As I've noted in an earlier edition, statisticians identified Type I and Type II errors about 70 years ago. Briefly, a Type I error is a false positive and a Type II error is a false negative. The concept of Type III errors is a generalization of these first two. The approach I favor is that of Raiffa [Raiffa 1968], who identified Type III errors as those errors in which one solves the wrong problem correctly. So, for example, building walls and fences to stop the flow into Nation A of refugees fleeing the violence of drug cartels in Nation B is a Type III error, because the problem isn't the flow of refugees into Nation A; rather, the problem is the violence of drug cartels in Nation B.
Gratuitous complexity in the design of technological products or technological infrastructure can also be a Type III error. By gratuitous I mean unwarranted by the application, or lacking justification in terms of the needs of those who use the asset. That is, a gratuitously complex system is one that could be replaced by a simpler design that would meet all present or near-term needs of stakeholders.
What makes gratuitous complexity a Type III error is that it doesn't usually arise by accident. That is, engineers and designers don't run around dreaming up complex designs because they couldn't think of how to meet the need more simply. While it's true that achieving elegant simplicity does require significant and intentional effort, there is a wide gap between elegant simplicity and gratuitous complexity. When a gratuitously complex system is proposed as a solution, something more than failure to achieve elegance is afoot. It's possible — even likely — that the proposed design is intended to solve problems other than the stated system requirements. Below is a little catalog of the problems gratuitous complexity might be intended to solve.
- People do get People do get bored from time to
time, especially when the work
they do seems repetitive and datedbored from time to time, especially when the work they do seems repetitive and dated. To make things more interesting, engineers might redefine the problem they're solving in such a way that a more complex solution is required. From the perspective of the engineers, gratuitous complexity is solving the boredom problem, not the user's problem.
- Political advantage
- One can gain political advantage by becoming one of the few people who can deal with the complexity of the system under construction. But that works only if the system complexity crosses a threshold that's high enough. Gratuitous complexity can be the solution to political weakness.
- Inability to shape strategy
- Some technologists might have argued for a shift in organizational strategy, but failed to persuade decision makers to adopt it. By creating systems that meet the needs of the strategy they advocate, they can reduce the resources required to adopt the rejected strategy, which can make a future adoption decision more attractive. The engineer or designer is thus using gratuitous complexity to solve the problem of inadequate influence on organizational strategy.
- Learning and practice
- Some technologists use their task assignments to meet personal learning and practice objectives. To accomplish this, they must sometimes add complexity to what they construct to meet their personal needs, rather than the needs of the asset's stakeholders. Their work then demonstrates their grasp of current technology trends. If this mechanism occurs with significant frequency, it's possible that the employer's objectives are outdated, and this phenomenon could be interpreted as a warning to the employer.
If previous efforts, possibly involving different sets of assets, also included gratuitous complexity, the value of those efforts might be enhanced if the current effort exploits the gratuitous complexity of the past efforts. Eventually, the entire asset suite might be converted in this way. This phenomenon is among the more difficult to detect, because it seems to be confirmation of the wisdom of past design decisions. Although that might make sense technologically, it's a wasteful investment unless the organization intends to move in the direction those assets support. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Ten Tactics for Tough Times: II
- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation
for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part II of a set of
approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
- Knife-Edge Performers
- Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance.
Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating
them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
- More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
- The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order.
It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with
some kinds of perceptual distortion.
- Social Entry Strategies: II
- When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves
to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of
a little catalog of social entry strategies.
- Power Affect
- Expressing one's organizational power to others is essential to maintaining it. Expressing power one
does not yet have is just as useful in attaining it.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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