A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



The Shadows on the Cave Wall

Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and the Real World

So I drew this diagram (yes, I know, apologies for the terrible drawing). It's been kind of haunting me for a while. It's trying to connect up some of the things that Daniel Kahneman says in "Thinking Fast and Slow" with some of Boyd's ideas.

Boyd has this idea called the OODA loop - Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. I'm not going to qualify this in the way that I would need to if I were writing an academic paper (I don't have to do those anymore, thank God). Boyd thought that if you could get round the OODA loop faster than your opponent, you would cause confusion and bewilderment in your opponent - they literally "Don't know what to think." And I think, often the result of this is a kind of weird torpid resignation - kind like what Cavafy is describing in "Waiting for the Barbarians" - and what caused the Labour party to abstain in the recent welfare debate. Bringing about this kind of "Waiting for the Barbarians" torpor in your opponents is perhaps an even more powerful way of defeating them than actually killing them all or having them marched away in chains.

Boyd's OODA Loop

But I'm not sure to what degree Boyd thought about his own perceptions. Looking at the diagram - it looks like he thought about it a lot. And so I suppose what I'm reacting to is a lot of people who talk about the OODA loop and don't think about what goes on in the O's quite so much. So this is what this article is about - what goes on in the O's.

What I'm trying to show in my diagram is that when you do the first of the O's (Observe) very often, the process is so immediate that we don't notice it happening (we don't observe the observing). This is what Kahneman calls "Thinking Fast". And of course, this kind of of observing without thinking, in fact, not just stopping there, but ripping through the whole of the loop - Observing, Orienting, Deciding, Acting, is exactly what we need to happen for so many things in our lives. When the big red noisy thing is hurtling toward you, without thinking, you identify it as a bus and you get out of its way. Even though there weren't many buses in prehistoric times, the fact that we can't make this decisions so fast is the reason we're still here as a species.

In my job, when I'm working either as an Agile coach or a Scrum Master, the main thing that I'm wrestling is to stop people "Thinking Fast". Kahneman explains that people don't want to do any slow thinking (thinking that involves effort, reasoning, and slow working through a set of steps). So how do people avoid slow thinking when then encounter a hard problem? Simple just use fast thinking to solve an easier problem.

And pointing this out to people is very difficult. Part of why it's so difficult is that it seems so rude. How do you explain to someone that the way they have seen something is wrong?

Here are some examples of "Thinking Fast" that I'm constantly struggling with.

Fast thinking is never going to go away. The human brain likes a certain set of clean, simple ideas which are "wrong." And it also needs fast thinking. Slow thinking is exhausting. There literally aren't enough hours in the day to think through rationally all of the the perceptions and decisions that we have to make.

Another great thinker, Alfred Hirschman referred to these ideas as "Fata Morgana" - which is Italian for "Deceiving Fairy" and refers to a mirage that sailors sometime see on the horizon that creates the impression that there is land when in fact they are in the middle of an ocean. But he also indicated that if we didn't, as a fundamental part of our nature find ourselves attracted to fatae morganae almost nothing would ever get done. And Fast thinking sells everything. And of course, fast thinking is most definitely being used when you call your development method SAFE, or you claim that development teams who use your framework can be thousands of times faster than "ordinary" washing powder, sorry, development teams.

But, in order to achieve a lot of things that have "Fast thinking" appeal (saves you money, gets you pissed, tastes great, makes you live longer, gets you laid, kills your enemies) - we need some actual technology. This is "Slow thinking" - a non-intuitive way of looking at the world that has more practical power than the intuitive ways of looking at it. Mental arithmetic, calculus, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, these are non-intuitive, none fast-thinking approaches to problems.

Possession with daemons is making the child ill - that's Fast thinking. An invisible thing called a virus is causing the child to be ill - and if we inject dead versions of the virus into other children, they won't get ill - that's Slow thinking. Slow thinking is really, really hard. For everybody.

Agile methodologies have really got one contribution to slow thinking - iteration.

But slow thinking has its own problems. Which often aren't very apparent to advocates of slow thinking.

First of all, since slow thinking is so exhausting, the only reason people bother with it is that it gets results. This is a big problem for Agile - it's very often not so obvious that the project would have died if the science/medicine of Agile hadn't been applied. I recently worked on a large Government project that was supposed to deliver a system to implement legislation which changes every seven years. The two previous attempts and implementing software to support this legislation (7 and 14 years ago) had been complete catastrophes. One was so bad that a special select committee was formed to make sure that the senior civil servants involved in the programme didn't get their bonuses. The most recent implementation - implemented, at least nominally, using an Agile methodology, had lots of serious problems. But it was far from being a total disaster. Maybe just a minor disaster.

There's another problem for slow thinkers.

The tools of slow thinking aren't reality.

Scientific theories are theories, they are simply more involved and elaborate (and harder to work) heuristics/rules of thumb than those that are hardwired into us and exhibited as "fast thinking". They gain all of their credibility from the times when they have more explicative and predictive power than the "fast thinking" theories that they replace. Scientific theories are maps of reality, they are not that reality.