Ignorance Isn’t Bliss, Just Good Tactics


There’s an old saying about what happens when you assume.

The fast lane to asininity seems to run through the land of hubris. Anshu Sharma’s Tech Crunch article, “Why Big Companies Keep Failing: The Stack Fallacy”, illustrates this:

Stack fallacy has caused many companies to attempt to capture new markets and fail spectacularly. When you see a database company thinking apps are easy, or a VM company thinking big data is easy  — they are suffering from stack fallacy.

Stack fallacy is the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.

Why do people fall prey to this fallacy?

The stack fallacy is a result of human nature  — we (over) value what we know. In real terms, imagine you work for a large database company  and the CEO asks , “Can we compete with Intel or SAP?” Very few people will imagine they can build a computer chip just because they can build relational database software, but because of our familiarity with building blocks of the layer up,  it is easy to believe you can build the ERP app. After all, we know tables and workflows.

The bottleneck for success often is not knowledge of the tools, but lack of understanding of the customer needs. Database engineers know almost nothing about what supply chain software customers want or need.

This kind of assumption can cost an ISV a significant amount of money and a lot of good will on the part of the customer(s) they attempt to disrupt. Assumptions about the needs of the customer (rather than the customer’s customer) can be even more expensive. The smaller your pool of customers, the more damage that’s likely to result. Absent a captive customer circumstance, incorrect assumptions in the world of bespoke software can be particularly costly (even if only in terms of good will). Even comprehensive requirements are of little benefit without the knowledge necessary to interpret them:

But, that being said:

This would seem to pose a dichotomy: domain knowledge as both something vital and an impediment. In reality, there’s no contradiction. As the old saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. When we couple that with another cliche, “familiarity breeds contempt”, we wind up with Sharma’s stack fallacy, or as xkcd expressed it:

'Purity' on xkcd.com

In order to create and evolve effective systems, we obviously have a need for domain knowledge. We also have a need to understand that what we possess is not domain knowledge per se, but domain knowledge filtered through (and likely adulterated by) our own experiences and biases. Without that understanding, we risk what Richard Martin described in “The myopia of expertise”:

In the world of hyperspecialism, there is always a danger that we get stuck in the furrows we have ploughed. Digging ever deeper, we fail to pause to scan the skies or peer over the ridge of the trench. We lose context, forgetting the overall geography of the field in which we stand. Our connection to the surrounding region therefore breaks down. We construct our own localised, closed system. Until entropy inevitably has its way. Our system then fails, our specialism suddenly rendered redundant. The expertise we valued so highly has served to narrow and shorten our vision. It has blinded us to potential and opportunity.

The Clean Room pattern on CivicPatterns.org puts it this way:

Most people hate dealing with bureaucracies. You have to jump through lots of seemingly pointless hoops, just for the sake of the system. But the more you’re exposed to it, the more sense it starts to make, and the harder it is to see things through a beginner’s eyes.

So, how do we get those beginner’s eyes? Or, at least, how do we get closer to having a beginner’s eyes?

The first step is to reject the notion of our own understanding of the problem space. Lacking innate understanding, we must then do the hard work of determining what the architecture of the problem, our context, is. As Paul Preiss noted, this doesn’t happen at a desk:

Architecture happens in the field, the operating room, the sales floor. Architecture is business technology innovation turned to strategy and then executed in reality. Architecture is reducing the time it takes to produce a barrel of oil, decreasing mortality rates in the hospital, increasing product margin.

Being willing to ask “dumb” questions is just as important. Perception without validation may be just an assumption. Seeing isn’t believing. Seeing and validating what you’ve seen, is believing.

It’s equally important to understand that validating our assumptions goes beyond just asking for requirements. Stakeholders can be subject to biases and myopic viewpoints as well. It’s true that Henry Ford’s customers would probably have asked for faster horses, it’s also true that, in a way, that’s exactly what he delivered.

We earn our money best when we learn what’s needed and synthesize those needs into an effective solution. That learning is dependent on communication unimpeded by our pride or prejudice:


One thought on “Ignorance Isn’t Bliss, Just Good Tactics

  1. Pingback: Enterprise Architecture and the Business of IT | Form Follows Function

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