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
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenFbfkzHTsWBiOKfcpner@ChacOXeKylLLRHPphpGboCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Empire Building
- Empire builders create bases of power within the larger organization. Typically, they use these domains
to advance personal or provincial agendas. What are the characteristics of empires? How can we navigate
through or around them?
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges
do they face, and what can we do about them?
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges
that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- Coercion by Presupposition
- Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it
frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal
responsibility for ending it.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing
relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to
relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects
of that disregard.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
- And on May 8: Brain Clutter
- The capacity of the human mind is astonishing. Our ability to accomplish great things while simultaneously fretting about mountains of trivia is perhaps among the best evidence of that capacity. Just magine what we could accomplish if we could control the fretting… Available here and by RSS on May 8.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenOXvfTqbBRCWOMRkiner@ChacTJXhVrJjypIfIgxNoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.