Black box / White box – What mode are you on today?


This is hopefully an interesting question that we all need to ask or understand at some point or the other.

We usually come across problems, opportunities and situations in no predestined fashion at work (however organized you may think you are or want to be) and sometimes, knowing what mode you are on (or even not), may help.

If you think of it, our thought processes are guided (and emboldened) by legacy awareness (bred by instilled discipline or lack of), that A particular type / nature of work demands a particular mode of thinking – let me call these as the black box OR the white box styles (for now). Then on top, there is the plethora of management books, process frameworks,  statistical models, consulting  (to name a few) that tend to complicate or “legacy’alize” our way of thinking <this will find way into another article that I am planning to pen on – thinking outside of the box>.

While this is standard and de facto human tendency, our choice of approach is sometimes skewed towards focusing on the wrong style, just because there cannot always be one right way of doing things <we are human after all and are licensed to make mistakes!> and our own perception / awareness of our risk appetite <well, here comes another possible future topic!>.

The “Black box” mode usually works best when you really want to focus your thoughts around identifying the building blocks / basics for anything, mostly in the planning stage –a business case, a product conceptualization, an architecture framework and even “what NEXT to do in life” type of situations (yes!)

  • Define the objective (problem statement, aka the WHAT piece)
  • Question the motive (WHY – to better understand problem / opportunity statement)
  • Understand the environment and identify your target users / community.
  • Think of expectations
  • Draw a high level outline of what you think it would take
  • Validate if the outline will help address the WHY and the WHAT

These would be your essential framework on applying the “black box” mode to problems that demand a WHAT approach.

Now the “White box” mode will usually deal with the HOW bits in the WHAT parts, and should be utilized for detail planning and / or execution (notice the difference from the Black box mode here).

  • Understand the objective (WHAT)
  • Understand the constraints and dependencies
  • Define the solution (the HOW piece)
  • Validate if the HOW piece will achieve the WHAT piece
  • Finally, Get cracking

What usually happens is that when we try and put our mind to a certain task / problem / scenario, our approach (more often than not) tends to be a variation of both, and invariably, does not do justice to what the scenario demands.

In summary, switch on your Black box (BB) mode when extrinsic details are the need of the day an]d your White box (WB) mode to detail out the intrinsic stuff.

So I would recommend before diving into anything, do a quick evaluation of what (box) you want to apply and make sure you carry that with you wherever you go.

(old post, recovered and re-posted)


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