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The Gall Of That Man!

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. – John Gall (1975, p.71)

This law is essentially an argument in favour of underspecification: it can be used to explain the success of systems like the World Wide Web and Blogosphere, which grew from simple to complex systems incrementally, and the failure of systems like CORBA, which began with complex specifications.  – Wikipedia

We can add the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), the FBI’s Virtual Case File System (VCS) JTRS, FCS, and prolly a boatload of other high falutin’ defense projects to the list of wreckage triggered by violations of Gall’s law. Do you have any other majestic violations you’d like to share? Can you cite any counter-examples that attempt to refute the law….

One of the great tragedies of life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts – Benjamin Franklin

C++, which started out simply as “C With Classes“, is a successful complex “system“. Java, which started out as a simple and pure object-oriented system, has evolved into a successful complex system that now includes a mix of functional and generic programming features. Linux, which started out as a simple college operating system project, has evolved into a monstrously successful complex system. DDS, which started out as a convergence of two similar, field-tested, pub-sub messaging implementations from Thales Inc. and RTI Inc., has evolved into a successful complex system (in spite of being backed by the OMG). Do you have any other law abiding citizens you’d like to share?

Gall’s law sounds like a, or thee, platform for Fred Brooks“plan to throw one away” admonition and Grady Booch‘s “evolution through a series of stable intermediate forms” advice.

Here are two questions to ponder: Is your org in the process of trying to define/develop a grand system design from scratch? Scanning your project portfolio, can you definitively know if you’re about to, or currently are, attempting a frontal assault on Gall’s galling law – and would it matter if you did know?

Gall Gig

  1. March 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Building a big complex monolith is like looking for a clearing, closing your eyes, and walking across the street. You’re putting a lot of faith on the losing bet that nothing will change before you’re done.

  2. March 3, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Yes Systemantics is a brilliant “lost bible” if systems thinking. There’s so much good stuff in there. Mines a scrappy 80s paperback edition with a weird crazy cover that hides the genius inside really well.

    • March 3, 2013 at 6:53 am

      I just bought a shiny new copy of “The Systems Bible”. For good measure, I also bought a used copy of its predecessor, “Systemantics”. I’m bummed that neither of them are available in e-form. Now I have to manually transcribe quotes/snippets into tweets and blog posts.

  1. April 4, 2013 at 1:01 am
  2. October 6, 2014 at 4:00 am

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