Reflexivity can humble even the most experienced IT manager

Now that the world has gotten past the shock of the economic collapse and the bewilderment over why no one saw it coming, the search is on to identify those who had, in fact, forecast the disaster. George Soros was an inevitable choice.

In “Profit of doom,” the Financial Times this weekend profiled Soros, a legendary financier and even more famous philosopher/philanthropist, and the increasing currency of his ideas about capitalism, investing and the nature of government intervention. The one thing we all want to know about a man like George Soros is: 1) How did he get so rich? And 2) How does he stay so rich? The FT ascribes it to a “conceptual framework” that underpins much of his decision-making.

“His core idea is ‘reflexivity,’ which he defines as ‘a two-way feedback loop, between participants’ views and the actual state of affairs,” the FT article said. “It is, at root, a case for frequent re-examination of one’s assumptions about world and for a readiness to spot and exploit moments of cataclysmic change – times when our perceptions of events and events themselves are likely to interact most fiercely.”

It was the phrase “cataclysmic change” that made me think of the IT industry. Executives, vendors and analysts usually refer to “disruptive” change, but the underlying message is the same. New technology is produced, and something that is described as innovation is supposed to create change within businesses, and particularly within the IT department. Yet it is not often IT managers who are being asked to change. If they are, the change they are asked to make can be boiled down to buying a product they have hitherto shied away from. Radical actions are not encouraged, by vendors or by IT department employers.

Reflexivity, however, seems like the kind of attribute that should be desirable among IT managers, and even sought after by those firms still wealthy enough to be hiring them. It is sort of like agility, but deeper than that. It is more than flexibility, too, though that is surely a sign of it. I don’t know how well it really works within the financial services space, but reflexivity seems to me to acknowledge a certain degree of experience among those who are making decisions. It is not a framework for neophytes but a check and balance against tacit overconfidence in one’s own ability to diagnose and solve a problem.

As Sherlock Holmes would have been the first to point out, too often we seek facts to fit theories instead of theories to fit facts. That’s because looking for additional facts – particularly those that provide fresh insight and/or destroy the premise of a previous theory is discouraging and hard work. It’s much easier to ride on assumptions. All vendors are out to cheat you. Users are selfish and stupid. Companies aren’t willing to invest in the kind of technology they really need until it’s too late. All these things can be proven with anecdotal evidence, but not real evidence.

There are many other, subtler assumptions IT managers (and any other kind of manager) makes based on what they’ve learned from a project, a coworker, or their tenure at a previous job. Reflexivity demands that we approach problems prepared to be wrong about our hypothesis. It’s analytics that can turn on a dime. Given the challenges ahead of them, IT departments are going to need it as much as Soros thinks the markets do.

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