Book Club

The Silver Bullet Fallacy

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Earlier this week a colleague asked me about the most important idea I share with my students and readers. I thought about it for a while as I didn’t want to keep saying “you have to manage with all your resources – your human, technical, and organizational – at the same time” (I say that a lot). I was feeling like a broken record. I went for simplicity instead and replied, “there are no silver bullets.”

TerriGriffith-blog-inblogIn folk tales, werewolves, witches, and this I just learned, the Bulgarian rebel leader Delyo, can all be killed by silver bullets – and only by silver bullets.

When it comes to individual, team, or organizational performance, it is also only true in folk tales that a silver bullet can lead to success. Silver bullets, uni-dimensional approaches to design or organizational change, are enticingly simple. If I could only hire the one perfect person for this job. … If I could just get access to that one perfect piece of software. … If I could just use this latest (fad?) in leadership … then all would be great.

It doesn’t work that way.

Fredrick Brooks, A.M. Turing Award winner and team leader on the IBM System/360 family of computers, wrote, “[t]here is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.” The title of his paper: No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering.

Brooks wrote this in 1996, but I’m going to guess that he’d been saying it for a while.

Einstein also spoke on simplicity. He’s is reported to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The Navy offers, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Yes, we should keep it simple, but to get to simplicity we need to look beyond solutions based on a single person, technology, or technique.

Brooks notes (speaking of software) that problems are complex, have to conform to their environment, subject to change, and hard to visualize. That sounds like most organizational problems I encounter. The complexities of a problem’s component parts, the richness of the environment, and the dynamics of it all suggest that we need to be thoughtful in how we design our solutions.

TerriGriffith_BookCoverFor me, this means you need to stop and assess the situation – understand the human, technical, organizational resources at your disposal – consider the particular context surrounding the problem at hand, find a mix of resources that provides and supports your solution (no silver bullet!), and then ideally, share your result so others can learn from your work.

We are all good at finding solutions. Most of us when confronted with a problem can come up with a solution and are very happy to share it. The key is that our solution may be too simple. People tend to apply their own expertise (if I have a hammer, all problems look like a nail) and as they become more expert, may become more closed minded (for a full discussion, see this assessment). Think about applying your own expertise, but channel a bit of Fred Brooks or Einstein. Consider how other aspects, (e.g., human, technical, organizational), might support your solution and make it stronger.

Or if that’s too much, just remember, “there are no silver bullets.”

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