Hybrid-thinking, enterprise architecture and the US Army

Might seem a somewhat strange mix, but the link between them is Gartner‘s ‘new line of research’ in the enterprise-architecture/business-transformation space.

Hybrid thinking‘ is a term that Nick Gall and others in Gartner’s enterprise-architecture team have adopted from a Fast Company article in August 2009 by Dev Patnaik, ‘Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking‘. The idea is that the term ‘design thinking’ – currently sweeping the business-schools and elsewhere – is too limited, and supposedly only applies to product-design and the like. (As a qualified graphic-designer turned enterprise-architect, I think Patnaik and Gartner are kind of missing the point – for example, see the excellent BBC documentary ‘The Genius of Design: Blueprints for War‘ [60 mins; UK only, until 11 June 2010]. But never mind – Gartner are obviously entitled to use a different term if they wish. 🙂 ) Hence a broader-based alternative, which they call ‘hybrid thinking’.

The Gartner article ‘Introducing Hybrid Thinking for Transformation, Innovation and Strategy‘ may well fall behind their paywall by the time you read this; but there’s a link here to a PDF version [330kb] which may be available for longer, and also a slidedeck-plus-voiceover [video, 50mins] of Nick Gall’s presentation at the Gartner EA Conference in London in late May.

The Gartner paper defines ‘hybrid thinking’ as:

An organic discipline for taking on wicked problems by iteratively implementing transformative, innovative and strategic change via the co-creative exploration of human-centered experiences that are culturally meaningful, technically feasible and economically sustainable.

Which is what many of us would call enterprise-architecture, of course – in its proper sense of ‘the architecture of the enterprise’, that is, rather than ‘IT-architecture with a purported enterprise-wide scope’, which is what Garner has been describing as ‘enterprise-architecture’ until now. (And still does, if you read the Gartner paper in depth.) But Gartner describe ‘hybrid thinking’ as a kind of metaphoric structure where a human-centred form of design-thinking sits at the centre-point of a group of six intersecting areas of interest:

  • enterprise-architecture [by which Gartner mean enterprise-wide IT-architecture]
  • wicked-problems
  • complex-adaptive systems
  • pattern-based strategy
  • resilience / panarchy
  • network science

They also assert that “hybrid thinkers must also exhibit particular characteristics and and attitudes, such as the following: creative, empathetic, integrative, comfortable with ambiguity, optimistic, experimental” – which again are themes that others have argued are essential for whole-of-enterprise architecture.

What’s perhaps surprising is one of the key sources referenced by Gartner for their new model: the US Army. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, since much the same people were involved in the development of one of the most valuable tools in organisational learning, the After Action Review.) If we think about it, though, the Army often has to deal with a far more extreme version of the kind of conceptual conditions that we face in present-day business: the need to make fast, accurate, effective decisions in real-time in the midst of inherent uncertainty and inherent complexity, with limited resources and incomplete information, where one false move can send the situation spiralling far out of control and with far-reaching consequences.

So perhaps again it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Army have turned to design-thinking as a guide for action: what is a surprise is how completely they’ve turned to it, because they’ve actually rewritten the whole of their operations-manual on that basis. Although they still use the somewhat simplistic language of ‘command and control’ in a few places, almost everything else has a solid grasp of true complexity – including the enormous complexities of culture. Gartner, for example, include the following quote in their Hybrid Thinking paper:

The introduction of design into Army doctrine seeks to secure the lessons of eight years of war and provide a cognitive tool to commanders who will encounter complex, ill-structured problems in future operational environments… As learned in recent conflicts, challenges facing the commander in operations often can be understood only in the context of other factors influencing the population. These other factors often include but are not limited to economic development, governance, information, tribal influence, religion, history and culture. Full spectrum operations conducted among the population are effective only when commanders understand the issues in the context of the complex issues facing the population. Understanding context and then deciding how, if, and when to act is both a product of design and integral to the art of command.

The exact same principles also apply to whole-of-enterprise architecture – hence the US Army materials will likely turn out to be a really valuable resource for enterprise-architects. Some examples include:

Most of the materials emphasise the warfighting role rather the civil-support/disaster-recovery role, which is a slight disappointment – the latter would probably have provided even better parallels for conventional enterprise-architectures. But what there is, is still a real eye-opener in many places, and a real breath of fresh-air for who’ve struggled for too many years with the stifling IT-centrism of so many other ‘enterprise’-architecture frameworks. Well worth a read, anyway.

6 Comments on “Hybrid-thinking, enterprise architecture and the US Army

  1. Thanks for the positive feedback. I agree that hybrid thinking and enterprise architecture overlap quite a bit. But hybrid thinking starts with “meaningfulness” as the “first among equals” wrt (technical) feasibility and (economic) sustainability. EA, as conventionally practiced, usually puts feasibility first, then $$$, and often as an afterthought, meaningfulness. Hybrid thinking makes human-centered experiences the primary focus of outcomes, conventional EA does not.

    I’d love to see any “major” EA frameworks, books, articles, etc. that puts people first. I’ve seen individual architects evangelize such a message, but I’d contend its not mainstream. That’s how hybrid thinking can help!

    — Nick

  2. Nick, many thanks for the response. I would sadly agree that “EA, as conventionally practiced” tends to fall straight into the trap of ‘ready? grab! aim…” (‘ready?’=”feasibility”, ‘grab!’=”$$$”, ‘aim…’=”meaningfulness”). I would also sadly agree that conventional approaches to EA do not “make human-centred experiences the primary focus of outcomes”.

    It does somewhat depend on what you mean by ‘human-centred’, though. Designing an enterprise-architecture that places the same kind of (over-)emphasis on manual-processes in the same way the IT-centric ‘enterprise’-architecture does to IT-based processes would be every bit as dysfunctional; and whilst a customer-centric view is very important in a functional EA, it’s still only a view, not the view. My own strong recommendation is that ‘human-centred’ here should mean the principles on which the extended-enterprise is founded – or, to use your term, the central theme(s) that defines ‘meaningfulness’, what the enterprise is.

    (See my slidedeck ‘What is an enterprise?’ at http://www.slideshare.net/tetradian/what-is-an-enterprise for an explanation of the crucial distinctions between ‘enterprise’ and ‘organisation’ – they are _not_ synonymous.)

    I would agree with your comment about the limitations of the ‘major’ EA frameworks: TOGAF 8 had no place for people-oriented issues at all, TOGAF 9 is only marginally better, and Zachman’s focus is still on ‘engineering’ the enterprise as if it’s an aircraft – which is a completely inappropriate metaphor for a human endeavour. The FEAF PRM does acknowledge a segment that it calls ‘Human Capital’, but at present does nothing with it in the architecture. So yes, unfortunately, a human-oriented view of EA is not yet ‘mainstream’ (and I think you’d have to admit that Gartner IT-oriented emphasis has played a significant role in the past in preventing that awareness from happening… 🙁 ).

    But there have always been architects who have worked with a broader perspective of the enterprise, even in an IT-oriented version of architecture: Kevin Smith’s PEAF comes to mind – http://www.pragmaticea.com .

    And I think I’m allowed to mention my own books and presentations here? 🙂 – see http://tetradianbooks.com and http://www.slideshare.net/tetradian – because all of them emphasise the human themes in one form or another. Whilst I would admit that I’m still quite a fair way out from ‘mainstream’ at present, my work is certainly well-known in many EA contexts: I’m a frequent speaker at TOGAF conferences, for example. For a strongly human-oriented view of the enterprise, you might find of interest the ‘manifesto’ from my book ‘Power and Response-ability: the human side of systems’, at http://tetradianbooks.com/2009/06/hss-manifesto/ ; for an emphatically principle-based approach to EA, see either ‘Real Enterprise Architecture’ http://tetradianbooks.com/2008/04/real-ea/ or, somewhat more technical, ‘The Service-Oriented Enterprise’ http://tetradianbooks.com/2008/12/services/ .

    I’m currently in the process of integrating all of that material into a single unified model, structure and process to take an enterprise all the way from principle-based strategy to detail-level execution, with consistent cross-links to quality, security, governance, risk/opportunity management, cost-management and all the other themes that underpin enterprise effectiveness. It provides a means to re-leverage existing investments in IT-oriented architectures (TOGAF, FEAF, Zachman etc) whilst extending out to a true enterprise-wide scope. And it’s also fully compatible with your ‘hybrid thinking’ approach – so if Gartner are likely to be interested in this, perhaps let me know?

  3. Tom: I’m particularly curious (as well for Nick), everywhere I look, I can’t find enterprises who are engaging in any of this work. How pervasive are these types of activities?

    As well, while I have to admit that the quality of results left something to be desired, if I do a job search on “design thinking”, there are many returns. If I do a job search on “hybrid thinking” I get none. The relevance/uptake of the terms have cues of critical mass. Because of its inclusion of EA, I love “hybrid thinking” — my personal version of “design thinking” includes it all (as well, “systems thinking”). Indeed, the Gartner London presentation was top of mind on a discussion about design thinking and its relevance to EA in the LinkedIn group Enterprise Architecture Conference Europe (discussion title “Exploring the Topic of Design Thinking”)

  4. Hi Paula – short answer is that it’s coming, though slowly. We were doing it back in Australia more than half a decade ago; and even though IT still dominates discussions too much, it’s a standard factor in EA discussions in the Australian government context at both federal and state level. (For some current details on that, see Anders Jensen’s thesis.)

    As I know to my cost, though, it’s still much less common in the UK or US. The TOGAF conferences have just about managed to grasp the idea that EA needs to be business-driven, but are still nowhere near understanding that people (rather than IT) are the real centre of an enterprise. And since IT still dominates the EA conversation, mechanistic thinking still dominates too. Frustrating indeed…

    But there are signs of change, and the current emphasis on Design Thinking and related themes such as Gartner’s ‘Hybrid Thinking’ form part of that. So whilst we’re not there yet – particularly not in US/UK mainstream EA or SOA or the like – it’s kind of Watch This Space, I guess?

  5. Tom writes:

    “whilst a customer-centric view is very important in a functional EA, it’s still only a view, not the view”

    I’m assuming that by “a view, not the view”, you mean one of many.

    That said, though, I worry that many will read this as a call to tailor a Zumbachian suit that fits some class of stakeholder into the role of “customer”. I worry because I have long felt that doing so requires considerable intellectual fortitude to not slip into the trap of adopting a commerce-centric view of the activities of an enterprise. It is not necessary or inevitable, just likely, especially as it is such familiar turf for so many.

    Why can’t we just belly up to the bar and talk about the need for “stakeholder-centric” perspectives for enterprise architecture? As I have argued elsewhere, to the point of being tiresomely repetitive, if you take the people out of an enterprise you are left with a seemingly random collection of capital “assets”. Even were we able to entirely automate an enterprise, it would still presumably exist to serve the needs of people, whose roles are more varied than “customer”.


    • @Len: “I’m assuming that by “a view, not the view”, you mean one of many.”

      Yes, I do.

      @Len: “I worry because I have long felt that doing so requires considerable intellectual fortitude to not slip into the trap of adopting a commerce-centric view of the activities of an enterprise.”

      Agreed. I’d take it a step further, and say that I regard that ‘intellectual fortitude’ as a mandatory requirement for EA work. I’ll be blunt here: if people do not have and demonstrate that ‘intellectual fortitude’, they should not describe themselves as ‘enterprise architects’.

      @Len: “Why can’t we just belly up to the bar and talk about the need for “stakeholder-centric” perspectives for enterprise architecture?”

      Answer: because there are some views that do not centre round any stakeholder. As I’ve likewise argued elsewhere, to the point of being tiresomely repetitive, everywhere and nowhere is ‘the centre’ of an architecture, all at the same time.

      The moment we make anything or anyone to be the exclusive ‘The Centre’ around which all of the architecture must revolve, the architecture will fail. That includes customers (as in this example above); that includes money (as in so many failed attempts at ‘business-architecture’); that includes stockholders, or any other stakeholder group; that includes IT, or any technology, or anything else at all. There are and can be no exceptions to this rule – otherwise the architecture will fail.

      (You know my positions on all of this: time after time I’m left wondering why you come up with this ceaseless stream of contrarian complaints that seemingly assume that I hold positions or beliefs that you know I don’t. Increasingly frustrating, to be honest, to the point where I’m once running right out of patience… What is the point, please? What?? Why???)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *