I fought the law (of unintended consequences) and the law won

Sometimes, what seemed to be a really good idea just doesn’t turn out that way in the end.

In my opinion, a lack of a systems approach to problem solving makes that type of outcome much more likely. Simplistic responses to issues that fail to deal with problems holistically can backfire. Such ill-considered solutions not only fail to solve the original problem, but often set up perverse incentives that can lead to new problems.

An article on the Daily WTF last week, “Just the fax, Ma’am”, illustrates this perfectly. In the article, an inflexible and time-consuming database change process (layered on top of the standard change management process) leads to the “reuse” of an existing, but obsolete field in the database. Using a field labeled “Fax” for an entirely different purpose is far from “best practice”, but following the rules would lead to being seen as responsible for delaying a release. This is an example of a moral hazard, such as Tom Cagley discussed in his post “Some Moral Hazards In Software Development”. Where the cost of taking a risk is not borne by the party deciding whether to take it, potential for abuse abounds. This risk becomes particularly likely when the person taking shortcuts can claim a “moral” rationale for doing so (such as “getting it done” for the customer).

None of this is to suggest that change management isn’t a worthy goal. In fact, the worthier the goal, the greater the danger of creating an unintended consequence because it’s so easy to conflate argument over means with disagreement regarding the ends. If you’re not in favor of being strip-searched on arrival and departure from work, that doesn’t mean you’re anti-security. Nonetheless, the danger of that accusation being made will likely resonate for many. When the worthiness of the goal forestalls, or even just hinders, examination of the effectiveness of methods, then that effectiveness is likely to suffer.

Over the course of 2016, I’ve published twenty-two posts, counting this one, with the category Organizations as Systems. The fact that social systems are less deterministic than software systems only reinforces the need for intentional design. When foreseeable abuses are not accounted for, their incidence becomes more likely. Whether the abuse results from personal pettiness, doctrinal disagreements, or even just clumsy design like the change management process described above is irrelevant. In all of those cases, the problem is the same, decreased respect for institutional norms. Studies have found that “…corruption corrupts”:

Gächter has long been interested in honesty and how it manifests around the world. In 2008, he showed that students from 16 cities, from Riyadh to Boston, varied in how likely they were to punish cheaters in their midst, and how likely those cheaters were to then retaliate against their castigators. Both qualities were related to the values of the respective cities. Gächter found that the students were more likely to tolerate free-loaders and retaliate against do-gooders if they came from places whose citizens took a more relaxed view on tax evasion or fare-dodging, or had less trust in their courts and police.

If opinions around corruption and rule of law can affect people’s reactions to dishonesty, Gächter reasoned that they surely affect how honest people are themselves. If celebrities cheat, politicians rig elections, and business leaders engage in nepotism, surely common citizens would feel more justified in cutting corners themselves.

Taking a relaxed attitude toward the design of a social system can result in its constituents taking a relaxed attitude toward those aspects of the system that are inconvenient to them.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 411


This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 411, features Tom’s essay on Servant Leadership (which I highly recommened), John Quigley on managing requirements as a part of product management, a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Organizations as Systems – ‘Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown'”, and Kim Pries on software craftsmanship.

Tom and I discuss the danger of trying to use simplistic explanations for the interactions that make up complex human systems. No one has the power to force things in a particular direction, rather the direction comes about as a result of the actions and interactions of everyone involved. It might be comforting to believe that there’s one single lever for change, but it’s wrong.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

NPM, Tay, and the Need for Design

Take a couple of seconds and watch the clip in the tweet below:

While it would be incredibly difficult to predict that exact outcome, it is also incredibly easy to foresee that it’s a possibility. As the saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed”.

Being forewarned and forearmed is an important part of what an architect does. An architect is supposed to focus on the architecturally significant aspects of a system. I like to use Ruth Malan‘s definition of architectural significance due to its flexibility:

Decisions (both those that were made and those that were left unmade) that end up taking systems offline and causing very public embarrassment are, in my opinion, architecturally significant.

Last week, two very public, very foreseeable failures took place: first was the chaos caused by a developer removing his modules from NPM, which was followed by Microsoft having to pull the plug on its Tay chatbot when it was “trained” to spew offensive comments in less than 24 hours. In my opinion, these both represented design failures resulting from a lack of due consideration of the context in which these systems would operate.

After all, can anyone really claim that no one would expect that people on the internet would try to “corrupt” a chatbot? According to Azeem Azhar as quoted in Business Insider, not really:

“Of course, Twitter users were going to tinker with Tay and push it to extremes. That’s what users do — any product manager knows that.

“This is an extension of the Boaty McBoatface saga, and runs all the way back to the Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf write in during Time magazine’s Internet vote for Most Beautiful Person. There is nearly a two-decade history of these sort of things being pushed to the limit.”

The current claim, as reported in CIO.com, is that Tay was developed with filtering built-in, but there was a “critical oversight” for a specific kind of attack. According to the article, it’s believed that the attack vector involved asking Tay to “repeat after me”.

Or, as Matt Ballantine put it:

Likewise, who could imagine issues with a centralized repository of cascading dependencies? Failing to consider what would happen if someone suddenly pulled one of the bottom blocks out led to a huge inconvenience to anyone depending on that module or any downstream module. There’s plenty of blame to go around: the developer who took his toys and went home, those responsible for NPM’s design, and those who depended on it without understanding its weaknesses.

“The Iron Law of Tools” is “that which does for you will also do to you”. Understanding the trade-offs allows you to plan for risk mitigation in advance. Ignoring them merely ensures that they will have to be dealt with in crisis mode. This is something I covered in a previous post, “Dependency Management is Risk Management”.

Effective design involves not only the internals of a system but its externals as well. The conditions under which the system will be used, it’s context, is highly significant. That means considering not only the system’s use cases, but also its abuse cases. A post written almost a year ago by Brandon Harris, “Designing for Evil”, conveys this well:

When all is said and done, when you’ve set your ideas to paper, you have to sit down and ask yourself a very specific question:

How could this feature be exploited to harm someone?

Now, replace the word “could” with the word “will.”

How will this feature be exploited to harm someone?

You have to ask that question. You have to be unflinching about the answers, too.

Because if you don’t, someone else will.

When I began working on this post, the portion above was what I had in mind to say. In essence, I planned a longer-form version of what I’d tweeted about the Tay fiasco:

However, before I had finished writing the post, Greger Wikstrand posted “The fail fast fallacy”. Greger and I have been carrying on a conversation about innovation over the last few months. While I had initially intended to approach this as a general issue of architectural practice rather than innovation, the points he makes are just too apropos to leave out.

In the post, Greger points out that the focus seems to have shifted from learning to failure. Learning from experience can be the best way to test an idea. However, it’s not the only way:

Evolution and nature has shown us that there are two, equally valid, approaches to winning the gene game. The first approach is to get as much offspring as possible and “hope” many of them survive (r-selection). The second approach is to have few offspring but raise them and nurture them carefully (K-selection). Biologists tell us that the first strategy works best in a harsh, unpredictable environment where the effort of creating offspring is low. The second strategy works better in an environment where there is less change and offspring are more expensive to produce. Some of the factors that favour r-selection seems to be large uncompeted resources. K-selection is more favourable in resource scarce, low predator areas.

The phrase “…where the effort of creating offspring is low” is critical here. The higher the “cost” of the experiment, the more risk is involved in failure. This makes it advisable to tilt the playing field by supporting and nurturing the “offspring”.

In response to Greger’s post, Casimir Artmann posted two excellent articles that further elaborated on this. In “Fail Fast During Adventures”, he noted that “There is a fine line between fail fast and Darwin Awards in IRL.” His point, preparation beforehand and being willing to abort during an experiment before failure is equivalent to suffering a fatality can be effective learning strategies. Lessons that you don’t live to apply aren’t worth much.

Casimir followed with “Fail is not an Option”, in which he stated:

I want the project to succeed, but I plan for things going wrong so that the consequences wouldn’t be to huge. Some risk are manageable, as walking alone, but not alone and off-trail. That’s to risky. If you doing outdoor adventures, you are probably more prepared and skilled than a ordinarie project member, and thats a huge benefit.

I guess the best advice, when doing completely new things with IT, is to start really small so that the majority of your business is not impacted if there is a failure. When something goes wrong, be sure that you could go back to safe place. Point of no return is like being on a sailing boot in the middle of the Atlantic where you can’t go back.

That’s excellent advice. “Fail Fast” has the advantage of being able to fit on a bumper sticker, but the longer, more nuanced version is more likely to serve you well.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 373


This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 373, features Tom’s essay on #NotImplementedNoValue and a Form Follows Function installment on simplistic mental models.

Tom and I discuss my post “All models may be wrong, but it’s not a contest to see how wrong you can be”, talking about cognitive biases and how overly simplistic mental models fail us.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

All models may be wrong, but it’s not a contest to see how wrong you can be

HO Scale locomotive beside a pencil

The one thing you can be sure of is that nothing is dependent on only one thing.

Michael Feathers‘ tweet last week brought this to mind:

Too often we construct simplistic mental models that fail to account for outcomes that are possible, but inconvenient for us in some way. As Aneel noted while discussing OODA loops in his post “All Models Are Wrong Some Are Useful [In Some Context]”:

OODA is just a vehicle for the larger issue of models, biases, and model-based blindness — Taleb’s Procrustean Bed. Where we chop off the disconfirmatory evidence that suggests our models are wrong AND manipulate [or manufacture] confirmatory evidence.

Because if we allowed the wrongness to be true, or if we allowed ourselves to see that differentness works, we’d want/have to change. That hurts.


Our attachment [and self-identification] to particular models and ideas about how things are in the face of evidence to the contrary — even about how we ourselves are — is the source of avoidable disasters like the derivatives driven financial crisis. Black Swans.

I wonder how many black swans are only “unpredictable” because we blind ourselves to possibilities.

It’s possible that we cannot eradicate self-deception. “Rats Can Be Smarter Than People” speaks to this via study results that found rats outperforming humans in one of a pair of learning tasks:

The first task involved rules. The second focused on information integration. Humans learn in both ways. Our rule-based system was an evolutionary development: How do you tell if a berry is good for eating? You learn that this small red one is good, and then you save energy by bypassing the ones of a different shape or color. So our brains have been conditioned to look for rules. We’re taught them in school, at work, and by our parents, and we can make many good decisions by applying the ones we’ve learned. But in other situations there’s too much going on for simple rules to work, and that’s when information integration learning has to kick in. Think of a radiologist evaluating an X-ray. If you ask him what rules he uses to determine whether a spot is cancer, he’d probably have a hard time verbalizing them. He’s learned from labeled examples in medical school and his own experience, and then developed an instinct for identifying cancerous spots based on what he’s seen before. Another example that comes to mind is a manager interviewing a job candidate. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about who will be a good hire. You have to consider many factors and rely on your judgment or on a gut feeling based on your experience with people in the workplace. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of evidence showing that humans have a harder time learning how to integrate information in this way, because they seek rules even when there are none.

In other words, we have a model about learning (meta-model?) that works well in many situations. It works so well that we resist looking for context where it’s not the appropriate model. While this shows that a propensity for self-deception is natural, the fact that “self” is in there suggest that we have some control. Having some control obligates us to exercise what control we have and work to gain more.


A critical argument for the practice of software architecture is that the design of the solution must cohere with the problem space in order to be effective. In order to deliver decisions that achieve this goal, we need to be able to make sense of the problem space. Systems thinking, described by Tom Cagley as “…an approach to problem solving that emphasizes viewing problems as the output of the whole process, including the environment the system operates within”, is a technique to do so. The more we force ourselves to be aware of our biases and work to counteract them, the better our decisions will be.

Simple is good, but not when it’s too good to be true.

Locking Down the Prisoners: Control, Conflict and Compliance for Organizations

Newgate Prison Inmates

The most important thing to learn about management and governance is knowing when and how to manage or govern and more importantly, when not to.

The story is told about a very new and modern penal facility, the very epitome of security and control. Each night, precisely at 11:00 PM, the televisions were shut off and the inmates were herded into their cells for lights out. Since the inmates tended to dislike their enforced bedtime, fights would ensue during the lockdown and throughout the night when the cells needed to be opened (both for purposes of head counts and to respond to the inevitable conflicts caused by locking people in close quarters). If the problems were pervasive enough, an entire housing unit might be punished by – wait for it – being confined to their cells (perpetuating the cycle).

Management of the facility was at a loss on what to do. The conflict was causing disruption in the day-to-day activities. This disruption further exacerbated tensions. The fights led to injuries to both staff and inmates, raising costs and risk of civil litigation, as well as causing staffing problems.

The answer was simple – stop the lockdowns. When the policy was reviewed objectively, it was obvious that enforcement was yielding no benefits to offset the many costs. In fact, stopping enforcement actually increased security by reducing tensions and causing the night owls to sleep in during the day. In a real-life zen moment, it was realized that letting go of the illusion of control provided real control (or at least something closer to it).

Most organizations could benefit from a similar epiphany.

This is not to suggest that process, management, and governance are unnecessary, far from it. Instead, it’s important that the system by which things are run is…systemic. As Tom Graves likes to say, “…things work better when they work together, on purpose”. Intentional design applies to social systems, just as it applies to software systems. Ad hoc evolution, by way of disjointed decisions unencumbered with any coherence, lead to accidental structures. Entropy emerges.

This can be seen in a tweet from Charles T. Betz:

Or, as Gary Hamel tweeted:

The alternative is to do as Yves Morieux stated in his TED talk: “We need to create organizations in which it becomes individually useful for people to cooperate.” This involves a ruthless attention to cause and effect. This involves creating environments where unnecessary friction is removed and necessary friction is understood to be necessary by all involved. It’s a lot easier to get compliance when it’s easier to comply and a lot easier to get conflict when you provoke it.

Cause and Effect – Cargo Cults and Carts Before Horses

Sometimes our love of shortcuts can make us really stupid. Take, for example, the idea of “Fail Fast”. As Jeff Sussna observed in his post “Rethinking Failure”, “Suddenly failure is all the rage.” He also noted:

By itself, failure is anything but good. Making the same mistake over and over again doesn’t help anyone. Failure leads to success when I learn from it by changing my behavior or understanding in response to it. Even then, it’s impossible to guarantee that my response will in fact lead to success. The validity of any given response can only be evaluated in hindsight.

Dan McClure, in “Why the “Fail Fast” Philosophy Doesn’t Work”, agreed:

If your only strategy for exploring the unknown is to pick up rocks and look underneath, then the more rocks you turn over the better. The problem is that for real world innovations, test and reject doesn’t scale well. For disruptive ideas with the potential to make a difference in the market there are lots and lots of rocks.

The value in “Fail Fast” lies in the “Fast” part; there’s no magic in the “Fail”. If you’re going to fail, finding out about it sooner, rather than later, is less costly. Less costly, however, is a far cry from best. Succeeding obviously works much better than failing fast, meaning that methods which allow you to evaluate without incurring the time, pain, and expense of a failure are a better choice when available.

Another example of this phenomenon is what Matt Balantine recently referred to as “investor-centric” development:

That, of course, creates an interesting rabbit hole – investors chasing products that will be “hot” and products designed to appeal to investors rather than customers (which would result in the product becoming “hot”). Matt’s comment from his post “What if the answer isn’t software?” applies, “I’ve no doubt that we are seeing real issues and opportunities being ignored in the pursuit of the rainbow-pooping unicorns.”

Yet another example of magical thinking is via believing in the “Great Man Theory”. People like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have achieved great things, but as a result of what they did, not who they are. Divorced from their context, it’s a hard sell to argue that they would be equally successful.

Effectiveness is more likely to come from systems thinking than magical thinking. Understanding cause and effect as well as interrelationships and context makes the difference between rational decision-making and superstition.