I’m reading the Malcolm Gladwell essay compilation What the Dog Saw, and the piece Open Secrets I’ve been finding particularly interesting.

At it’s core is an observation from Gregory Treverton that there is a distinction in the world between puzzles and mysteries, but misidentifying one as the other can lead to substantial challenges to resolution.
A puzzle is something where the answer lies in finding out and piecing together the necessary information, whereas a mystery is solved through the subjective judgement of expertise. The example with which Treverton illustrated this distinction was that the location of Osama bin Laden is a puzzle (find out more information about his location and you can find him), whereas what would happen after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was a mystery (and the voices who warned of chaos seemed to be drowned out in the political noise of the time). Treverton comes, it may come as no surprise, from the “security” world.

Gladwell’s argument is that if you mistake a mystery for a puzzle, gathering more and more information to try to discover the solution becomes counter-productive. Analysis paralysis sets in.

Now compare these two states to the two worlds of IT projects – infrastructural projects, and those involving business change. Most infrastructural projects (networks, capacity provision, etc, etc) tend to fall into the category of nice, logical puzzles; ones, in which, the stereotypical computer scientist can excel. The Problem-Solution paradigm works well with a puzzle like being able to reduce network latency, or deliver a authentication system.

However, it seems to me that most business change projects fall into the mystery category, but too often they are approached as puzzles. When you think of it in this way, the traditional requirements analysis/solutions design approach to IT projects could appear to be doomed from the outset. But if it is mystery that we are dealing with, whose judgement should be looked to in terms of defining answers?

Well, how about the people who are subject to the mystery in the first place? IT’s role becomes to facilitate business units defining business change for themselves, using technology to help where it can.

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