Coping With Organizational Alzheimers

Years ago, an astute manager summed up a problem that I had only vaguely intuited up to that point in my career.

Do our memories leak? Image credit: xpectro (Flickr)

“A big problem with most companies,” said Roland, “is that they have no institutional memory.”

As I recall, Roland was describing capricious political winds, and lamenting that the only form of loyalty a company has to employees is the kind they put in writing. As soon as there’s major M&A activity, or HR decides to rebalance salary allocations, or an incentive program gets adjusted to the latest management fad, all recollection of old priorities and soft obligations vanishes in a puff of smoke.

If anything, Roland was understating the problem. Companies routinely panic and change strategy half-way through an investment cycle, because they can no longer articulate the rational analysis that led them to take a plunge. Buzz floods the internet about some innovation that makes everybody excited, but we forget that we’ve heard the idea before, behind some different terminology. (Are you nodding your head because “cloud” in the last few years is just a recycling of “utility computing”from circa 2000? Trev, a colleague of mine at Adaptive Computing, showed me a dog-eared copy of The Challenge of the Computer Utility, by Douglas Parkhill. It’s all there–XaaS, elastic and on-demand, in 1966. And who knows–maybe sci-fi writers or the designers of Eniac had thought of it even before Parkhill…)

But I digress.

One particularly insidious form of forgetfulness in software relates to technical debt. Another colleague, Doug, reacted to an expedient workaround this way:

My one regret with this is that by doing something that is good enough it will never get the attention it might deserve to be made better. This happens each release: we make compromises at the very end to get it out the door, promising ourselves that we’ll revisit it later.

Folks, we don’t keep these promises to ourselves very well; Alzheimers is endemic with regards to technical debt. The only thing that saves us is that Continue reading

Progressive Disclosure Everywhere

If you google “progressive disclosure,” you’ll get hits that describe the phrase as an interaction design technique. UI folks have long recognized that it’s better to show a simple set of options, and allow users to drill into greater detail only when they need it. (Thanks to James Russell–a brilliant UI designer–for teaching me PD years ago.)

But calling progressive disclosure a “technique” is, I think, a serious understatement. Progressive disclosure aligns with a profound cognitive principle, and its use is (and should be) pervasive, if you have eyes to see.

The Principle

Here’s my best attempt to distill the operative rule behind progressive disclosure:

Focus on essence. Elaborate on demand.

In other words, begin by addressing fundamentals without cluttering detail. When more detail is needed, find the next appropriate state, and move there. Repeat as appropriate.

Stated that way, perhaps you’ll see the pattern of progressive disclosure in lots of unexpected places. I’ve listed a few that occur to me…


The scientific method is an iterative process in which hypotheses gradually align to increasingly detailed observation. We learn by progressive disclosure.

Good conversationalists don’t gush forever on a topic. They throw out an observation or a tidbit, and wait to see if others are interested. If yes, they offer more info.

The development of a complex organism from a one-celled zygote, through differentiation and all subsequent phases, into adulthood, could be considered a progressive disclosure of the patterns embedded in its DNA. The recursive incorporation of the golden mean in many morphologies is another tie to biology.

A nautilus grows–progressively discloses–the protective covering it requires over its lifespan. The golden mean, repeated and repeated… Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In journalism, the inverted pyramid approach to storytelling is a form of progressive disclosure. So are headlines.

Depending on how you’re reading this post, you might see a “Read more…” link that I’ve inserted right after this paragraph. Making below-the-fold reading optional is progressive disclosure at work. TLDR…

Continue reading