Information Technology Dark Side

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Would you like some Bacon with that?

September 6th, 2006 · 1 Comment

I’m reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant right now. Why? I’ll explain that later when I finish the book and review it. At any rate, something I read sparked a lot of thoughts this morning on my daily commute in to work. It compared the philosophies of Descarte and Francis Bacon, calling one the philosophy of the subjective and idealistic and the other the philosophy of the objective and realistic.

It occurred to me that much of the conflict that I see at work tends to be a clash between these two philosophical approaches, and I started to catalog different things we do at work into the two camps, starting with project management. I see traditional, waterfall approaches as being in the subjective and idealistic realm. This is the way projects should be run in an ideal world where everyone communicates, estimates, delivers, and reports perfectly. This is the reason why waterfall fails, practically all of the time. Agile approaches to project management, on the other hand, feel like they are focused more on being objective and realistic. It doesn’t rely on everything and everyone being perfect – instead agile project managers start with the premise that they’re going to do just what needs to be done as quickly as possible with the lowest possible cost. Then they measure progress, and use it to predict the future.


Another area I see this distinction is in times of crisis. There are people who have a hard time getting past the mistakes that have led to the crisis, or who have a tendency to theorize their way to a solution (rather than testing and debugging a problem). These people are essentially trapped in the subjective and idealistic world of Descartes. There are others who respond to the crisis by very rapidly figuring out three things: where they are or what the problem is, where they need to be, and how the heck they can get there. This is the objective and realistic world of Francis Bacon.

I think some organizations try to promote one philosophical approach over another. Shops that are very process oriented are, I think, embracing Descartes. “This is the way a project should be run, no matter what.” “This is how you should respond to an angry co-worker,” etc. These are idealistic and subjective statements. On the other hand shops that balance the need for process with the need for productivity and for empowerment are a little more objective and realistic.

I think this distinction is important and should be watched for if you want to be effective. You need to know what your personal inclinations are. Do you lean toward thoughts of how things “ought to be” whenever you find yourself in trouble? Or, do you push those thoughts aside and start gunning for the solution?

I believe that we need balance between the two. There is a time to think about and plan for the ideal, and there is a time to be driven by relentless pragmatism. Good judgment and experience are the best tools for determining when to use each, but we need to be able to discern between both ways of thinking, and apply each of them appropriately.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Allen // Sep 6, 2006 at 11:04 pm

    A few thoughts and pointers:

    On the Jungean side you are talking about the clash between the Idealists
    http://keirsey.com/personality/nf.html
    and the pragmatists aka Guardians
    http://keirsey.com/personality/sj.html

    and you seem to mainly be arguing for the Artisans side (you typically do 😉
    http://keirsey.com/personality/sp.html
    even though you, I, and this discussion are analytical aka Rationals
    http://keirsey.com/personality/nt.html

    The Artisans will sacrifice the principals for survival, and if successful are highly praised for their work. They thrive in chaos.

    For years I have watched the Idealist NFs introduce concepts like JADs and other frou-frou ideas that sound good on the surface… but then they spend WAY too much time on the paperwork of the grandiose process instead of getting their hands dirty in some code. When I asked them, they would say things like “well we will let the coders figure out how to do that.” They always seemed chicken to me. (Don’t mean to ruffle any feathers out there 😉

    I believe they have great concepts and ideas. And as long as they can be automated so they don’t add to my work day, then its great stuff. It’s when I have to spend 3 hours a week filling out paperwork and then noone is willing to give me a charge code for those 3 hours – that I have the problem.

    Though I have seen that the paperwork makes the bosses up the chain happy… because that way I have something concrete to hand over at the end of every week. And if I documented in the paperwork all the things they said, then I can use that as a shield when they come back on issues. I can point and say “because you told me to do it that way even though I told you it would have these consequences”. Somehow that’s never a popular use for their paper process though 😉

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