The somewhat magical mathematics of IT risk

Bad mental habits can inhibit innovation. How thinking like Houdini can help CIOs find a way out of constraints

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IT risk economics Canada

In a lot of cases, we stop ideas and stop thinking about things because of hard-and-fast rules. We say, “We won’t consider that because of . . .”

Whether it’s a security concern, an industry regulation, a legislative issue, or a fundamental imperative from the company, those hard-and-fast rules can close down entire avenues of solutions to business problems. As geeky as it may sound, turning to the idea of imaginary numbers may be a way to break through those kinds of barriers.

Numbers were first used for counting. The number line started with one and didn’t include fractions or the idea of zero. Along came negative numbers – we couldn’t express temperatures below zero without negative numbers, or refunds to a credit card, which are a negative debit. Facing increasingly difficult mathematical problems in the 14th century we see the introduction of the aptly named imaginary number – the square root of a negative number – which has no real world representation but is essential solving really difficult mathematical problems in the real world.

Magicians know this well.  Math and magic have been partners for a long time.

As Canadian businesses consider using some potentially beneficial technologies that carry significant risks, the concept of imaginary numbers show a way to make the impossible seem possible. This could include the transition from on-premise IT infrastructure to cloud-based services like unified communications, the introduction of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs to empower a mobile workforce or social media to share ideas between brands and their customers.

In situations like these, I would liken imaginary numbers to constraints. For instance, you might say, “I’m not allowed to violate this constraint, but if I were, what would it look like?” That could be the first step to a solution. More specifically, think of a situation in which you might say, “I don’t think we’re going to use XYZ technology because of a potential security problem. From a security point of view, it would be completely against the corporate policy.” But let’s for a minute consider if we could. What would the potential opportunity be?

Think your way through that. Allow yourself to take the constraints off. In some cases, you may come up with an answer where you would end up not actually violating the constraint after all, yet psychologically removing it was necessary for the thought process to begin. In other cases, you may find there is no solution that satisfies all the constraints, but if you put all the constraints on at first, you can’t get to where you need to be.

There will always be risks and limitations in IT, but imaginary numbers show us that we can often achieve more than we sometimes think we can — and occasionally turn a negative into a positive. Just ask a magician.


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