Never-Ending Stories in Praxis (Quote of the Day)
“[…] the longer one works on […] a project without actually concluding it, the more remote the expected completion date becomes. Is this really such a perplexing paradox? No, on the contrary: human experience, all-too-familiar human experience, suggests that in fact many tasks suffer from similar runaway completion times. In short, such jobs either get done soon or they never get done. It is surprising, though, that this common conundrum can be modeled so simply by a self-similar power law.” (Manfred Schroeder, “Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws Minutes from an Infinite Paradise”, 1990)
I found the above quote while browsing through Manfred Schroeder’s book on fractals, chaos and power laws, book that also explores similar topics like percolation, recursion, randomness, self-similarity, determinism, etc. Unfortunately, when one goes beyond the introductory notes of each chapter, the subjects require more advanced knowledge of Mathematics, respectively further analysis and exploration of the models behind. Despite this, the book is still an interesting read with ideas to ponder upon.
I found myself a few times in the situation described above — working on a task that didn’t seem to end, despite investing more effort, respectively approaching the solution from different angles. The reasons residing behind such situations were multiple, found typically beyond my direct area of influence and/or decision. In a systemic setup, there are parts of a system that find themselves in opposition, different forces pulling in distinct directions. It can be the case of interests, goals, expectations or solutions which compete or make subject to politics.
For example, in Data Analytics or Data Science there are high chances that no progress can be made beyond a certain point without addressing first the quality of data or design/architectural issues. The integrations between applications, data migrations and other solutions which heavily rely on data are sensitive to data quality and architecture’s reliability. As long the source of variability (data, data generators) is not stabilized, providing a stable solution has low chances of success, no matter how much effort is invested, respectively how performant the tools are.
Some of the issues can be solved by allocating resources to handle their implications. Unfortunately, some organizations attempt to solve such issues by allocating the resources in the wrong areas or by addressing the symptoms instead of taking a step back and looking systemically at the problem, analyzing and modeling it accordingly. Moreover, there are organizations which refuse to recognize they have a problem at all! In the blame game, it’s much easier to shift the responsibility on somebody else’s shoulders.
Defining the right problem to solve might prove more challenging than expected and usually this requires several iterations in which the knowledge obtained in the process is incorporated gradually. Other times, one attempts to solve the correct problem by using the wrong methodology, architecture and/or skillset. The difference between right and wrong depends on the context, and even between similar problems and factors the context can make a considerable difference.
The above quote can be corroborated with situations in which perfection is demanded. In IT and management setups, excellence is often confounded with perfection, the latter being impossible to achieve, though many managers take it as the norm. There’s a critical point above which the effort invested outweighs solution’s plausibility by an exponential factor.
Another source for unending effort is when requirements change frequently in a swift manner — e.g. the rate with which changes occur outweighs the progress made for finding a solution. Unless the requirements are stabilized, the effort spirals towards the outside (in an exponential manner).
Finally, there are cases with extreme character, in which for example the complexity of the task outweighs the skillset and/or the number of resources available. Moreover, there are problems which accept plausible solutions, though there are also problems (especially systemic ones) which don’t have stable or plausible solutions.
Behind most of such cases lie factors that tend to have chaotic behavior that occurs especially when the environments are far from favorable. The models used to depict such relations are nonlinear, sometimes expressed as power laws — one quantity varying as a power of another, with the variation increasing with each generation.
Originally published at sql-troubles.blogspot.com.
 Manfred Schroeder, “Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws Minutes from an Infinite Paradise”, 1990 (quotes)