Mocha Express
Commentaries
Thought provoking commentary on
Business, Technology, Organizations, and Organizational Dynamics
to clarify my thinking and engage in intelligent conversation.
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1 The Thrill of Flying Along At Internet Speed... Until Hitting the Rocks At the Bottom of The Cliff
      or
"4th Order Ignorance" As A Success Inhibitor

January 02, 2001
"As complexity increases, the search for a 'best' system by analytic comparison of all conceivable alternatives becomes impractical"
Systems Architecture, Eberhardt Rechtin, 1991

While catching up on my backlog of technical journals over the holidays, I found an interesting set of articles that are very relevant to our work and business.  Some of these include:

The Five Orders of Ignorance, Philip Armour, CACM, Oct 2000, pg 17
The Laws of S/W Process, Philip Armour, CACM, Dec 2000, pg 15
Quantifying the Soft Factors, Steve McConnell, IEEE Software, Nov/Dec 2000
The Decline and Fall of High Tech Corporate Culture, Nancy Ross, IEEE Software, Nov/Dec 2000

In this commentary I will look a an issue that seems to be plaguing projects: the lack of continuity of senior engineers and architects as the organizations focuses, as one vice president spoke of a project, "an opportunity to be promoted or fired".

Orders of Ignorance

Phillip Armour noted in the CACM articles:
"...the kinds of knowledge that must be gained will vary from system to systems. The degree to which the knowledge is unknown will pretty much determine how long it takes us to acquire it."   CACM, Dec 2000, pg 15

He then proceeds to follow up on the definitions of ignorance, he brought forward in the October edition:

  1. 0th Order Ignorance - Lack of ignorance: have the answers in hand in provable form
  2. 1st Order Ignorance - Lack of knowledge: we know we don't know something.  The question is in well factored form and we know that we must get the knowledge
  3. 2nd Order Ignorance - Lack of awareness: we are not aware that we don't know something.  We don't even have a question that we want to answer
  4. 3rd Order Ignorance - Lack of process: not only do we not know that we need to know something, but there also isn't a map or strategic plan that will take us in the right direction to find the information
  5. 4th Order Ignorance - Meta-ignorance: when there isn't even a thought that there might be unknowns

In two related Commentaries:

1999-WW02/: S/W Engineering or S/W Hacking
1998-WW47/48: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail"
I had discussed some similar items: the roles of advanced degrees and the role of managerial experience background as an innovation inhibitor

Only the Young Entrepreneur Can Understand The Internet - NOT

During the second half of 1999 and the first half of 2000, there was a folk lure in the Bay Area that this "internet thing" could only be understood by "brash, young entrepreneurs who could break the ties with the past and grab the new models of business." 

From the perspective of the Orders of Ignorance", it is (now) easy to analyze this phenomena and easily draw the conclusions:

  1. the "brash, young entrepreneurs" had at least 4th order ignorance.  Totally clueless about business and organizations, they charged into the mouth of the cannon with the resulting carnage that we are now seeing.
  2. the venture capitalists and senior executives of extant companies had at least 3rd order ignorance but then they suspended their normal due diligence processes by incorrectly hypothesizing the they didn't apply.

The end result is actually potentially very useful: the Darwian Natural Selection will take care of the "unfit" and the results of the internet based parallel to the "Cambrian Explosion" of life forms has generated knowledge and skills that willing be carried by the individuals into their next positions.

I would note that the massive amounts of Angel and VC funding expended on this burst of innovation was probably a bit on the over kill side.  The groupthink made it very expensive to do this exploration.  I am concerned that VCs and Angels as well as the participants will learn "too much" and walk away with superstitions and scars that inhibit them form taking what could be successful innovative paths in the future.  But that's a topic for other Mocha Expresses. :-)

The Need for Experience And Staff Continuity

There is a maxim in operating system design that only after designing 2 operating systems is the architect or design really skilled enough to achieve a satisfactory result.  The observation is that:

  1. the first time, the designer repeats all the same old mistakes when they design it simple enough that they can understand it themselves.  Their design vocabulary is incomplete and insufficient for a successful outcome.
  2. the second design addresses every last issue and oversight in the first one and adds all the new things "needed for completeness".  Needless to say, the design and result is bloated with bells and whistles to meet everyone's' requests.
  3. the third design is an architected design performing a tradeoff between wants and reality to allow form and function to work together.

The rule is that only by having the hard won, hands on experience can an engineer have the training to create sophisticated, business oriented technology tradeoffs.

I have seen managers who thought that gung ho charging of the ramparts will, through sheer momentum and motion, achieve the business goals - such as the "promoted or fired" quote.  I view this approach as wishful thinking by managers who really don't have a clue in the classic Dilbert sense.  Maybe if there is enough motion something good would happen and they can move on to their next position before it falls apart. 

The key learning that should be drawn from "the grand internet business experiment" is that even in the presence of new directions, it is important to find and empower the people to try new directions but to keep a strong hand on the business reality.

Process: Necessary Air Cover For Experienced People to Train Newbies

In this context, processes are very useful for codifying the organization learnings.  Newcomers to the organization need to both bring in new ideas and also learn the BKMs from the past.  Processes represent a way to investigate areas and find out what is not known and to develop the strategies and skills for addressing the problems encountered.

It is not acceptable to continually repeat the same mistakes: people should be skilled and experienced enough to make new mistakes to achieve new learnings from the baptism of fire that is the front line of business activity and product development.


Recent Commentaries
in Classic Commentaries Book

Commentary: Classics - February 17, 2015
3  Teamwork, Team Playing, and Belly bucking
Commentary: Classics - January 02, 2001
1  4th Order Ignorance
Commentary: Classics - February 07, 1999
2  Communication or Speaking Gibberish?

Classic Commentaries
       Chapters

1   4th Order Ignorance
  January 02, 2001
2   Communication or Speaking Gibberish?
  February 07, 1999
3   Teamwork, Team Playing, and Belly bucking
  February 17, 2015
Carpe Diem: What you can envision, you can achieve!sm
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