The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights- 32 min read - Text Only
I heard a book recommendation on a podcast, The Changelog: Learning From Incidents. One key takeaway from that podcast was to have someone separate do the investigation for an incident and to report on it. The people that just survived are worn out, and process at that moment is not going to lead to truly learning and preventing it in the future.
In other industries like aviation, healthcare, and the like which involve the safety of human lives or property, we have significant processes in place. The book talks about this too. Is it on you to assess the competency of the flight pilot, evaluate his flight history and reputation? No, you're just going to be there for the ride. Process is there, full of checklists to get you safely to the other side (or to cancel your flight).
I used to work for healthcare technology; they were very checklist oriented. In healthcare technology we served institutions that hire physicians, nurses, etc. and that brought a checklist oriented culture. In fact so koolaid was forced down our throats about what makes healthcare successful (financially and functionally) that we were forced into the same stagnant sluggish spell that you see in government institutions. But hey we charged and made a lot of money. Or at least my employer did. I wasn't compensated differently for the impact of my work.
But among all the processes introduced in and around our lives, there's a problem, and it comes back to learning from software incidents. Process will obscure the clues that lead to deeper insights to the issues encountered; Processes may lead to surface issues being documented but not document the underlying cause or suggest that an underlying cause should be explored.
As both a software engineering manager and someone who has survived, documented, and resolved incidents, I wanted to see what this book had to bring me.
At first I tried highlighting things in this book, but I was just getting distracted finding things that looked like a quip here and there that I could point to. Only the first 50 of 250ish pages got highlighted. In a way I'm glad I stopped the highlighting; the pausing to properly fill in boxes of color would have taken too much time.This book has a lot of padding. It does not need to be nearly an inch thick.
It starts out with grounding me–the reader–in the same understanding the author–Gary Klein–had before diving into insights. Apparently he collected stories over the course of his life including someone experiencing an insightful moment. Maybe a means to inspire himself later on.
Then he examined the existing theories of insights. Like oh you get exposed to a lot of things, talk to a lot of people, and then something incubates in the back of your head and ah-hah! You have the solution!
Well, that's one theory, and it does not account for many insights people have about the systems in our lives.
Later on he talks about companies and how companies want to
- Reduce Errors
- Increase Insights
But no one knows how to increase insights, but we do know how to reduce errors. Introduce Process!
You've heard of QA right? Quality Assurance? That's a process introduced to keep things within expectations. It reduces errors. Usually QA is performed by another team or individual.
Well let me ask. Have you spent 120 hours documenting all your research in a word doc on some sharepoint server, a primary plan with an estimated scope, a few caveats or concerns and so on.. Presented it to an internal committee, and later presented a reduced version to a client who's paying up the McMansions..
I've lived that life: it was called Healthcare technology. That process did not leave me with any transferrable skills. I did not come out of that a better developer.
Although I have a shirt that says "2 weeks of programming can save you 2 hours of planning," I think that there's a balance to be had. One which was definitely not felt in Healthcare.
The book brings up this professional case up too. You're dealing with a client. If you deviate from the plan, you not only jeopardize the current timeline, the start of the new timeline will be delayed until it is approved. Large organizational processes stifle sudden change, for the good or bad.
And that's what Gary points at over and over.Insights are sudden, unexpected ideas that change our understanding of something.
By focusing so much on reducing errors, we (not just may) will also smother insights that naturally occur. They are not communicated, or if they are communicated they are filtered out.
Example after example is presented in What Others Don't See.
- 9/11 had warning signs identified (people training to fly planes but not with take off and landing). This was raised as a concern for a threat. It was ignored and not passed up.
- The 2008 Housing Crisis had several people (in companies lending, in companies borrowing, in government) escalate the sub-prime mortgages issue and be laughed off. And those who did identify the problem and shorted the market at the right time made off with tons of money. Sigh.
- The SEC today is still just as ineffectual as it was back then for anything new.
- A general (or high-up person–I don't recall) at Pearl Harbor identified the likely attack vector they were susceptible to after an event in Europe. His warnings were ignored by those who could act. A Japanese equivalent also identified the event in Europe, accounted for the differences, and made history.
Process can be good for maintaining lives in a known environment, while adding more process to an unknown environment seems to backfire.
Gary even goes on to say, you know if Boone had to save his kidnapped girl using a program, he would have missed all the vital signs that lead to his success. Boone played it by ear, he connected details and even dropped his plan twice along the way in favor of a riskier but fact-lead approach. Processes induce mindlessness. Do step A, then step B, then step C. Processes are just executing a program in meat space.
I do talk about creating process in my Approaching Projects series, one that helps you. I wrote that seven months ago to write down how I personally break things down. I cut steps or add steps or rearrange steps all the time for myself. Personal process should be guidelines. What I do changes day by day because I'm reacting to information I know and learn. I am not a program, I am not a process, and on June 28th: I was praised for how well my team is functioning and their capacity to deliver.
If you need something to happen mindlessly, then use a process. Otherwise use your mind.
What Inspires though?
There's three paths Gary talks about to get inspiration.
- Identifying Contradictions
- Creative Desperation
- Connecting, Curiosity, Seeing Coincidences
Every path relies on something called an anchor, which is some observed fact or idea.
The sun comes up each day and goes down during the night: these are anchors. But did the sun go around the earth or did the earth go around the sun? Nicolaus Copernicus was ridiculed for Heliocentrism (which while wrong got us closer to a better understanding of the universe).
Noticing contradictions, little or big things that just don't fit with the established idea, can lead to rewriting the story around a weak anchor.
As for creative desperation, this is puzzle solving. You're stuck. You have a scene before you that requires you to bend your mind to come up with a solution.
I breathe this stuff–this is what fun programming is all about!
Do I have to maintain a unique set in memory as I work across 2 billion records? No, I can use a Bloom filter tuned to have low probability of collision at 10 billion records and call it a day!
Creative desperation often involves throwing out a weak anchor.
Lastly, that connection one! The whole synergy talky walky stuff where you see things and make connections. This one gets a lot of focus in the professional world.
Apparently Steve Jobs tried to force this on Pixar's campus by having only two bathrooms at the center auditorium. Surely by forcing people to mingle, they'll exchange ideas and have inspiration! But this was changed when pregnant women complained about having to walk for 15 minutes to use the toilet. Eye roll. You'll see the same stuff at Facebook's campus too I bet. But not with bathrooms.
Making connections isn't just about passively or forcefully being subjected to lots of stimuli. You need to be experienced, engaged, active, and interested to make connections.
We do not make connections to add new anchors to our understanding when we are not engaged.
So the trick here is to be more engaged, focus on the situation and the details, assume less! We do filter out our own insights, but if we unconsciously block them by assuming beliefs like "No way, Russia would never invade Ukraine again," we get blind sided. The signs were there. But we chose not to accept it suspiciously or actively.
Oh, that's another thing Gary talked about. Sometimes we discover insights by being suspicious. That isn't to say be suspicious of everything.
Just consider that if you're trying to chase after something, looking for reasons why that thing is wrong is not a bad thing inherently. Remember that Miami Surfside Condominium Collapse?
Someone was suspicious of those problems; they were reported and documented. But another who had the capacity to act or induce action did not engage and that lead to a preventable disaster.
Balancing with Process
Well, we can't just abandon process, but we can ask for it to be reduced.
Consider. It sucks to be on the receiving end of this sure, but bear with me. What if one coke can tab was missing in one of 500 cases in a grocery store, and this was represented. 1 failure out of 500 right? That sucks! Well QA may be able to identify this and reduce it to 1 out of 5 billion with visual inspection. So we first pay humans (for 1 in 1000) to look at coke tab cans (I bet this would be a really dull fatiguing job) until we can have a robot do it for 1 in 5 billion. Do you have any idea how much that cost in human time and then R&D time? A lot more than just refunding defective 12 packs for a few years.What's the impact of something slipping up?
Ask that before you throw in human process to patch over the problem.
Now every dependency change on our primary product requires approval from my team. At first, the approval required some
mvn command to dump the dependency tree and the prior commit to compare it. Now we have a nice github action thing that appends it to a pull request, along with a
CODEOWNERS file on the project file to enforce review.
I think adding that process was warranted: that slip cost the business more money (in resources and engineering time, figuring out the problem and reverting the issue) than the process will incur over the next few years–all the while preventing future slips of the same nature!
However, when introducing a process, consider a bypass, an escape hatch. The escape hatch should not be used normally, only when the process gets in the way.
We learn from each other all the time, we exchange information and sometimes we might see a contradiction.
We communicate opinions and facts, though what we see as fact or opinion may differ. Belief in either is an "anchor" in Gary's vocabulary.
When opinions disagree, we should tolerate that. When facts disagree, we argue.
But "facts" may not be truthful or accurate in the real world.
Have you ever done a turn-around after one of your views got riddled with holes?
In wood working you might be tempted to slap on thick layers of paint. It'll take soooo long to do multiple layers. So much effort to do many layers.
Except this is what you get. Blobs of primer on my first bookshelf. I painted over that and then tried to sand it flat, not realizing the primer is what made it thick. White primer is hard to see depth on...
And sometimes even the brush fibers get sucked into the paint so you fish your fingers in the stuff to pull it out and then smooth it back over.
Then it takes hours or a full day to dry.
It really is more work to do thick coats and the quality suffers.
So I talked to a friend about this and they're Like
So I switched my workflow, got a respirator, a workshop air filter, and an air gun, and I got to work.
My filter used to be white, but with how much black paint I used, it became quite grey.
Following this guidance, it not only took me less time! The result is far more pleasing to look at and feel.
At the time it was barely above freezing, so I tried using a heat gun to dry the paint. As a happy accident, that created this scaly surface texture you see under the shiny coating.
One lesson I took away from this book: don't argue and contradict. Listen, actively listen and ask to see a demonstration of their view.
We smother each other all the time by asserting our view of reality on others.
Now if we only listened we wouldn't teach each other our views. It is fine to share your view, but it is not fine to smother and reject others all the time.
Insights come randomly, they are not a formulaic output of some process.
Individuals and organizations need to balance process with the impact of processes, especially in creative settings. Processes are needed, especially around life and property, and are not bad, but often escape hatches need to be made when novel situations arise.
We cannot create a program to facilitate insights, or force insights through fabricated environments. Programs are just automated processes that handle known inputs. Insights come from unknown or even seemingly irrelevant inputs. What we can do is change our culture to encourage sharing of insights and suggestions, and actively engage with one another.
Insights are a natural part of how we think and see the world while rigid beliefs make for less insight around those beliefs. Consider being more flexible and even suspicious of your own beliefs at times.
We jeopardize each other's insights by smothering and rejecting them. Instead, have the conflicting insight expounded, elaborated.
We see more when we are curious and engaged. Think about the consequences or causes of an event. How did I learn so much about computers before I was 15? I was always about how it worked and why it worked the way it did, rather than the static what worked. Childlike curiosity is natural, it should continue with us in this ever-changing world.
Also, I think we see more possibilities when we are less fatigued from distractions. Scoping what we're thinking about to what we want insights on may be a better approach than senseless noise and doom scrolling. Consider less time consuming in order to get more time creating.
Incident analysis benefits by having another party examine and conclude, having their own insights about events that went wrong. Those involved with the incident can tell the story of what happened, they may guess as to why it happened. But those participants may also be biased, stuck with whatever theory helped them get over the incident's impasse.
Lastly, If you like good incident analysis then check out the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board videos. The CSB has a good pattern of delivering context, the event, what went wrong, why it went wrong, recommendations to avoid or prevent, and a recap of previous recommendations that were not implemented that could have lessened the impact.