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Volume 22, Issue 7;   February 23, 2022: Disproof of Concept

Disproof of Concept

by

Proof-of-concept studies of system designs usually try to devise solution options and discover the system's operating constraints. But limitations can become clear too late. A different approach — disproof of concept — can be a useful alternative.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Widely acclaimed as "practically unsinkable," she sank in the early hours of April 15, on her first crossing of the Atlantic. Even the word practically couldn't sufficiently protect the prognosticators from risk. Photo by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923), courtesy Wikipedia.

A common pattern in problem solving and product development is known as proof of concept (POC). In a proof-of-concept exercise, we charter a team and give them access to what we believe to be a package of resources sufficient for building a demonstration of the concept we're trying to study. It seems like a reasonable approach. Proof of concept limits risk by limiting the scale of the trial. Then, so the theory goes, if the trial works we can scale up with a great degree of confidence. If the trial doesn't work, we make adjustments and try again. But for problems that require much scaling up proof-of-concept is an unsafe choice. The approach we really need is disproof of concept.

Bias in the proof-of-concept concept

The goal The name "proof of concept" is
actually part of the problem.
It communicates and reinforces
the bias of the investigation.
of proof-of-concept exercises is to find a way to make the big idea work. That's why we call them proof-of-concept exercises. To achieve that goal, the team makes a string of decisions and assumptions designed to help it reach the goal. The problem with this approach is that it encourages a bias. That bias arises from three factors: the name of the POC approach, a conflict of interest, and the politics of POC teams.

The name "proof of concept"
The name "proof of concept" is actually part of the problem. The name communicates and reinforces the bias of the investigation. In essence, the team isn't investigating the properties of the concept or any preliminary implementation of the concept. Rather, the name communicates the fact that the team is responsible for proving the validity of the concept. Instead of searching for adjustments that strengthen the concept, the team focuses on finding ways — any ways at all — to demonstrate that the concept works.
An inherent conflict of interest
The conflict of interest arises from the conflict between the overall goal — make the idea work — and another goal, often unspoken: find the weaknesses, misconceptions, and shortcomings in the concept under study. Indeed, some of these POC teams take as their charter the necessity of proving that the concept works. For them, failure is not an option. For them, the concept must work because they believe that failure to prove the concept would raise questions about their personal capabilities and, in some cases, their loyalty to the organization.
The politics of POC teams
To be a member of a POC team is to recognize the politics of failure. The framing of the team's mission is to prove the concept. Team success is defined as proving the concept. Team failure is failing to prove the concept. One result of this framing of the team's mission is the tendency of some POC teams to search for the set of special cases and circumstances in which they can prove the concept. Finding those circumstances enables them to declare that they achieved the goal, subject to constraints. Example: A POC team studying the plans for the Titanic might have found that the Titanic was a fine, safe, ocean liner provided it doesn't run into icebergs — or anything else unexpected. The problem with this kind of conclusion is that it isn't a proof of concept; it's a proof of concept with some very important contingencies. But politically savvy POC teams find it difficult to choose any other course.

Disproof of concept

A significant risk of the POC approach is that the POC team might expend resources — and more important, calendar time — discovering conditions and devising adjustments that make the concept workable. In one unfortunate scenario, the POC team does find conditions and adjustments that make the concept workable, but the conditions and/or adjustments aren't acceptable in anticipated field conditions. That is, the concept works in the POC environment, but it isn't feasible at full scale. For teams that want to avoid producing this outcome too late in the investigation to be helpful, a very useful alternative is an approach based on disproof of concept (DOC).

In the disproof-of-concept approach, the DOC team aims to find the "fatal flaws" in the concept as quickly as possible. It's actually a variant of the "fail faster" approach to innovation. The DOC approach recognizes that calendar time is the most precious of all resources. By uncovering fatal flaws early, the DOC approach affords designers and strategists early warning of the need for adjustments. And with early warning they have greater freedom and a wider array of options for making adjustments. Go to top Top  Next issue: Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective  Next Issue

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Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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