Trusting Theories

by Krishna on January 16, 2007

One of the biggest problems when trying to learn earnestly is information overload. Reading books, skimming blogs, visiting websites, hearing audio tapes, seeing webcasts or attending seminars — there are so many ideas, theories and principles to process. Problems include

  • There are many conflicting theories & frameworks: For example, CMM vs Agile
  • Sometimes a tactic, like firing the bottom 10% of the company every year, is controversial and each side has its own set of data to argue with. The layman doesn’t have enough information to evaluate the information.
  • Different principles may be treated with different priorities by various experts. For example, for some, quality & features of a product may be the most important. For others, easy release gains precedence. And here is another person with a balanced approach.
  • Experts may have diverse backgrounds that may lead them to advocate one tactic. A person with an engineering background may have something different to say than one with a financial or law education. The ordinary person doesn’t usually read the biographies of the information provider.
  • Principles using analogies and metaphors are appealing, but only go so far in explaining organizational behavior or whatever one is studying.
  • Experts tend to change their minds over a period of time — usually, the idea becomes more nuanced. One has to get the right literature from them to read.

What does a person do? I feel that the best way to assimilate new information is to be receptive and skeptical at the same time. As long as the idea sounds logical, it can be accepted for the time being. The skepticism part is that the idea should be mistrusted until it starts proving itself.

Instead of a binary “Yes/No” for trusting an idea, it is better to think of levels of trust. An idea or philosophy that has shown success over several years should be given greater trust than a recent one that has worked 2–3 times in different projects. Falling for the latest fad and imaging it to be the silver bullet to solve all of one’s problems can be a big mistake.

A new idea must also find its place in your mind among existing ideas. If the new idea is in direct conflict with them and you believe that the new idea has merit, then it is time to do some deep thinking and experimenting. Sometimes the existing theories may need to be modified to accommodate new thinking.

As for information overload — during the initial stages of understanding a domain, it is perhaps necessary to be swayed widely in different directions based on information from various sources. As we start understanding ideas and accepting or rejecting them, we can develop stronger convictions. Such convictions provide vision and direction. Once that is established, half-baked theories cannot break them — however with an attitude towards learning, even strong beliefs can change when revolutionary new ideas come along.

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