The absurdity of belief

This post is about enterprise-architecture and business-architecture, but we’ll first need a brief diversion into some of the territory of the previous few posts.

(Note: I’m using the term ‘enterprise’ here in the same sense as the IEEE-1471 standard, to mean any group of people who collaborate and share resources towards a shared aim. So a commercial organisation is an ‘enterprise’, but so is a society, a culture, a nation. There’s also recursive nesting, in that a commercial enterprise, for example, exists and operates within a broader extended-enterprise of partners and suppliers, and intersects with the enterprise of its customers and prospects, which exists within the wider enterprise of the market, the nation and so on, as described in my presentation ‘What is an enterprise?‘. If you place the boundaries too narrow, around the organisation alone, you’re likely to miss the point here.)

One of the characteristics of any enterprise is a set of ‘core beliefs’ – the vision, the values and so on. As I’ve explained elsewhere, such as in my presentation ‘Vision, Role, Mission, Goal‘, these are ‘defining characteristics’ for the enterprise, because in a very literal sense they define what the enterprise is. Even more, they also define the priorities for the enterprise: what is important, and what is not.

What’s interesting is that those core-beliefs, almost by definition, are not rational as such: they are chosen, often quite arbitrarily, as an anchor for the enterprise. If we ask why a given belief is there, the only real answer is “Because.” (with the full-stop/period often emphasised in the phrasing) – in effect, it’s beyond question. Perhaps more to the point, if we change that ‘Because.’, it ceases to be the same enterprise.

What’s even more interesting is that very often – perhaps even in every enterprise – at least one of those core-beliefs will be utterly absurd. It seems not to be a mistake as such, indeed in some cases is openly acknowledged as intentional: “credo quia absurdum est”, ‘I believe because it is absurd’, to quote one famous Christian ‘apologia’. In some – perhaps many – cases, overt expression of belief in the chosen absurdity appears to be a condition for membership; conversely, any questioning of the absurdity may lead to expulsion from the ‘tribe’.

(Many groups or cultures require new members to make an irrevocable break with their previous ‘belonging’ – perhaps symbolised by a literal shedding of belongings, for example, or – in the case of changing to a different country – formally abandoning the previous citizenship. Some sub-cultures – particularly gang-cultures – take this to extremes, marking the rejection of the previous mores and customs by committing what would be considered a ‘crime’ in the old culture: theft, burglary, violence, murder or worse, “creating guilt and complicity – a powerful initiation into their new lives”.)

We look at other cultures, and laugh easily at their absurdity whilst failing to look at our own – a point brilliantly made in Flanders & Swann’s delightful ditty from the 1950s, ‘The Reluctant Cannibal‘. Religions provide other examples: just about every one of them has at least one fundamental absurdity at its core – if only something that is absurd in everyday terms. “On the third day he rose again from the dead” – an absurdity in terms of everyday experience, surely? Or consider the gold plates supposedly discovered by Joseph Smith, that define the ‘Book of Mormon‘; or the Scientology belief that we all come from somewhere on another planet. And many of these beliefs have a somewhat circular, self-serving flavour to them: the notion of the Rapture, for example, in which only a select few will be saved; or the many, many cultures who seem to consider themselves to be ‘the Chosen Ones’, the special favourite of their own special deity. All utterly absurd, of course, from a ‘rational’ perspective.

But ‘rationalism’ itself is actually no more rational than the other religions, if we stop to think about it. The notion that the world has an identifiable order to it, made up of identifiable rules: compared to everyday reality, that’s pure wishful thinking, not to mention interestingly arrogant in its placing of ‘rationalists’ in the purported hierarchy of that order. Or look at everyday economics: the bizarre concept of the ‘rational actor‘, when everything we know about psychology and sales tells us that almost all human decisions are ultimately not rational. The same is true for science: despite its pretensions as ‘guardian of the truth’, in reality there is no lack of evidence for Paul Feyerabend‘s assertion that there is no ‘ultimate truth’ in science, that the common notion of ‘the scientific method‘ is an absurd delusion and that the only valid principle in science is “anything goes“, and that we may need to defend our society against science as much as against religion or any other ‘irrational’ belief.

There’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with any of this absurdity, in fact there’s a great deal that’s good. Absurd though they may be, they do at least seem to create social cohesion and meaning, so perhaps the only real test of each belief would be in terms of whether they’re useful rather than ‘true’. And in terms of what they help people achieve, some absurdities are frankly magnificent:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
[US Declaration of Independence, 1776]

The blunt fact is that not one item of this statement was true at the time: “all men are created equal” was clearly absurd in a culture whose economy was based on overt slavery, and the notion that anyone was “endowed” with “inalienable Rights” by an imagined “Creator” was frankly laughable to any ‘outsider’. The document’s creators knew all of that, too: they knew it was nonsense, in terms of the everyday certainties of the time. And yet that absurd belief works, in a very real, tangible, human sense – which is the whole point of such absurdities, after all.

Yet there are also unintended-consequences of each absurdity, many of which may put its real value at risk. For example, the inconsistencies between the lofty ideal of “all men are created equal” versus the blatant inequalities of the real world has led to continual conflict, even war, as the various groups who were manifestly not included in that initial ‘all are equal’ – negro slaves, women in general, immigrants, workers in factories, the peoples of the much-manipulated ‘banana republic’ colonies – struggled (and still struggle) to be acknowledged as equally ‘equal’. And the notion of “inalienable Rights” has led to a tendency to ignore the real responsibilities from which those imaginary ‘Rights’ arise, and a nation slowly collapsing under the sheer weight and wastefulness of its litigation and law. With the result that there’s less and less “Life, Liberty and Happiness” to be had…

Which means that we need to be very careful about those unintended-consequences – identifying them, their sources and impacts, and possible remedies for each, as appropriate. But there’s a catch and a big catch at that: the absurdity is a foundation-stone for the group itself. If we disturb the absurdity, or even overtly call it into question, we could inadvertently destroy the integrity of the group. Which is not a good idea – not least because of the all-too-common tendency to ‘shoot the messenger’, to punish the bearer of any bad news…

Which, by a roundabout route, brings us back to enterprise-architecture and business-architecture – because exactly the same issues will apply in the organisation and the enterprise.

Each enterprise has its own foundational beliefs – each with their own absurdities, each in turn with their own unintended consequences. So as enterprise-architects, we need to identify what those are, their sources and impacts, and possible remedies for each, as appropriate. And we need to do all of this almost by stealth, because disrupting any inherent absurdity may well trigger an unexpectedly extreme response. Interesting

To make it even more ‘interesting’, we need to note that the same applies to every group and sub-culture and work-team and business-unit and professional discipline within and intersecting with every level and layer of our organisation – which provides plenty of opportunities for clashes between the respective absurdities. Ouch…

And this also applies in relations beyond the organisation itself. The organisation connects with its market and the broader enterprise – whatever that may be – by sharing at least some of its beliefs and vision and values. What absurdity-clashes occur here too? (For example, the belief that organisations exist to serve, versus the belief that they exist only to make a profit? – a clash that will often be highlighted in any work on corporate social responsibility.) In what ways can we resolve those clashes, often without ever overtly acknowledging that the absurdities exist? What are the unintended-consequences both of the inherent absurdities in the respective belief-systems and of the clashes between the belief-systems? How do we resolve those – again often without overtly acknowledging that they exist?

Other even-more-complex clashes occur in large multinationals. Each local subsidiary operates in its own context, reaching its own ‘balance of absurdities’ with its market and environment; but the parent company often expects and demands that the subsidiaries should align themselves with the unacknowledged assumptions and absurdities of the parent’s commercial and social culture – in the US, perhaps, or Germany, or Japan, or some other distant land. Identifying and resolving those clashes has been a key professional focus for me over the past few months – and no, it’s not easy, not least because of the layer upon layer of unintended-consequences that need to be unravelled and resolved in the process.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: many if not most of the foundational-beliefs of individuals, groups, organisations, enterprises, entire nations, are absurd. Utterly absurd. Trying to force those absurdities into a more ‘rational’ form is not a good idea: not only does it create further unintended-consequences, but it’s a proven and painful way to drive ourselves mad. By contrast, if we openly admit that it is absurd, we’re likely to be dismissed as insane. But there is a solution, as the great computer-trade consultant Gerry Weinberg explains in his classic book The Secrets of Consulting:

It seemed as if I had only two choices: remain rational, and go crazy; or become irrational, and be called crazy. For years I oscillated between these two poles of misery, until I finally hit upon another option: become rational about the irrationality.

Being rational about the irrationality may perhaps seem a little crazy at times, especially in the eyes of our more ‘rational’ colleagues; but it does lead towards something that does work, and that does keep the inevitable unintended-consequences down to the bare minimum.

So yes, a belief may well be absurd; but the absurdity is there for a reason – and often very good reasons at that. So as enterprise-architects we need to embrace the absurdity – not fight against it, but work with it, to help create the results that each enterprise will actually need.

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