Keeping the balance

The dangers of extreme positions

Uwe Friedrichsen

13 minute read

Figurine(s) seen at a garden market

Keeping the balance

In this last post before the end of the year 2022, I would like to discuss a bit more general topic. I would like to discuss the problems of extreme positions in IT, why they are so popular – and why they are so harmful.

Let me start with a statement, I sometimes tend to make:

Any moron can take an extreme position. But it takes real intelligence to work out a good compromise.

What do I mean with this - admittedly - a bit provocative statement?

Well, exactly this.

Extreme is easy

It is dead easy to take an extreme position and insist in it. E.g., you might claim: “Everything below 100% test coverage is crap! Period!”. Clear boundaries. Simple rules. No room for discussions, interpretations or compromises. A world clearly divided in black and white. Easy.

As justification for your position you add a few generic arguments how not testing at all is risky (sure, it is) and voila: You are done. You take the opposite extreme position and point out drawbacks of that position. The world is clearly divided in black and white, and as the “other” position is bad, your position must be good and it is your moral obligation to insist in it. Easy, too.

Probably you have met some of those people in your career who use this black and white reasoning:

  • “We need 100% test coverage!”. “But do we really need 100%?”. “Everyone knows that missing test automation is bad!”. 0 or 100. Black and white.
  • “We must write the application using microservices!”. “Did you consider the challenges and risks that come with microservices?”. “What do you want? A big ball of mud?”. Black and white.
  • “Upfront design is bad!”. “Shouldn’t we spend at least a bit of time upfront to create a minimal design we can start with?”. “It should be clear by now that waterfall does not work!”. Black and white.
  • And so on …

If you question the extreme position, their advocates accuse you to advocate the opposite extreme. There is black and white only. Grey does not exist. In the worst case, the advocates even elevate themselves above everyone, mocking (or worse) anyone who does not obediently approve their point of view.

Extreme attracts people

Unfortunately, such people and their extreme positions often tend to be wildly popular. They trigger some kind of tribal behavior that attracts people and makes them wanting to “belong” to the tribe.

But what makes these extreme positions often so attractive?

To be honest, I am not completely sure. I am not an expert in human psychology. But as far as I understand it, it is a combination of the following 3 traits:

  • The extreme position feels clear and simple. Most people yearn for clear and simple positions and rules – especially in complex environments, that are filled with ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • The extreme position resonates with a personal need, desire or pain point. If it does not address any of your personal desires or pain points, you will not be attracted by the position. The more people’s desires or pain points a position touches, the more popular it becomes.
  • You do not feel left alone with your (often secret) desires and pain points anymore, but you join a group of like-minded people – people who feel your pain and share your desires. This is an extremely strong attractor for most people.

The “clearness” of the position is important: Black and white. Right and wrong. Nothing in between. No doubts involved. No nasty compromises. Just “this”!

But this alone is not sufficient. The position must also trigger (hidden) desires or pain points of many people to become popular. The more people it triggers, the better. E.g.:

  • Clean code: Ever worked with a messy code base without any tests? Then you know the pain point.
  • Microservices: Ever worked with a humongous ball of mud? Then you know the pain point.
  • No upfront design: Ever been treated as if you were dumb, in the worst case by people who are not in their positions because of their software design expertise? Then you know the pain point.
  • And so on …

If such a pain point is triggered in many people, such an extreme position can become wildly popular. If those conditions are met, it does not matter if the “solution” offered actually is a false solution that does not solve the pain point (which is basically true for any extreme “solution” approach in complex environments).

The clearness of the path ahead, the pain point (seemingly) heard and addressed and a tribe of like-minded people unfold their gravitational pull. This is more about emotions than reasoning: There is this easy position, that promise to solve my pain. And I am not alone. Other people feel like me and we all unite. This feels so good!

Tribal behavior leads to even more extreme positions

Due to tribal belonging patterns, such popular movements often tend to be self-reinforcing. This is well-known human group behavior. People try to prove their belonging to a group by adhering to the group values as good as possible, ideally better than their peers.

If the base position already was an extreme position, people try to show their belonging to the tribe by being even more rigorous, by being even stricter and more dogmatic than their leaders. Usually, this behavior is rewarded by the other tribe members. Often, these “proofs” of belonging are even expected by the members of the tribe. In the end, these tribal patterns lead to increasingly extreme positions.

Sometimes, the tribes break up in a “moderate wing” and the “hardliners”, but the hardliners typically lead the public discussions.

Extremes lead to a non-discussion culture

Or rather non-discussions: Sensible discussions with advocates of increasingly extreme positions eventually become impossible as they moved so far away from everyone else that no common ground is left. They live on their own ground far away from everyone and everything else, insisting that everything outside their isolated bubble is condemnable. This is not a discussion, but just dogmatic accusations and insisting. 1

These kinds of extreme positions, including the tribal patterns and the non-discussion culture sadly have become very popular pattern in many places: We see them in all kinds of political discussions around the world. We have seen them in the COVID debates. We see them in climate change debates. We see them in gender debates. And many more places. The different positions form tribes that take increasingly extreme positions. Black and white. Right (“us”) and wrong (“them”). No common ground for goal-oriented discussions and compromises left.

This non-discussion culture based on extreme positions seems to have become the norm in many areas of our lives, this “total surrender or total destruction” attitude.

Not surprisingly, we also see this culture in IT – not always as fierce as, e.g., with political topics. But still we see this culture in many places.

Extreme positions prevent good solutions

The problem of extreme positions and the non-discussion culture that results from it is:

  • They foster dividing behavior: You are in or out.
  • They are intolerant and dogmatic. They are not inclusive and empathetic.
  • The goal is not to find a good solution, but to prevail.

In complex environments as we face it in most places today, not only, but also in IT, we face another big problem: Extreme positions are not suitable to find good solutions in such environments. Extreme positions oversimplify. They ignore most of the existing forces.

Extreme positions tend to push for more and more of just one thing. The problem is that usually more is less if you look at the bigger picture. If you put on your blinkers and ignore everything except your local interest, becoming more extreme might look the right way to go. But if you put your blinkers off, you will realize that it is not that easy.

But extreme positions and their advocates ignore everything that does not support their being “right” or “better”. In the worst case, they even create hate, making it impossible to find a useful solution at all.

Exploring the room between the extremes

To solve a complex problem in a complex environment, we need to examine the room between the extremes. We always have many competing forces that contradict each other, that need to be balanced. Extreme positions tend to optimize for only one of the forces, consciously neglecting all other forces.

But the solution sweet spot for any non-trivial problem lies in the middle, somewhere between the extremes. Not black, not white, but some shade of grey. This is called a “compromise”.

The problem with compromises is that finding a good compromise is hard work:

  • There is no panacea, no one-size-fits-all. You need to find an individual solution for a given context.
  • The solution will not be simple. The complexity of the underlying problem will shine through.
  • You have to work hard to find a place that takes all needs, forces and desires appropriately into account.
  • You can never be totally sure to have found an optimum as you need to balance conflicting forces.
  • It takes long and arduous discussions with all stakeholders involved to help them understand why just satisfying their personal needs and wants is not a good idea at the overall level.
  • Everyone will be mad at you because they feel their personal needs are not taken sufficiently into account (the very nature of a compromise).
  • The extremists will attack you anyway because you do not unconditionally conform to their point of view.
  • Complex environments tend to be dynamic which means that a solution sweet spot may move over time.

This is what I mean with the second part of my initial statement, that it takes real intelligence to work out a good compromise, to navigate the different forces and avoid being attracted too much by the extremes.

Maybe it is not actually intelligence because a lot of very smart people also take extreme positions (for different reasons). But aiming for a compromise is a lot harder and requires more brain power than just taking an extreme position.

Compromises are not “sexy”

The middle ground is not “sexy”. It is harder to sell. Nobody is ever really content. All parties involved complain that their individual needs are not met well enough. Everyone wants their individual wants to be regarded more.

Additionally, it is very hard to figure out where the sweet spot actually is. Did I find the right balance or is there a better place? And as the forces involved tend to change all the time, it is a constant rebalancing.

This is so much harder to navigate than an extreme position where you can oversimplify things, reduce your attention to just one optimization goal and draw clear boundaries between “good” and “bad”. A good compromise in a complex environment is always some shade of grey, never simply black or white. And it can always be questioned because it does not provide a clear boundary between “good” and “bad”.

Non-extreme positions do not attract people

Regarding human behavior, non-extreme positions are also harder than extreme ones:

  • Non-extreme positions do not trigger tribal behavior.
  • They do not hide the underlying complexity and decision uncertainty by pretending there would be a simple solution to a complex problem. Most people hate that.
  • They do not immediately resonate with personal needs, desires or pain points because they try to balance opposing needs. Hence, personal needs and desires are never completely met.

Therefore: No big crowd behind you. No tribal behavior. No fierce movement supporting your claim or anything alike. You are always caught between two stools.

Not easy. Hard.

Non-extreme positions foster discussions and good solutions

But non-extreme positions also do not foster tribal belonging rituals that eventually lead to growing segregation including a non-discussion culture. They foster compromises which means we can observe quite different properties:

  • They foster uniting behavior and tolerance: Everyone is heard and respected.
  • They are open, inclusive and empathetic.
  • The goal is to find a good solution, not to prevail.

Few people would say that the properties of extreme positions are more desirable than the properties of non-extreme positions. Still, the majority of people is more attracted by extreme positions. An oxymoron? Or do people talk with their brains and decide with their guts?

I think, a big part of the answer is that the human psyche yearns for simple solutions. Still, in any complex environment – which IT is – simple solutions can only be wrong, especially if they come from an extreme position.

Hence, if we really want to come up with good solutions, we need to accept the complexity, we need to be open, inclusive and empathetic.

We also need to accept that we are never going to be popular.

Standing at a parting of the ways

On the one hand, we have extreme positions: The desire to avoid balance, to fight and destroy anything that does not fit into the clear boundaries of the own conviction. They are widespread and wildly popular – not only, but also in IT.

On the other hand, we have the ability to balance things, to find good compromises that take all needs into account and find an inclusive solution for all those needs. This is what we actually need. But this also means hard work without being popular.

Which road should we take?

While it is easy and tempting to follow the path of simple, clear and extreme solutions (including the big popularity that often comes with them), those solutions will not bring the results their proponents promise.

I am not the upholder of moral standards. I am just an observer. And what I observe worries me too much to not discuss it. I am firmly convinced that we need to solve many important problems in a VUCA IT world (and beyond IT). But popular, seemingly simple extreme positions and solutions, including the accompanying tribalism and non-discussion culture make it hard, if not impossible to solve any of those problems.

If we are really interested in good solutions, our only options is to take the unpopular route. We must stay in the middle ground. We must work out compromises and balance the forces that affect us instead of hiding behind a convenient extreme position.

Which road will you take? Not in what you are saying, but in what you are doing.

I do not have a simple answer for you. But maybe I gave you something to ponder over the holidays. As there is no tribe that can simply be followed – at least if you try to take the whole picture into account – this is a consideration everyone needs to make on their own. Good luck! And choose wisely … ;)

Nevertheless, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a great start into 2023 – no matter how you decide.

  1. We can observe the same patterns if someone only takes an extreme position to break open an encrusted situation. E.g., many of the initial advocates of agile software development took quite extreme positions to get things moving. Later, when the situation started changing, they usually moved to more moderate positions. Still, the tribe already had formed and the belonging rituals took their toll. We still suffer from shallow non-solutions that emerged back then. ↩︎