The Overview Effect (in Software)

The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift that is reported by astronauts when they see the earth from outer space for the first time. It is a change brought on by experiencing the world differently. Strongly held beliefs unfold. A new mental state is acquired from seeing the whole, after a life spent living in the parts.

Fortunately for us, the effect can be had without directly experiencing outer space. The “blue marble” photograph is considered a turning point in humankind’s collective understanding of our place on earth. The picture gives us all the ability to make contact with that global view of the world.

The Overview Effect is a powerful force in generating understanding about systems, one that we can use with all systems that we interact with.

Software delivery is all about the creation of systems – technical systems, organizational systems, systems of work – and we have many opportunities to play with and utilize this effect. I try to use it as much as possible, and I think an important part of my job is to create experiences that help give people a broader view of what they are building.

Here are few examples of different overviews I have used in the design of our newest product:

  • User Story Maps
  • Architecture Diagrams
  • Mind Maps
  • User Journeys
  • Even my personal Kanban

These are all ways of generating system-level views that help to couch our day to day work in a global level of thinking. They also make such views accessible to a wide audience. I consider the experience of creating and discussing these artifacts with a diverse group of people to be an invaluable part of our development process.

When we are working on large scale software projects that involve dozens of teams and hundreds of engineers, these views are not just ‘nice to have’. We need to do everything we can to help people understand what they are building. I feel that we have a responsibility to experiment with as many such views as possible, and share them as broadly as we can.

The key is to make visual explanations (channeling my Tufte here) that pull many parts of the system together. But there is an important corresponding attitude that needs to accompany this.

The Inductive Attitude

In Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Polya writes,

“In our personal life, we often cling to illusions. That is, we do not dare to examine certain beliefs which could easily be contradicted by experience, because we are afraid of upsetting our emotional balance. There may be circumstances in which it is not unwise to cling to illusions, but in science we need a very different attitude, the inductive attitude. This attitude aims at adapting our beliefs to our experience as efficiently as possible.”

Polya (1954) p. 7

In science (and, yes, product development) experiences need to shape our thinking. The inductive attitude means being able to change our beliefs quickly and easily based on what we observe.

Applying the attitude to our work means we make the best possible use of available experiences: using techniques to extract diverse views of a problem and synthesizing the evidence to create new understandings. Rinse and repeat. 

With the Overview Effect, we will be given a global view that may very well contradict what we previously understood only locally. As always, we need to use open minded thinking, expecting to have our mind changed when we experience this new perspective.

We may have thought we should do things a certain way that doesn’t make sense any more given the full view. We may have had our heart set on an implementation that completely missed a key element of the system.

We should be delighted to find out we are wrong, to gain new clarity on our goals.

Overall, the inductive attitude – changing our minds based on new evidence and new experiences – is critical in product development, and we see this in the fact that so much of modern product delivery systems is targeted at learning and changing our minds as efficiently as possible.

If we are going to use nudges like the Overview Effect to help us build our understanding, then we must adopt and use the inductive attitude, ready to change our beliefs.

Have you had an Overview Effect that changed your thinking about how a system works? I would love to see it! Please reach out to me on Twitter if you have.

Published by JohnRauser

Eng Leader @ Cisco

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