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Faking Rationality

I recently dug up and re-read the classic Parnas/Clement 1986 paper: “A Rational Design Process: How And Why To Fake It“. Despite the tendency of people to want to desperately believe the process of design is “rational“, it never is. The authors know there is no such thing as a sequential, rational design process where:

  • There’s always a good reason behind each successive design decision.
  • Each step taken can be shown to be the best way to get to a well defined goal.

The culprit that will always doom a rational design process is “learning“:

Many of the details only become known to us as we progress in the implementation (of a design). Some of the things that we learn invalidate our design and we must backtrack (multiple times during the process). The resulting design may be one that would not result from a rational design process. – Parnas/Clements

Since “learning“, in the form of going backwards to repair discovered mistakes, is a punishable offense in social command & control hierarchies where everyone is expected to know everything and constantly march forward, the best strategy is to cover up mistakes and fake a rational design process when the time comes to formally present a “finished” design to other stakeholders.

Even though it’s unobtainable, for some strange reason, Spock-like rationality is revered by most orgs. Thus, everyone in org-land plays the “fake-it” game, whether they know it or not. To expect the world to run on rationality is irrational.

Executives preach “evidence-based decision-making“, but in reality they practice “decision-based evidence-making“.

  1. Dick Danjin
    November 24, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Read the article.What a great metaphor collective human(fallible)activity trying to do anything ! More fundamentally the task/project goal becomes the ideal(unattainable ideal) Howard S, Schwartz writes extensively on this since the1980’s.He has some of his papers on line(free).I met him in 1985.

  2. November 24, 2012 at 10:51 am

    The funny thing is that this style of mis-management is referred to as “command and control”. It’s relation to military management is so shallow as to be an antithesis: OODA loops are the invention of an Air Force officer and Mission Tactics were an innovation of the Prussians (not an army known for New Age Touchy-Feeliness). Even Stalin’s philosophy of “…probe with a bayonet. If you meet mush, you push farther. If you meet steel, you pull back” allows for learning and uncertainty.

    • December 1, 2012 at 5:52 am

      Gene, where does the word “military” appear in the post?

      • December 1, 2012 at 8:27 am

        You didn’t, but that’s the origin of the term. No criticism of your post was intended, I just find the colloquial usage of it ironic.

  3. fish-of-the-day
    November 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    not really related to your post, but since it IS one of your favorite topics…


  4. December 1, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Gene, I should have no problem with criticism. If I can dish it out, I should be able to take it, right? The operative word is “should” here. 🙂

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