Friday, February 02, 2007

Cognitive Inadequacy and Wickedness

I’m beginning to suspect that “wicked problems” result when social techniques are used to solve intractable cognitive problems.

The CogNexus Institute defines a wicked problem as one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems seem to be inextricably linked to social context (Jeffrey Conklin, Nancy Roberts, Jerry Talley). A sociological approach is used to solve complex problems, even in technical settings like software development.

The root of wickedness lies in difficulties understanding such problems. No one person’s brain (processing + experience) is big enough to encompass the entire conundrum. Social animals succeed by dividing up problems among many brains – the wisdom of crowds. Each brain can take in and process its small part, but the interactions between the parts are now externalized as politics and conflict.

If many of the systems problems facing software developers are wicked problems (DeGrace & Stahl), and if wicked problems are a social solution to human cognitive constraints, then the root cause of many pernicious software problems is cognitive – not social.

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