Self-inflicted Chaos

March 13, 2017 by
Filed under: Project management 

The Cynefin framework is a model that expresses five decision-making contexts that we can use to parse how we perceive and hence can respond to different situations. These contexts range from simple through chaotic and beyond to disorder, and the model has been used in defence of flexible or adaptive approaches to solving problems. I think there are situations where we lean on that model too heavily as a defence for lazy and incomplete thinking.

I completely agree that more wicked problems will not yield themselves to static approaches for solutions. Unfortunately, I also believe that in the technology space, particularly in the analysis and design stages of projects, we lean on unnecessarily narrow perspectives, which in turn makes the problem more complex than it needs to be.

Caveat: Bad analysis can happen in any style of project, so put away your righteous ‘our way is better’ bravado for a few minutes.

In many projects, even today, scope is often captured as a long list of ‘shall’ statements, strictly prose, in a barely digestible document. This may be organized by functional area of the product, and might vary in size from a few pages to multiple volumes. This is what is often associated with ‘waterfall’ projects, and what we end up with is plenty of words that few people have the patience or temperament to wade through.

In other projects, we’ll get a definition of scope that is expressed as a collection of ‘user stories’, structured statements expressing a desire of a user to achieve some sort of goal. Sometimes collected on index cards or some similar electronic form, these are popular on ‘agile’ projects with many teams. Not much better.

In either case, if we limit our analysis to a single form of expression, we are severely constraining our ability to comprehensively understand the problem or solution space.

We are often guilty of self-inflicted chaos.

Just try to express your expectations for your home as a series of shall statements, or a collection of user stories on index cards. You could probably do this, but would find it far more complex than it needs to be – the situation would appear to fall into the realm of chaos very quickly.

Even building IKEA furniture without referring to the step-by-step, illustrated instructions can feel like chaos. These illustrations, when leveraged, provide insights that we can’t appreciate strictly from the completed picture. Similarly, in building a house, knowledge of how plumbing and electrical systems snake through our walls could never be expressed from the user perspective, but are essential for putting together a functional house.

I’m starting down the path of building a tube amplifier for an electric guitar. It’s a domain that I have a little background with, but I’ve never played with 500 volt circuits or understood the entire path of how a plucked string gets transformed into ear-splitting, distorted sound waves – in a disciplined, controlled manner by the designer of the amp.

A bunch of shall statements or index cards would never get me past the view that this is a chaotic or even a disordered problem. Indeed, most people I talk to struggle with wrapping their heads around this sort of project at all.

If we acknowledge, though, that there are a wide range of perspectives needed to completely understand the problem, things get easier.

Specifications for tubes, power and heat calculations, physical layouts, a little Ohm’s law, cost considerations, learning from what works and doesn’t work in existing products, even quality considerations such as usability and maintainability – all manageable perspectives – each help me better understand some aspect of the situation. None completely resolves the challenges, but together, each piece contributes to a richer, clearer understanding.

All this certainly doesn’t make the problem simple or merely complicated, but well below chaotic to a merely complex problem – just the way I like ‘em.

Think about how broadly you are looking at your problem space, how many complementary views you lean on for your projects. There’s a good chance that different perspectives can wrangle what initially appears to be a chaotic problem into one that is much more manageable. – JB


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