Domain Dependence

Occasionally I come across a golden nugget that puts things in perspective. Usually it’s a simple and beautiful idea which elicits the “duh yes of course” gut response when it’s first explained but then continues to reverberate and come back into focus again and again. Ideas such as this one articulated by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

“Some people can understand an idea in one domain, say, medicine, and fail to recognize it in another, say, socioeconomic life. Or they get it in the classroom, but not in the more complicated texture of the street. Humans somehow fail to recognize situations outside the contexts in which they usually learn about them.” – N. N. Taleb

He refers to this as the domain dependence of our mind. He puts forth a few examples, including that of the business man who pays the hotel porter to carry his luggage upstairs, then heads for the gym to lift weights – mimicking the natural action of lifting a suitcase. Simply put – we put blinders on and fail to recognize familiar patterns in unfamiliar situations.

It explains a lot of the frustration that comes about in process improvements and agile transformations. At least for those of us that like to think and speak in analogies, Taleb’s words ring true. We are simply too accustomed to thinking about things in our familiar ways to see the simple truth staring at us from the other side of the mirror. It gets worse as our expertise deepens. Expert knowledge is deep, and therefore becomes more and more domain-specific. The groove wears deeper and obscures our view of the world. It gets harder and harder to look outside our own domain for solutions to the problems we are working on.

But for innovation that’s exactly where we need to look – outside of our own domain.

We experience the pattern clearly when we discuss Lean/Agile concepts with someone that has a firm waterfall view of the world. Most people can understand and agree with the concepts, but many also have clear convictions that those same ideas simply don’t fit in their area.

There are a couple of mental shifts that have to be made in order to recognize foreign ideas and implement them locally. First you have to take a particular situation and understand the general idea and principle behind it. That takes some abstract thinking abilities which some people are better at than others. Nonetheless you need to extract the general principle at play. Then, that same general idea needs to be applied in a different way in the new domain. The application may look different but the principle behind it is the same.

For example the idea that an apple will fall from the tree to the earth is well-known and accepted in the domain of everyday things; The idea that the earth actually pulls the apple towards the planet’s center until it tears loose from the tree is harder to imagine.

At a different level, we have almost no trouble learning about the gravitational pull of planets. Once we understand the principle of gravity explained using planets as the domain we can start to see the commonality. The only difference between the moon and the apple here is scale – it’s just that you can’t see the similarity unless you shift your viewpoint significantly. Once we look at them both from outer space, it’s a bit easier to visualize the apple as a really tiny moon. Now the apple doesn’t fall down any more. It gets pulled inwards towards earth’s center.

Or for a more obvious example – since you are reading this blog – consider the difficulty of seeing the translation of Lean Manufacturing methods to Product Development. The Software crowd are starting to get it, but the Hardware/FPGA folks? “That won’t work in our special domain!” (BTW to me that’s not a problem at all – it’s an opportunity to be the first HW/FPGA developers to outpace the competition). Check out and @nosnhojn as an example of pioneering work here.

Domain dependence, then, is one hurdle that we repeatedly have to cross. That is especially true for Lean/Agile transformation because the Lean principles (which are fundamental to Agile methodology) are so counter-intuitive to “common” knowledge. Lean/Agile principles are really sensitive to domain-dependence because of that.

But there is a bit of good news: if you can shift the viewpoint and get to the principle behind the practice, then this can be your detour around domain dependence. Talking about general principles without being weighed down by “common knowledge” will open the door. Once you have developed an understanding of how general principles work (like gravity) then it is a bit easier to move forward since rejecting a fundamental truth just because it looks different is, in a word, irrational. Of course calling someone irrational would not be a rational thing to do in most situations, so find another way to make the point. Patience helps; most of the time you just have to wait for the gears to turn and the point will make itself.

So, domain dependence is a real obstacle and it’s usually not recognized as a factor when we gauge resistance to new ideas. Remembering that simply shifting the viewpoint and focusing on the general principles at play is one way to reduce the impact of domain-dependence. Plotting that course is a tough job which falls to you – the change agent.


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