Cognitive overload

If I asked you what 7+5 was, you’d probably be able to give me an accurate answer within a couple of seconds. If I first asked you what the square root of the population of Uganda was, multiplied by the circumference of the Earth, and then waited until you were thoroughly engaged in solving this problem, for then to ask you what 7+5 is – You’d probably not even be able to give me an answer before a minute or two had passed. That’s because your mind would be preoccupied with problems to such an extent it doesn’t have room for more problems. This is called “cognitive overload”.

Cognitive overload happens in everything that computes, including computers and human minds. For instance, if you install a million apps on your computer, for then to start all of these apps at the same time, and then try to read the news with your browser – Chances are your computer won’t even be able to start your browser. However, also organisations can experience cognitive overload, and when they do, they become completely paralyzed, and no longer able to function – The same way your computer does when it has too many programs running simultaneously.

This is just one of the side effects of technical debt, as in too many tasks to do. Whatever you can purchase or obtain somehow as off the shelf components will reduce your organisation’s cognitive load, and hence makes it free to solve its more important tasks – As in the tasks that are of strategic importance to you and your organisation. All other tasks should simply not be solved, at least not by you or your organisation.

And, if you have to solve a problem, because it is at the core of your strategy, then please break it down into multiple smaller problems, since this allows for you to solve the smaller problems, without having to fill your mind with non-important stuff you know you can solve after you have solved the initial problem. Walking up a staircase is simple if you only move one step at the time. If you’re standing at the bottom of the staircase, trying to jump to the top in one step, it becomes literally impossible. In fact, this is an ancient Roman war strategy, but works just as well for solving problems in a software development department as it does when it comes to conquering Gaulle.

In one of my future articles, I will illustrate a use case describing how you can break down an actual problem into multiple smaller tasks, allowing you to more easily avoid cognitive overload, and such create a more healthy organisation and software development department. However, the idea can be summed up with a simple sentence.

The road to reach your dreams starts with one small step at the time

In fact, this is the most famous quote probably ever uttered, and it is as follows.

One small step for man, one gigantic leap for humanity

And that’s because it was just the final step on a staircase filled with trillions upon trillions of solutions to tiny small and easily understood problems. But trying to jump to the moon before having solved these problems, one at the time, becomes the very definition of insanity. Hence, do like Neil Armstrong please, and do it one step at the time …

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