Transposition of the Familiar

Have you ever had the experience of having someone explain something new to you, and somewhere along the way, your brain replaced something new with something familiar? So when you went to the next step, to work on the new thing, you immediately became confused and either did the wrong thing, or did something that made no sense. You unknowlingly transposed something familar for something new without proving that they are the identical. Call it a synaptic misfire, or just mental laxiness, it happens with alarming frequency.

Transposition of the familiar is an antipattern of knowledge acquisition. In knowledge acquisition, one is required to assimilate new information. New information must be analyzed, and assigned to categories and taxonomies. The antipattern happens when you identify the category of a new fact, but transpose attributes of familiar facts from the same category onto the new fact, even when they are not really valid. The worst instances of this is when you ignore the new attributes, preferring the transposed attributes.

This is extremely common in learning new software development paradigms (languages, patterns, and related constructs) when the developer sees a logic construct, like an if-then-else or loop construct in a new language, and assume that it observes that properties of a similar construct in a more familiar language. For this reason, until the new language is completely internalized by the developer, it is good for him to be completely immersed in the new language.

The same thing is true of entities in a new business domain model. Our brain automatically pulls out the terms we recognize and substitutes familiar metaphors. When the metaphors in the new business domain differ from the familiar, those transpositions introduce errors or at minimum inconsistencies in the model.

This is an antipattern that can be avoided through diligence. Understanding the prevalence of the antipattern is the first and easiest preventative measure.

Another preventative is immersion – you immerse yourself in the new paradigm (what ever that is) and force yourself to unlearn everything else for a period of time, until the new paradigm sticks.

A third preventative is to engage others who have diverse backgrounds (and therefore familiarities) and collaborate with them to embrace the new paradigm together, holding each other accountable for adherence to the new.

The last and potentially most effective preventative is to engage someone who is expert in the new to assess whether you are "getting" it. This can be expensive if you end up hiring a trainer, or coach or bringing in experts from the outside of your organization.

Many times, when organizational management wants to implement transformation to new paradigm, this last preventative is the approach they take first. But this approach is limited when it is used to "push the paradigm" – all other approaches assume that a desire to assimilate the new paradigm is already in the resource who is trying to assimilate. Knowledge acquisition is by definition, a pull activity.

No Comments

Leave a Reply