Problem Space, Solution Space, and Tunnel Vision

Peter Kretzman‘s tweet about Sir Roland and his lightweight mini-shield brought both a smile to my face and the idea for this post. That idea actually has little to do with #NoEstimates (which I’ve touched on previously) and everything to do with architectural design. The cartoon highlights a design dysfunction that frequently manifests in systems:

Sir Roland has a point in that his shield is far easier to carry and wield than the traditional non-agile shield. Unfortunately, due to his tunnel vision, he probably won’t discover that the aspects that he focused on were peripheral to overall solution (i.e. keeping sharp implements out of Sir Roland’s innards) until it’s too late. Learning via experimentation is a powerful technique, but analysis has its place too, particularly when the value at risk is high.

Just as software is a system, so too are organizations (admittedly, systems that run on far less deterministic “hardware”, but systems nonetheless). Designing systems, particularly those that involve multiple stakeholders (i.e. nearly all that have more than one person involved with them), involves designing the solution space to best match the problem space. Note that I didn’t say “perfectly match the problem space”, as this conjunction is, in my opinion, unlikely to occur and should it occur, highly unlikely to persist. That being said, getting and keeping that match as close as possible to the theoretical perfect one is important. When a stakeholder’s influence on the solution is out of balance with their centrality to the problem, expect conflict.

IT’s traditional customer service is a notorious example of this type of imbalance at the organizational level. That imbalance also manifests in the technology realm in the forms of choosing solutions on the basis of justifying sunk costs, being apathetic toward user experience, chasing the tool/technique of the day, experimenting at the expense of the customer, and indulging in egotism.

Value for the owner of the system is a better tool to keep the proper balance. As the owner(s) should be the stakeholder(s) central to the problem space, where the solution is geared toward their needs it will most likely be well aligned to the problem. Where the concerns of peripheral stakeholders provide benefit to the central stakeholder(s) is where those concerns become important to the solution.

Unlike Sir Roland, failure to choose wisely may not be literally fatal, but it could be figuratively so.

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2 thoughts on “Problem Space, Solution Space, and Tunnel Vision

  1. During my visits at many organizations, I find more and more places where both MacBooks and Windows notebooks are used, and individuals choose their own device. At such places individuals are significantly happier than in Windows-only development shops (I’ve yet to encounter a Mac only shop, albeit I’m certain such places exist not only in the imagination).
    To me, this is a fine example of sunk cost with no return, often with negative return: Investing huge amounts in asset management of your Windows install base, at the cost of slow computers and chips on employees’s shoulders, and not only on the Intel inside.
    Sadly, Yagni is still widespread, often causing newer problems, rather than solving the actual problems that users face.

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    • Indeed…I’ve seen more than a few cases where the illusion of control is preferred over the facts on the ground (cost of enforcement + morale hit far greater than any benefit received). People fear losing credibility by being lenient when the reality is they’re more likely to lose credibility by attempting to stop something beneficial (IT should have figured this out back in the 80s when they tried to stop those upstart PCs).

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