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Evelyn Van Kelle & Kenny Baas-Schwegler - How cognitive biases and ranking can foster an ineffective architecture and design

Deliberate Complexity Conferences 2022 Recap

This talk was presented at Deliberate Complexity Conferences - Building Successful Platforms and APIs on 29 June. We are honoured to present the video recording and talk summary below. Enjoy!

Visit our talk recaps ToC page for an overview of all presentations!

Evelyn Van Kelle

Strategic Software Delivery Consultant and Behavioral change consultant at Xebia

Kenny Baas-Schwegler

Strategic Software Delivery Consultant and Software Architect at Xebia

Evelyn and Kenny's presentation (video recording)


Evelyn and Kenny's slides



  • What do these practices have to do with APIs? How do you convince technical-focused organizations to spend time on people-centered activities?
  • Is ranking similar to social status?
  • Have you experienced when a person higher in rank uses vulnerability?

Socio-technical systems

We are dealing with complex adaptive socio-technical systems. When things are that complex, we cannot solve just a gap.

There are three important aspects to socio-technical systems:

  • social,
  • technical and
  • cognitive.

There has to be a balance among them, because every decision on one aspect will affect the others.

If we build or design software systems without the people working on it, eventually we will get a “big ball of mud” (a software anti-pattern). There’s a lot of noise coming in if there’s no real boundaries. To create boundaries, we need to do that collaboratively and we need the shared sense of reality (collaborative and visual modeling can help to achieve it).

Socio-technical architect: takes into account what is the balance between all of the aspects that we are dealing with. It is a role and not a function.

Ensuring flow in meetings

1. Everyone said what has to be said?

Ranking: based on stereotypes, it can also mean that knowledge is being suppressed in a session, because someone decides not to speak up or not to share an opinion. Being aware of it, helps to create an environment, where everyone can say what needs to be said.

  • Explicit ranking: position, job title, job description, level of power, etc.
  • Implicit ranking: gender, skin color, level of charisma, how one communicates with others, etc.

Ranking is also in our subjective inner thoughts. We have to be aware of our own rank and how we are perceived by others. Every autocratic decision suppresses knowledge and wisdom and creates resistance.

To make sure everyone said what has to be said, one needs to own, play and share their rank as a facilitator and as a person.

2. How to create and include new insights?

Cognitive bias: these mental shortcuts help us make decisions quickly and effectively. Cognitive bias is to make sure that we don’t have to deal with every single piece of information that we have to process daily. But we can get stuck in ways that we already know and are comfortable with.

Three cognitive biases occur a lot in collaborative modeling session:

  • Functional Fixedness: mental block against using something in a new way that is required to solve a problem.
  • Anchoring Effects: we rely a lot on the first piece of information that we received. That is our anchor.
  • False consensus effect: it’s about overestimating the extent in which others share our beliefs, opinions or enthusiasm.

3. Who decides on the architecture and how to get everyone onboard on the decision?

Share the problem before starting to talk about solutions. Even if ranking and cognitive bias make it hard, it’s important to identify all of the parts in a system and allow them to speak.

When you look at deep democracy in a group, there is a group conscious and a group unconscious.

A deep democratic vote isn't always possible, above eight people it will get harder. After each decision, ask: ‘What would it take for you to go along?’

To ensure flow in meetings, it’s crucial to create awareness of the people’s rank in a group. Then own, play and share the rank. Be aware and make explicit the biases at play. We can use the deep democracy Lewis method in our decision-making.

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