Thursday, November 6, 2014

Simple solutions to complex problems

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Complexity and simplicity are often, and intuitively,
regarded as two extremes of the same continuum,
or spectrum. Yet, this may be a simplistic view, indeed.

Complexity of a solution reflects many things: complexity of the problem, of the problem domain, the level of understanding of the above by the people creating the solution, and the complexity of the organization and communication of the people in charge of building the solution.  Finally, complexity of the solution will reflect the incentives people were facing: was it in their interest to create a complex solution? Or to make the solution as simple as possible?

Integer calculator is inherently less complex than, say, mapping software, but implementation of the algebra functions can be ridiculously complicated. Or fairly simple, depending on the attitudes of individual architects and implementers, and their organization.  Business rules expressed as decision trees are relatively simple, yet there are plenty of solutions in that space that are mind-bogglingly complicated.

Agile approach results, among many other things, in reduced complexity in the delivered product. Cross-functional self-managed teams, while not easy to build, are a lot less complex than matrix organizations of the traditional firms.  Communication patterns are simpler and more straightforward. Preferring a team of generalists over narrowly specialized experts levels out the playing field, and encourages more level understanding of the problem domain within the team. The emphasis on speedy delivery of small slices of the solution leads to the team concentrating on the “lowest hanging fruit” at any point in project timeframe, ensuring that the team works on the best-understood pieces of the problem, while it expands its understanding.

Engineering practices that are often coupled with Agile also carry a significant focus on simplicity in design and implementation. Emerging design, developed with continued and immediate feedback from the implementation and user assessment, is simpler than the up-front design created early in the project, prior to having project work feedback loop established. Unit-level automated tests are simple to create and maintain, and having adequate test coverage and infrastructure reduces both probability and complexity of inevitable bugs.

Frequent collaboration with users and customers, required by most Agile frameworks, forces all parties involved in a project to develop a joint understanding that eventually becomes the basis of the solution. Joint understanding of a diverse group is always less complex and less nuanced than that of a single mind (participating in the group), or a similarly-minded group, thus leading to a simpler solution.

As the business of software development moves forward, it is taking on more complicated problems, and attempts to deliver increasingly complex solutions. Keep the complexity in check by simplifying communication paths, promoting learning and feedback, and striving for joint understanding among diverse groups. 

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