Empiricism v rationalism in tech

Empiricism v rationalism in tech
Photo by Katya Korovkina / Unsplash

I've decided to interpret the debate between rationalism and empiricism through the lens of tech product teams. It's what I do for a living and makes it easier for me to understand the pitfalls of each over time.

Empiricism - knowledge comes from experience. We truly learnt that putting your hand on a hot stove caused pain. It wasn't innate.

Rationalism - knowledge is innate. E.g logic. We understand that something that is red is coloured.

Waterfall= rationalism

Here's where it falls down. Teams who plan upfront believe, ahead of time, that their idea is very likely to work, so they may create a 12 month roadmap. Or maybe the plan forces people to kid themselves into believing their predictions will come true? It creates false certainty.

As a result, it may cause us to use our 'logic' which is a key part of rationalism to conclude how users will actually respond to your idea in real life. E.g when time is running out, you cut corners and focus more on delivering on time within budget, rather than ROI.

For example, Simon has committed to stakeholders that the the mediation app will be built in 12 months and will have a goal of 10,000 active users a month. He's now created a theatre of certainty to stakeholders. A plan on paper looks good.

Remember Mike Tyson's "everybody has a strategy until they get punched in the face" - is illustrative of this point.

When their product launches, not many users use it. All the budget, overtime, morale, stress - people leaving because of huge assumptions that were never tested in real life in small component parts led to this.

Scrum = Empiricism

Scrum values empiricism via inspect and adapt

  • Inspect and adapt - you check your ideas in real life by observation
  • We present facts 'as is' - this happened when we did this
  • Because of this, we decided to change course

Let's build a roadmap upto 2-3 months. We'll then adjust course after the 3 months if we discover our assumptions about success were incorrect.

People worship the plan over reality

People worship the plan. Board members like the sense of security the plan gives them over reality.

Project managers feed them the plan and impress board members with their due diligence. Organisation is considered a proxy for reality.

But really isn't this how dictators end up falling? E.g their staff feed them what they want to hear in order to stay in their circle and progress?

But what about when the plan fails? Create another plan

Well I'm hypothesising here that when things fail people blame each other. Blame individual failures. E.g oh Sarah didn't deliver her portion on time or the quality of the end product was shoddy to meet deadlines.

But these are surely symptoms of a systematic cause?

The good news for people in this scenario is that you can then create another plan about how you'll address failures because everyone believes in the organised fully detailed plan. Nobody ever realised from the start that the "map is not reality' - read more about this mental model.

Nobody really realised that detailed planning ahead of time when dealing with complexity is the cause!