There is no such thing as: 15 mental traps

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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 around with our peers, every abstraction we use to deal with a complex problem has 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 is extremely energy hungry and uses around 20% of the total energy the body uses. This means that this less than 1.5 kg organ consumes an order of magnitude more energy than any other organ in your body. As we have had bouts of food scarcity for most of human evolution, this means that 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 concepts such as gravity, democracy and friendship. By using such 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 the way 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 that are considered relevant when the concept was first developed.

As we as humans ignore well over 99% of all information that reaches us through our senses, we use concepts to filter and quickly map what we are experiencing through our senses into the preconceived notions and concepts that we have 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 animals make. When I left the Netherlands, I was really surprised that cows, roosters and pigs sound completely different in Sweden and the USA than in the Netherlands.

The mental traps that I want to explore in this post 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 is not 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 often are misused or taken to literally and we do so to our detriment. So, my claim is that the following concepts do not really exist. There is no such thing as the:

  1. System: Any system we refer to is typically part of a larger context. Hence the term systems-of-systems and often has difficulty to operate on its own without the context being present. Similarly, the parts that make up the system often can be considered independent systems themselves. Considering a system as a unique, standalone, independent entity often is conceptually wrong.
  2. Architecture: Numerous times I have heard that the architecture of a system is the root of all problems a company experiences. I think that this is a gross oversimplification and one can argue that there is no such thing as a software architecture. Instead, it helps to think of architecture as a continuously evolving set of design decisions.
  3. Process: During the eclipse of CMMi, many organizations strived to reach level 5 as it 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 one might think.
  4. Team: Especially in agile, the notion of a team with a high degree of autonomy and high cohesion is often viewed as one of the building blocks of success. In practice, many teams have members that are only tangentially involved and not really involved in the day to day operations. Also, interpersonal issues can really affect morale and effectiveness of teams and make the concept much less powerful than what many claim.
  5. Data: We have tons of data, many companies I work with say. As if data is some goldmine that 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 is collected.
  6. Artificial Intelligence: I have been flabbergasted by the bifurcation in society around AI. One group believes it is akin to the second coming of Christ whereas another group thinks we are 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 are talking about and use the concept completely inaccurately.
  7. Ecosystem: No company operates in a single business ecosystem or software ecosystem. There are many overlapping, interconnected ecosystems that every company operates in and focusing too much on “the ecosystem” is a gross simplification that can easily cause one to lose sight of the true complexity.
  8. Customer: The customer is one of the most powerful concepts in business. In practice, this individual often does not 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.
  9. Product: Companies have a tendency to talk about “the product” 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 is often hard to draw boundaries around the product, for instance due to integration with systems on the customer’s end.
  10. Business model: The business model is not as simple as it looks. Sales very often is quite open to discussing different ways of monetizing. Especially in software, where you are not selling a widget, but rather an initial system, a promise for the future and integration, there are multiple dimensions and the business model is not as clear cut.
  11. Supplier: It is easy to talk about a supplier that simply delivers parts to us when we need it at a price we agreed upon. In practice, suppliers of software are also continuously evolving their offering and easily become innovation partners rather than simple suppliers. And, not uncommon, suppliers may easily become competitors when they grow the functionality in their offerings.
  12. Company: 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. 
  13. Innovation: Few terms in business are as overloaded as innovation. It is thrown around everywhere and in general 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 have conducted research on value, together with other researchers. My conclusion is that in the majority of companies there is 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.
  15. Platform: Finally, platform is, once again, a poorly understood concept that is severely overused in most companies. I know of at least five different interpretations of the term and frequently run into discussions where people talk about the platform using different interpretations of the word.

Concluding, in industry and society, we tend to use words and concepts that represent, often highly complex, ideas. However, we tend 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 the limitations of the concepts we use 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.

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