Friday, March 18, 2011

Assumptions and the Black Box

One fundamental managment issue is what I call "assuming what the black box does" and this is taken in context of two negative outcomes: you either think the black-box process will perform as desired, or you think the black box process is completely unimportant.

Are you getting a handle on the manager's idea of the "black box"? In this monologue the said satanic box is clearly a process, product, service or system which delivers part of a larger process or system. Managers assume that it will perform as described or importantly, as they presume. It will deliver quality results, all on time, or on the other-sdie-of-the-coin, it is a current-operating system which requires no management attention.

There is a very topical case right now, and that is at the Fukushima power plant. A ten-fifteen meter wave and body of water could be anticipated perhaps. However everyone presumed they had adequate back up for failure in power to the cooling systems. The entire cooling system is no doubt "doubly redundant" in that there are two systems each with their own internal back up. I dare say they had many banks of doubled-up diesel generators in the event of power loss. However, they did not anticipate a swamping of these "fail safe" engine houses. They made an assumption, the black box, would deliver in whatever crisis may come.

Now I am a pedantic type when it concerns detail I am interested in and also "what if" scenarios. I should have probably become a safety engineer or the like, anyway instead I often hear alarm bells when I see managers either lighting up with the glee that "this black box will solve our problems!" or the condescending, eyes burried in paperwork " that black box is unimportant Jim".

Black boxes most often arise in corporations within either software, system management or consultancies, and wo-be-tide thee who combines all three on your desk as a general or marketing manager! The related group of nouns include: " alignment ; migration ; evolution ; deliverables ; and even basically Project"

Patenting as an Example of Intellectual Russian Dolls
One area I have been involved with, in some depth, is patenting. Or rather the results of "black box fixits" in the whole patenting process and contentions of patents thereafter. After a three year break from anything to do with the EPC and US Patent Office, it lands on my desk.

This is a very good case in point: a competitor was challenged for possible infringement. Very quickly however, the patent showed itself not to cover all eventualities or arrangements of the type of solution. It was a watertight patent, but only for one defined, narrow solution. The black box here was the patent itself.

The patent agents' and attornies' very own black box was how the Patent Offices would treat the patent and how it could be contended. That is the next process they pipe the application and "file wrapper" into. They DID NOT presume they could get an umbrella patent, in fact the reverse: they considered a safe way of feeding the black box with food it would most probably not spit out in their faces: a narrow, single application patent.

The agents then of course could call the patent "Patent of this type of thing" in the title, which is what managers read, and then tell only upon challenge them that an umbrella patent would never have been accepted, or been so expensive to contest that it is better with a nice defined little safe and most-of-all granted patent.

If you read line one of the "claims" then you know immediately that this is a simple patent based around the single design solution instead of trying to be an "umbrella patent" which covers ideally the whole concept. Management assumed paying 50,000 USD for the relevant global coverage WOULD deliver exlusitivity on the general solution.

So you kind of get the point...and moreover ....worse: there can be a russian-doll chain of black boxes. One could argue to basis of the western capitalist system is based just on that: you beleive the next black box in line to you will create value, and that is enough for your own little horizon. Hence the whole sub-prime pyramid sell could happen and completely undermine the entire system.

Buyer Beware Black Box Pendlers

I remember the film "total recall" where Arnie is sent an expert doctor to coax him out of his alleged dream world as a rebel on Mars. Arnie goes along with the story so far, until he notices that single bead of sweat is running down the good doctors brow. He then realises the trap and responds in true terminator style.

Now of course you can never know the exact workings of all those black boxes in the chain of systems or events around you. However, you can apply quality standards and systems like six sigma, to impose standards across all black boxes. Hence if six sigma is a commonly accepted and learned mantra, you worry less about what each box does. A different approach is to get expert advice, on an independent basis, or go and learn the gist of the system: this is where I stand. I either give-a-damn and learn as much as I can and feel I need in the system or I ask someone to show me it, or better yet an inpartial person to tell me about its stregnths, scope and weaknesses.

When dealing with consultants, sellers or internal managers, especially IT managers, you have to look for that bead of sweat, or that little bit of over confidence in their offer to solve the woes of the boss. Also avoid, as I have blogged before, ambushes in these situations, and rather make space for "scoping" and "scenario affirmation" or whatever BS, to basically smoke-out the BS and get to what is really being offered and what eventualities really may not be covered for. Then throw in a 10 meter high wall of ocean visiting you for an hour for good measure!

(c) Author 2011

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