrant 2 (Q2) to quadrant 3 (Q3).  I called the location of the points “T3”

Then, as the individual has gained competence in virtually all of the tasks, he/she begins to do them over and over again with no change in sight.

This leads to some frustration and boredom – a natural occurrence in life.

Then, assuming that there is no relief in sight and that he/she stays in the same job for an even more extended period of time, the frustration and boredom can lead to his/her not keeping up to date with technological skills or simply by finding shortcuts to do the job.  Quality starts to suffer and his/her performance begins to fade.

The result is shown in the image below.

Skill Plot in Q4
Skill Plot in Q4

The location of the points would have moved up from quadrant 3(Q3 to quadrant 4(Q5.  I called the location of the points “T4”

Over time, the frustration and boredom increases as performance fades even further.  The individual is on a “downhill slide.”

I didn’t know what to call this phenomenon – but it happens so frequently to people in their jobs if job tasks remain the same.

What was interesting was to look at the “track” that the clusters made as the individual was on the same job with no change over a period of time.

This track is shown in the following image.

Track of the Skills
Track of the Skills over Time

Trying to affix a name to this common phenomenon was rather difficult – particularly if I wanted it to sound sophisticated or somewhat academic.  Things like “preference-performance matrix” just didn’t sing to me.

Someone (I can’t remember who) said, “It looks like a ‘Doom Loop.’”

Well, it really is NOT a ‘loop,’ but it sounded like a cool name, so that’s what I called it.

And with that, the Doom Loop was born!

The “Doom Loop”
The Doom Loop
The Doom Loop