Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Tuesday, June 19, 2007day link 

 Waterfalls and Chaos
Johnnie Moore used it as a couple of his slides at Reboot, and described it further in an old blog post, based on a paper on wicked problems. We're talking about how things are supposed to happen in somebody's neat mental model versus how it actually happens.
The authors put up this diagram. It shows the traditional view of a problem solving process. This should be pretty familiar to any kind of consultant. It shows four stages of problem solving: gather data, analyze data, formulate solution, implement solution. Apparently, this is called the waterfall model of problem-solving, where we move graciously from the area of looking at the problem to that of working out the answer.

A study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) looked at whether this model is a good description of what happens in the real world. So they took a team of successful designers and set them to work on a real world problem (designing an elevator control system). They then looked at how one designer actually spent his time. That's then plotted over our waterfall here:

That's interesting isn't it? He's clearly not following the script. Instead, he's jumping to a potential solution and then realising another aspect of the problem and so on. Here's someone who allegedly is a good designer and he's not doing "the right thing".
And they go ahead and try it with more different people, who don't fit the neat waterfall model either, and who don't at all match each other's patterns either. And we were talking about skilled, successful designers there.

The conclusion is of course along the lines of realizing that in the real world real people do something very different from what they're supposed to according to neat diagrams. They probably couldn't do it exactly like the diagram, or if they did, they would be very ineffective. Seen from the perspective of the people who like neat diagrams, the actual behavior seems chaotic. But it is productive chaos, and not really chaos. It is a different kind of order.

It is often not wise to try to impose rigid one or two-dimensional patterns on problems and solutions and people and organizations that really have many more dimensions to them. You can simplify things that are complicated, but over-simplifying functioning complexity is unwise.
[ | 2007-06-19 22:22 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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