Uniqueness and serendipity in enterprise-architecture

This one’s about uniqueness and serendipity and ‘chaos’, and I’d better say straight away that it’s a lot more tentative and exploratory than many of my posts of late.

I’m seeing a theme in enterprise-architecture and the like that’s always been there in the background, but seems to have recently started to become a lot more visible to a lot more people. It’s difficult to pin it down precisely, but it can be seen sort-of sideways-on in many other themes:

  • design-thinking and the like, now even embedded in the new US Army field-doctrine
  • references to the difficulties of designing for uniqueness or ‘being prepared for surprise
  • a lot of posts on applications of improvisation-training in business, not just for sales-folks but for business-execs as well
  • more references to futures (futures-plural, that is, rather than the singular ‘predicting the future’)
  • more interest in ideas about personal-level strategies and tactics for innovation, such as those from one of my favourite books, Beveridge’s The Art of Scientific Investigation
  • a sense that the pace of change in business is heading towards real-time, and often is already at real-time
  • a surprising number of references to serendipity in business, often linked to innovation in various forms
  • a renewed focus on disaster-recovery, business-continuity and the impact of ‘long-tail’ kurtosis-risk and ‘black swan‘ events
  • the recognition that every sales-event is actually a unique ‘market-of-one’, in which the choices at the moment of choice are not predictable or ‘rational’ at all
  • the role of visioning and the like within enterprise-architectures, business-architectures, quality-systems and so on

Or, to illustrate, a couple of items from today’s Twitterstream:

This isn’t about emergence, or the ways in which unique or ‘chaotic’ events can be used to guide sensemaking and pattern-identification in complexity: others are better-qualified to explore that domain than I am. Instead, what I’m seeing here is almost the inverse of emergence: rather than deriving a pattern within complex events, we choose and use a pattern to guide our choices in inherently-unique events. Not just serendipity, but serendipity by choice – an architecture for uniqueness.

One item that comes to mind here is Gooch’s Paradox, identified by the psychologist Stan Gooch: “things have not only to be seen to be believed, but often also have to be believed to be seen”. To enable serendipity to occur, we first have to be a mental space that allows it at all. In that sense, beliefs themselves become tools.

Another is a quote from The Art of Scientific Investigation:

The truth of the matter lies in Pasteur’s famous saying : “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” It is the interpretation of the chance observation which counts. The role of chance is merely to provide the opportunity and the scientist has to recognise it and grasp it.

In a truly unique context – and it seems to me that every real-world context must always be in some part unique – there is only chance: there is no actual connection between anything and anything-else, other than that which we give it. Everything is coincidence, in an exactly literal sense of ‘co-incide-ence’: any meaning that we may ascribe (or not ascribe) to such coincidences is our choice.

Yet from Gooch’s Paradox, this also seems to be able to run backwards: we have the meaning first – predetermined beliefs from our culture or ‘scientific law’ or the like – and then find coincidences to match. The belief determines what we see – which can lock us out of an ability to see anything else.

So in a business-context, for example, the beliefs that we use to filter what we see need to be tight enough to allow us to make useful sense of what’s happening around us, but also loose enough to allow true serendipity to happen – where the context itself seems to be giving us what we need. Hence Pasteur’s “chance favours only the prepared mind”: a preparation that has the right balance between precision and openness.

Which leads us to the idea of an architecture of uniqueness, an architecture designed to enable and enhance opportunities for serendipity.

Improvisation is one obvious component of such an architecture: a deliberate practice in working with uncertainty, in real-time.

Another component might be some variant of meditation, where continual, consistent repetition of the same actions or conceptual behaviours provides a stable ground within which useful ideas and events can coalesce. (This is the exact inverse of Einstein’s famous remark that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results”. That dictum is true enough in a predictable world; but in an inherently unpredictable world – any context which is truly unique – anything we do will always lead to different results, hence repeating the same action over and over may be the only thing that will keep us sane! 🙂 )

Sometimes we also need to deliberately ‘trick’ people into a state where serendipitous events can occur. For science-fiction buffs, this is very well described in Noise Level‘, a classic 1952 short-story by Raymond F. Jones: a group of scientists and engineers are asked to ‘reconstruct’ a supposed anti-gravity device, and actually manage to do so – only to be told at the end that the whole thing had been a kind of hoax, to show them how to open their minds to new possibilities that their conceptual filters would otherwise prevent them from being able to see. The method was a deliberate trick, but the end-results were no trick at all: nicely recursive, in that a very practical real-world technique is embedded in a fictional story about a fictional story.

There’s also the key role of visioning – a real enterprise-vision, that is, not the usual useless marketing-puff ‘vision’ – as a principle-based anchor for real-time decision-making amidst inherent uncertainty: the role in the military of ‘Commander’s Intent‘, for example, or John Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) cycle.

And there’s much more, such as the distinctions between analysis and emergence – which only ‘make sense’ outside of real-time – contrasted to the real-time spectrum between the simple and the chaotic; or the need for some kind of boundaries between the ‘special world’ or chaos – where anything is possible but can send us into panic the moment we go off-balance – compared to the ‘ordinary world’ of rules, regulations and supposed certainty.

So what’s your opinion on this? What can we do to make this work? What strategies, tactics, models, methods would we need for this ‘architecture of uniqueness’, and architecture to support serendipity? And how would we apply this in enterprise-architectures and elsewhere?

Over to you, if you would?

5 Comments on “Uniqueness and serendipity in enterprise-architecture

  1. Yikes… That’s another whole area that I’d barely even touched above, but you’re right, it is another example of where the same theme occurs.

    To take a slight risk in using a certain well-known categorisation here, the standard organizational model in business for the past century or so has been the Simple hierarchy, as exemplified in Taylorism or Fordism.

    The Simple hierarchy has fairly tight limitations, and where those limits have been hit, we often see the development of Complicated organisational structures – such as industrial conglomerates in which each unit has a different market, or cross-report relationships and other ‘matrix organisation’ structures.

    Some industries depend on high levels of unique specialised skills, brought together for specific projects. Hollywood-style film-making is one example, ‘skunk-works’ engineering is another, some types of software- or systems-development another, and increasingly consulting is becoming another. For these we end up with an odd mix of Complex and Chaotic structures – Complex in that the actual organisation-structure emerges from the requirements and the people and skills available, and Chaotic in that the organisation breaks apart into its component entities once the project is complete, to become available to recombine into another structure for another project.

    In those – as described in that article about consulting in the link above – we actually have two distinct organisational units: the core coordination (the ‘producer’, in Hollywood terms) and the individual skills-providers (the ‘talent’, or Seth Godin’s ‘linchpins’). The producer is the Complex component, continuing on from project to project (which is how the Hollywood studios developed); the talent is the Chaotic component, coalescing around the edges, like recombinant DNA, and then splitting apart again into discrete units. Note that those units may be individuals – as is the case with actors – but may also be groups in their own right – such as the myriad of special-effects houses and costumiers and Foley-artists and so on. Note too that there’s often an intermediary role at the edge, namely the agents who bring the Complex projects to the Chaotic talent, and vice versa – performing much the same role as service-discovery in IT-oriented SOAs (service-oriented architectures).

    Perhaps the real point here is that the meaning of the term ‘enterprise’ is becoming much more fluid again. An organisation is bounded by rules, roles and responsibilities; an enterprise is bounded by values and commitments. In the Simple and even the Complicated organisational-models, the organisation and enterprise are deemed to be one and the same: the enterprise is the organisation is the enterprise. But as I’ve explained in the Enterprise Canvas series, they’re not actually the same at all, and treating them as if they are the same leads to all manner of difficult-to-resolve wicked-problems.

    What we’re seeing now is an increasing return to their true separation between ‘organisation’ and ‘enterprise’. In Complex structures, the enterprise is what brings people together; and in Chaotic structures, what you have is a myriad of individual and/or small-collective enterprises that can intersect with each other wherever their distinct enterprise-visions and -values can align. The Simple and Complicated structures will remain, because there are many things that probably can only be done that way, or are most effective when done that way: large assembly-line type manufacture, for example. But yes, we do see a much more fluid type of ’employment’ developing, much more freelance, much more fluid, much more along the Complex/Chaotic model.

    One huge concern is that that model is wide-open for really serious mis-use – ‘exploitation’ in the worst possible sense, even worse than in the worst excesses of Taylorism. There’s a lot of thought that needs to go into the legal structures to support it and regulate it. But it’s coming: no doubt about that. To use William Gibson’s now-hackneyed phrase, that “future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – and probably never will be evenly-distributed, either.

    A lot to discuss there, anyway. And thanks for bringing it up.

  2. To build on your thought:”an enterprise is bounded by values and commitments” … and skills (the value individuals or groups provide) and is needed for the immediate moment.

    How’s this explanation of the future is now: The Enterprise is the cause (values & commitments). The Organization (central for completion of the cause) needs the “linchpins” (the leaders) to draw in the right following to participate (freelancers, buyers, suppliers, employees, distributers) at different levels to work for the cause.

  3. Hmm… I think I’m interpreting Godin’s ‘linchpin’ concept somewhat differently. As I understood it, the linchpins are more the people who you describe as “the right following” – all the unique specialists – rather than the ‘leaders’ in the old-company sense.

    What I see happening in that Hollywood example (or the other contexts, such as the consulting example in Fiona Czerniawska’s article) is that these are organisations created on-the-fly by Godin’s linchpins, answering the ’cause’ (the enterprise) as described by the producer (or equivalent). In this sense, everyone in this transitory organisation is a linchpin – not solely the producer.

    The danger with this model is when the game is ‘owned’ (‘possessed’) by one side or the other – typically the producer, in today’s economics – and in which power-over (typically financial, sometimes creative or political or whatever) is used to control all of the relationships. We’ve all seen horror-stories of that kind – but unfortunately current corporate law, most current employment law, and certainly most intellectual-property law all tend to promote and reward that kind of dysfunctional behaviour. This kind of model only works when everyone wins – yet unfortunately that’s still a very alien concept to many of the would-be players in this new business world.

  4. I had to go back to my book notes on Linchpin (Seth Godin). Not sure if this helps define Linchpin and the new organization (& holistic enterprise).

    Pg 34.
    A linchpin, doing a job that’s not getting done is essential.

    Pg 58.
    Linchpins are able to embrace the lack of structure and find a new path, one that works.

    Pg 61.
    Organizations that can bring humanity and flexibility to their interactions with other human beings will thrive.

    Pg 92.
    Perhaps your challenge isn’t finding a better project or a better boss. Perhaps you need to get in touch with what it means to feel passionate. People with passion look for ways to make things happen. The combination of passion and art is what makes someone a linchpin

    Pg 152.
    Leadership is about building and connecting tribes of like-minded people.

    Linchpin thinking is about delivering gifts that can never be adequately paid for.

    Pg 171.
    And this is the challenge of becoming the linchpin. Not only must you be an artist, must you be generous, and must you be able to see where you can help, but you must also be aware. Aware of where your skills are welcomed.

    Pg 229.
    Organizations rarely give linchpins all the support and encouragement they deserve. Which means that your efforts won’t always get what they need to succeed.

    Understand that there’s a difference between the right answer and the answer you can sell. Too often, heretical ideas in organiations are shot down. They’re not refused because they’re wrong; they’re refused because the person doing the selling doesn’t have the stature or track record to sell it. Your boss has the worldview, too. When you propose something that triggers his resistance, what do you expect will happen?

    Focus on making changes that work down, no up. Interacting with customers and employees is often easier than influencing bosses and investors. Over time, as you create an environmetn where your insight and generosity pay off, the people above you will notice, and you’ll get moe freedome and authority.

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