Thinking “Outside of the Box” in Database Modeling? What Box?

When we hear the term “think outside the box,” how often do we really examine what that phrase truly means? First, one needs a box. And it is on this issue where most folks fail. Before one can consider what is “outside the box,” one must clearly understand what exactly is meant by “inside the box.” People often consider random approaches the same as being “outside the box.” However, just different is not enough. Unusual can be a component, but randomly unusual does not cut it. An approach that is out and out strange, only can acquire a seat at the table of outside-the-box if the strange in question incorporates the proper essentials. Far too often people associate outside-the-box with an abandonment of rules, and except for very rare circumstances, that association is not accurate.

Perhaps people’s penchant for equating outside-the-box thinking with throwing away the rules stems from a Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect, first posited in 1999, is described as a cognitive bias in which an individual believes they have superior skills when actually, they do not. By lacking knowledge about exactly how something is supposed to be done, individuals believe they understand what they do not. One study, done at the University of Nebraska, showed that 90% of those evaluated rated themselves as above average in the subject at hand. Calculations of average obviously do not allow for that to be true. Some of those people were overstating where they would really fall. Rules are always important. Skill and a thorough understanding of the rules allow a practitioner to know which rules can be played with, and which rules must still be embraced.

One can hardly embrace being outside-the-box if one doesn’t even know where the box is. Picasso went in many different artistic directions, but he started off painting real figures.

Look at the fractal, which initially seems quite random. But while seemingly random, fractals follow an exacting and deep pattern. Fractals rigidly adhere to their own complex rules. Yet at the same time, fractals are very much outside-the-box. Compared to simple shapes like squares, cubes, polygons and their geometrical friends, fractals are mind-blowing and outrageous. And in being outrageous, fractals rise above the box of ordinary while still rigidly obeying their mathematical rules. Many want to take credit for being “outside the box” when what is being done is simple chaos. One cannot transcend the usual rules unless one is intimate with those rules. One can hardly embrace being outside-the-box if one doesn’t even know where the box is. Picasso went in many different artistic directions, but he started off painting real figures.

To transcend usual and expected database designs, practitioners need to be fully aware of how a usual, standard normalized database model would look. It is only by being well grounded in the foundational knowledge that an architect can discriminate between the essential and less-then-essential. Strong arguments can be made that a fully normalized and usual database model should always serve as the logical description of one’s data. Although an exception might be a logical normal database model that expresses an unexpected and creative perspective of the organization’s data.

Alternatively, physical models can vary as much as the internal functionality of the individual data persistence systems employed, be they relational, graph, columnar, document, or other possibilities. But again, going back to basics: These physical database models should incorporate the specifics which are the strengths of the implementation platform that has been selected. Therefore, designers need to understand the inner workings, strengths, weaknesses, and rules surrounding any platform that they utilize. Jumping into designs by simply ignoring any rules leads to weak designs that re-invent the wheel in often painful ways. Creativity can embellish and enhance, and that is where the outside-the-box thinking can give life to something new and wonderful, and perhaps even distinctive.