We tend to use concepts that represent ideas, but we often mix the map with the underlying landscape and ignore the limits of our abstractions.
Human intelligence is amazing and has led to everything that we experience in our day-to-day lives. Every thing we use, every idea we communicate with our peers, every abstraction we use to deal with a complex problem – they’ve all been created by a human. Nothing exists until it has first been imagined in somebody’s mind.
The human mind, however, is limited in its information-processing capacity. In addition, it’s extremely energy hungry and uses around 20 percent of the body’s total energy uptake. This less than 1.5 kg organ consumes an order of magnitude more energy than any other organ in your body. As we’ve had bouts of food scarcity for most of human evolution, we have quite a few mechanisms to reduce the ‘power consumption’ of the brain.
These power-saving mechanisms include habits, shortcuts, instincts as well as several others, but the main one I want to focus on here is concepts. A concept is a label we associate with an idea or related set of ideas. We have very concrete concepts like a chair, a plate or a jacket as well as much more abstract ones such as gravity, democracy and friendship. By employing a concept, we can discard all the detail that sits under it and use one label to refer to potentially infinitely complex notions.
The very essence of humanity is our ability to create, use and believe in concepts, independent of these having a physical reality. For instance, the notion of a family or a tribe, the way we identify as members of a nation-state or how military units are molded into a team is entirely based on getting us to believe in a non-physical, artificial concept. At the extreme, people will sacrifice their lives for their unit, tribe or nation-state. In the normal course of life, we use concepts all the time to communicate, solve problems and validate solutions. In fact, in many ways, innovation and research are concerned with the creation of new concepts.
Nothing this powerful comes without a backside and concepts are no different. Similar to a map being an approximation of a real-world area, abstracted to only show a highly limited number of aspects about that area, concepts abstract much more complex underlying structures and show only those aspects considered relevant when the concept was first developed.
As we as humans ignore well over 99 percent of all information that reaches us through our senses, we use concepts to filter and quickly map what we’re experiencing to the preconceived notions and concepts we’ve internalized in the past. As an illustrative example, think about how we teach young kids the shape and sounds of animals using picture books. Although the animals are mapped to the same picture, each country has created its own set of sounds that they make. When I left the Netherlands, I was really surprised that cows, roosters and pigs sound completely different in Sweden and the US than here.
The mental traps I want to explore in this new series are concerned with mixing up the map with the real world. In information technology or software engineering, we use a whole lot of concepts and especially in a digital context, there isn’t really a real-world ‘map’ to remind us that the concept is a model of reality and not reality itself. So, here are 15 concepts that I believe are often misused or taken too literally and we do so to our detriment. My claim is that they don’t actually exist. There’s no such thing as the:
Any system we refer to is typically part of a larger context – hence the term “systems-of-systems.” Without the context being present, it has difficulty operating on its own. Similarly, the parts that make up the system often can be seen as independent systems themselves. Generally, considering a system as a unique, stand-alone, independent entity is conceptually wrong.
I’ve heard numerous times that the architecture of a system is the root of all problems a company experiences. I think that this is a gross oversimplification and it can be argued that there’s no such thing as a software architecture. Instead, it helps to think of architecture as a continuously evolving set of design decisions.
During the eclipse of CMMI, many organizations strived to reach level 5 as that would solve all problems. The challenge was considered to be ‘the process.’ Reality is of course that people run many activities in parallel and that processes intertwine and are much less clear-cut than what we might think.
Especially in Agile, the notion of a team with a high degree of autonomy and cohesion is often viewed as one of the building blocks of success. In practice, many teams have members who are only tangentially involved and not really active in the day-to-day operations. Also, interpersonal issues can really affect the morale and effectiveness of teams and make the concept much less powerful than many claim.
We have tons of data, many companies I work with say. As if data is some goldmine we can just start to exploit. In practice, the ‘data’ often is completely useless for anything and we need to be much more specific in what kind of data we collect and the context in which it’s collected.
6. Artificial intelligence
I’ve been flabbergasted by the bifurcation in society around AI. One group believes it’s akin to the second coming of Christ whereas another group thinks we’re on the way to Skynet and the extermination of humanity. Although there are some strong thinkers on both sides, many have very little clue of what they’re talking about and use the concept completely inaccurately.
No company operates in a single business ecosystem or software ecosystem. Every company operates in many overlapping, interconnected ecosystems. Focusing too much on “the ecosystem” is a gross simplification that can easily cause us to lose sight of the true complexity.
The customer is one of the most powerful concepts in business. In practice, this individual often doesn’t exist, especially in B2B contexts. Typically, there are multiple stakeholders in the customer organization that all influence buying decisions and that use the offering in different ways. Simply talking about “the customer” often causes more harm than good.
Companies tend to talk about “the product” as a clearly identifiable entity, but especially in software, there often is quite a bit of configuration and customization for different customers. Also, similar to a system, it’s often hard to draw boundaries around the product, eg due to integration with systems on the customer’s end.
10. Business model
A business model isn’t as simple as it looks. Sales very often is quite open to discussing different ways of monetizing. Especially in software, where you’re not selling a widget but rather an initial system, a promise for the future and integration, there are multiple dimensions and the business model isn’t as clear-cut.
It’s easy to talk about a supplier that simply delivers parts to us when we need them at a price we agreed upon. In practice, suppliers of software are also continuously evolving their offerings and easily become innovation partners rather than simple suppliers. And, not uncommon, suppliers may easily become competitors as they grow the functionality in their offerings.
Especially large organizations tend to be conglomerates of smaller communities that compete with each other (sometimes more than with outside parties), where outside parties are involved in ways that go quite deep and where ownership relationships of legal entities are extremely complex and messy.
Few terms in business are as overloaded as “innovation.” It’s thrown around everywhere and generally means “good” but is very poorly understood. In fact, I often feel it does more harm than good in conversations and banning the term would force people to say what they actually mean.
14. Customer value
For the last decade or so, I’ve conducted research on value, together with other researchers. My conclusion is that in the majority of companies, there’s no agreement at all as to what constitutes customer value. This leads to enormous inefficiencies in most organizations as people focus on different, conflicting priorities in the name of customer value.
“Platform” is, once again, a poorly understood concept that’s severely overused in most companies. I know of at least five different interpretations and frequently run into discussions where people talk about the “platform” using different perceptions of the word.
In industry and society, we tend to use words and concepts that represent, often highly complex, ideas. However, we’re likely to mix the map with the underlying landscape and ignore the limits of the abstractions of the concepts we use. In this series, I hope to increase awareness of these limitations with the intent of both allowing for more careful use but also for the development of new, more accurate concepts that capture more of the relevant aspects in the abstraction and perhaps ignore aspects that were relevant earlier.