Better Never To Be In The Box

"Think outside the box" is a phrase that’s probably more Tired than Wired, but it’s still often heard as an exhortation to shed unspoken (or even unconscious) assumptions in the process of looking for solutions. When someone used it the other day, though, I found myself thinking of two replies:

  • "Better yet, don’t get in a box to begin with"
  • "What about Schrödinger?"

The first of those responses came to mind again today when I saw a story on Sun’s Project Blackbox (data centers in standard shipping containers). Also noted in that story were Microsoft and Yahoo explorations of alternatives for future data center growth. I found myself thinking, "If companies the size of these are becoming overwhelmed by infrastructure issues, shouldn’t anyone who doesn’t do infrastructure for a living be looking for someone else to do it?" (I can suggest a candidate.)

The second of those responses will be recognized by people with a little bit of quantum physics background. Erwin Schrödinger once propounded a thought experiment involving a closed box containing a live cat, along with a device that had a 50% chance of killing the cat during a given period of time. At the end of that time, he asked, "Is the cat alive or dead?" The classical answer would be that the external observer doesn’t know, but the quantum-mechanical answer would be that the answer is "Both and neither" until the external observer opens the box and looks — thereby disturbing the system so that it collapses into a discrete state.

When someone talks about thinking outside the box, I sometimes think that the problem in many cases is that people are actually reluctant to look inside the box for fear of what they’ll see. If you look in the box and find that the cat is dead, did your curiosity kill it? If you actually measure the state of your current IT systems and figure out what they’re actually costing you, and how poorly they’re working, does that make it your fault that this is the case? Are you better off not being sure?

Over at Linux Insider, Javier Soltero seems to be seeing something along these lines when he lists common pitfalls of technology deployment. The key to figuring out an IT problem, he observes, is often the question, "what changed?"; it’s therefore reasonable for people to fear being seen as change agents.

The way I see it, whether the cat is alive or dead, if it’s locked in a box it’s not doing its job of killing pesky rodents around the house. IT capability is the same way. The right course of action is to open the box, see what’s there to be seen, and get on with the job of solving the organization’s problems.

June 25, 2007