Thrill of Discovery Syndrome

I have a theory about IT people, related to Not Invented Here syndrome. It’s Thrill Of Discovery syndrome, or TODS.

TODS is a product of ignorance. Unlike Not Invented Here, where solutions from elsewhere are actively rejected simply by virtue of being Not Invented Here, TODS occurs because people remain actively ignorant of solutions available elsewhere (such as in books, or via Google) and instead attempt to solve the problem themselves, often from first principles. This behaviour is caused by people enjoying the thrill of discovery, and actively avoid researching solutions in case they find something, because then they wouldn’t be able to discover it for themselves.

It’s true that discovering something yourself is exciting. Indeed, this is what drives many scientists who could hardly be said to be in it for the money, given the level of public research grants. That ‘Aha!’ moment is tremendous, and this author has experienced it himself on several occasions.

The trouble with this approach is the many twists and turns that the path to discovery takes. There are many missteps, blind alleys, wrong-headed conclusions and mistakes to be made on the way to Aha. “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.”

TODS comes from a fundamental divergence of motivation: The company, who want a solution to a problem, and the IT people, who want to solve the problem. This is a subtle distinction. The company values the outcome, while the people value the activity of problem-solving. The people doing the re-discovery no doubt enjoy themselves quite a bit, but is this really the best use of company money? And wouldn’t it be better to be discovering new solutions, rather than continually “reinventing the wheel”?

Is there a cure for TODS? Maybe. Firstly, your company could reward discovery of known solutions more than primary research. Those who make best use of Google or the library could be rewarded more than those who slave in anguish for months to re-invent bubble-sort. This creates a ‘pull’ incentive for those who re-use existing knowledge, rather than wasting time on re-discovery.

Secondly, it’s important to distinguish novel problems from solved problems. Novelty can only be determined after research is performed, so at least through encouraging research to occur, people are more likely to discover existing solutions. This is preferable to the existing approach, where people perform no research at all and dive straight into solving problems.

The ability to accumulate knowledge over time is one of humanity’s greatest abilities. Why, then, do we reward IT people who insist on ignoring millennia of progress to rebuild things themselves? Why not reward genuine novelty instead of allowing people to play at researcher? This will enable an organisation to spend the larger portion of time (and money) on new problems, relevant to the business, and not on subsidising IT people’s desire to work in research, but with much better pay.

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One Comment

  1. Frighteningly accurate. I’ve seen it happen most when the IT people don’t actually understand the details of the problem or the solution very well. Some time later at non trivial expense they end up with something that has a remarkable resemblance to what the rest of the world has already done & implemented.

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