diffusion of innovations and logical fallacies

I woke up in the middle of the night as I sometimes do and, not being sleepy, I did some reading on the web. Via a friend on Twitter, I found an article by Philippe Kruchten called “The Elephants in the Agile Room“. The article itself was quite good as it addressed some of the big issues facing agile development that leading agile methodologists rarely speak about, as they are uncomfortable topics.

One passage in particular piqued my interest, because it gave me a new idea with regards to the general problem of diffusion of innovations, that I spoke about in my “being right is not enough” journal entry. The context for this passage is that Philippe is enumerating a set of reasons why the agile community tend to exaggerate the benefits of agile approaches while understating cases where agile approaches have problems or don’t work:

[Reasoning fallacies] Such as Hasty generalization (it worked in two cases, therefore it will in all cases), and cognitive biases: anchoring, golden hammer, cargo cult, etc. Others reasoning fallacies include: non sequitur, and Post ergo propter ergo (correlation implies causation, or “guilt by association”),  etc. Our community is rife with these, even if they are not all that bad.

Of course, it is not only the agile community who exhibit these sorts of logical fallacies and cognitive bias to promote an idea – it happens all of the time when someone deeply believes in an idea or innovation and wants to spread it. Thinking about this pattern gave me a new idea about diffusion of innovations.

Perhaps if you are trying to promote an innovation, it seems like it would be extremely helpful to think about whether you or your message demonstrates any of the the well-known logical fallacies and cognitive biases.

There are a number of obvious reasons why you should be careful to avoid logical fallacies and cognitive biases when attempting to promote an idea. In the best case people will think you’re naive (or even stupid), in the worst case people will think you’re dishonest. Either way they will have their guard up and be less inclined to consider adopting your innovation. Another major risk of course is setting expectations too high, then failing to meet expectations, which will likely negatively affect peoples’ perception of your innovation which will slow or stop its adoption.

To be clear, very few if any of the potential adopters will think about your message in terms of the actual named logical fallacies and cognitive biases, but people have an intuitive sense for these and can detect their foul presence, even if they don’t name them [1]. However since they are well-known, it seems like a simple, valuable exercise to occasionally review them to consider if you are committing them.


[1] One I do hear named quite frequently is “Law of the instrument“, which is more easily recognized by the aphorism “When you’ve only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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