Monday, November 24, 2008

Differential Perception or Spot the Difference

Having worked in the area of "best practices" in IT management for a long time, I find it amazing that there are some key aspects of accepted wisdom (in IT as in most other areas) that run contrary to human behaviour.

I've talked a little about Front End Loading or FEL before, but there is another key trait that I find creates a conflict between what we know to be good (motherhood) advice and the reality of our action - and that is our attraction to change over constantancy.

I think we are hard wired to "spot the difference" in things rather than appreciate the whole. I imagine an ancient ancestor scanning the vast horizon, not recognizing or even aware of its beauty but searching for a change - some movement, some difference to the norm - which might identify where there may be danger, or the possibility of prey to hunt for survival.

I attribute this focus on change over constancy to what I call our Differential Perception. We know innately it is harder to absorb the whole than just changes. It takes less brain space and processing power simply because there is usually less changing than there is constant. So it seems a perfectly logical approach to managing what would otherwise be massive information overload.

I recognize this in IT where projects can get all the attention but initiatives to retain the knowledge of what was changed are fraught with difficulty. For those interested, one of the latest manifestations of knowledge retention is termed Enterprise Architecture - knowing and documenting how an enterprise operates - but there are many other related efforts like Six-Sigma, Total Quality Management, etc. that have their adherents.

But the ultimate problem for all these efforts (which face enormous implementation challenges in the enterprise) is really that most humans are not "wired" for the behaviour that is needed. I say most because obviously those of us who promote "best practices" are believers ..... and if I am correct, then Differential Perception is one way to explain our relatively dismal conversion rate.