The Golden Birmingham Screwdriver

I’ve been thinking about where to go next, I think that exploring Boundedness is critical before I can procede to some of the other topics on my list.

Originally I set out to understand the origin of David Snowden’s term “Bounded Applicabability.” I can’t say that I have found the origin of the concept (David could probably fill that part in best), but I thought it maybe interesting to write about what I found while looking. Having now spent some time thinking reading and writing about it, I realize that the topic of Boundedness is rather large and I can’t hope to capture it completely in a post.

So… In this post I am going to try to create some links between ideas, instead of attempting to encompass the subject. My hope is to create some entry ways into the concept that will encourage you to explore it more deeply. Creating a web of ideas is useful for catching people. I don’t wish to dilute the concepts themselves, only to make them more approachable.
It is important that we learn to cross boundaries, but vitally important that we do not place ourselves in boxes.


Bounded Perception


The bounding of our perception is, upon brief reflection, obvious. For instance we are limited to “seeing” what is in the visible spectrum. Humans have a limited audible range of frequencies. Both which point towards a limitation of our ability to perceive reality fully. It is worth pointing out, and I will return to at some point, the idea that we can (and have) developed the capability to see beyond the visible spectrum.

There are other ways in which our perception is limited, we may only have a limited time to observe, we may only have a limited ability to understand the information we perceive (the Unmodelled Area).

Homo Economicus

Homo economicus, the self-interested agent, is imagined by economist, to have hyper-rationality, be driven to gain wealth by narrow self-interest and have instant universal free access to nearly perfect knowledge.
Homo Economicus… “can think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exercise the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi”
-Thaler and Sunstein 

Rationality is not moral here, it is narrowly limited to the idea that you can make useful predictions about the results of actions in your environment to your own benefit, otherwise known as rational egoism.

Utility is taken to be correlative to Desire or Want. It has been already argued that desires cannot be measured directly, but only indirectly, by the outward phenomena to which they give rise: and that in those cases with which economics is chiefly concerned the measure is found in the price which a person is willing to pay for the fulfilment or satisfaction of his desire.
-Marshall 

Rational Choice theory examines the concept of Homo Economicus. Interestingly like a form of a Turing Test, rational choice theory only focuses on the effects of external stimuli, ignoring the concept of internal motivation all together. The extrinsic vs intrinsic motivations Agile and Lean practitioners 

may are concern with is potentially interesting to explore.
As a model I imagine the Homo Economicus to be a “universal” model, one that is intended to be applied without regard to the environment or individual.

Bounded Rationality
Boundedly rational agents experience limits in formulating and solving complex problems and in processing (receiving, storing, retrieving, transmitting) information
-Herbert Simon 

As a reaction to the idealistic Homo Economicus we get Bounded Rationality. Here agents are seen to have limited or costly access to information, cognitive limitations and limited resources or time available to make decisions. Herbert Simon develops this idea into a concept of satisficing, where agents, unable to fully perceive their environment and make perfectly rational predictions about the performance of actions in that environment, attempt to simplify the decisions to understandable “proxies” for the environment, then make a decision from these simplifications. This results in satisfactory as opposed to optimal decision.

Daniel Kahneman’s work explores the implications of bounded rationality, including extensive examples of bias that limit our cognitive abilities to make rational decisions.

Bounded Applicability

Bounded Rationality mediates our decisions, limited by our resources, time and perceptions, to reality. Bounded Applicability mediates our decisions about which TOOLS to use in relation to the environment we find ourselves in. Different tools (and our capabilities with those tools) are more economically viable for solving problems based on the resources, time and perceptions we have available to us.

The Golden Birmingham Screwdriver

I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
-Abraham Kaplan


Failure to recognize the Bounded Applicability of our tools results in less effective utilization of those tools. Teams using the wrong process for the wrong problem may lose confidence in the tool, a tool that is very useful in other domains, but which they will now avoid.


Things to Consider

Just as no one has unbounded access to information, no tool, process, practice or method is universally applicable.

Develop not only the CAPABILITY for teams to sense which domains their work falls in, but also the CAPABILITY to operate in, and an understanding of which practices and guiding principles work in, that domain.

btw… there are of course also 50 ways to leave your lover… I might suggest however that if you make a new plan, Stan you approach it as a guide not a fixed decision.
We can now start thinking about boundaries themselves, gradients and edges… in another post.