Two kinds of Why

What is ‘Why?’ And why, anyway?

“Oh no, not again“, do I hear you cry? Actually, it’s not as bad as that: it’s not going to be yet another of those long tedious technical posts – honest! πŸ™‚

(It is a sort-of technical question, I’ll admit. And, in the event, quite long. But interesting to just about everyone, I hope.)

What do we mean by ‘Why’? It’s a question that’s been puzzling me for quite a while – not least because enterprise-architecture is in some ways all about the shared ‘why‘ of an enterprise, and how we express that ‘Why’ in practice.

That kind of ‘Why’ is energising, andΒ engaging. “Start with Why“, says Simon Sinek – and in terms of how things really happen in enterprise, he’s right. If we start with why, things do indeed happen, and usually happen well.

But then I look at the ‘Why’ column in Zachman: ‘Why’ is business-rules, it says. Gosh. Wow. Exciting… (To be honest, my heart just sinks. Doesn’t yours?) Business-rules? – seriously, where’s the fun in that? Kind of the exact opposite of engaging, really. Something’s gone missing there, clearly…

That’s not quite fair, of course. Up at the top, Zachman describes ‘Why’ as a list of Goals. Not quite as unexciting as business-rules. (But close…) Yet there’s something kinda odd here… kinda like a sudden sideways jump… different things all mixed up together in the same space…?

And I hit up against the same problem when working on the Enterprise Canvas concept, a year or so ago. The same Start with Why: the ‘vision’ for the extended-enterprise is the core ‘Why’ from which everything else flows. That ‘Why’ is emotive, it means something: for the right kind of ‘Why’, people are willing, even eager, to get out of bed way too early on a cold dark dreary workday morning. It matters. It sits above everything else.Β And yet, to make sense of the content and activities of the service that we’d represent on an Enterprise Canvas module, there’s that same dull boring ‘Why’ again: decisions, principles, rules and regulations, all that kind of stuff. Where’s the fun gone? How come we’ve lost the why from the Why?

I’ve been bouncing up against an answer on this in several previous posts over the past while, such as one about principles in enterprise-architecture, and another on the relationship between architecture, design and implementation. But perhaps a better answer came up over the past couple of days, when trying to unravel the anatomy of Archimate and, in particular, struggling to make sense of the split between what in Archimate they call Intentional Concepts versus Extensional Concepts.

Intentional Concepts are, as the name suggests, about intent. Extensional Concepts are about what we do with that intent – about how we extend that intent out into real-world practice. In Archimate, Intentional Concepts are entities such as Value, Meaning and Reason. And the important point is that these are viewed as separate from ‘the action’. Yet down in the details of that ‘the action’, we again come across another kind of ‘reasons’ – all those business-rules and so on. (Archimate doesn’t model any of that as yet, but that’s another story.) So again we’ve got this kind of sideways jump: ‘Why’ is above everything, as Intent; yet it’s also just another part of that ‘everything’, as Extension, the ways things work together.

The obvious answer: we’re dealing with two different kinds of ‘Why’. Or two different sides of the same ‘Why’, perhaps.

One side of Why creates a question: literally, it starts aΒ ‘quest’. For most of us, that’s the exciting bit.

The other side of Why is the answer to the question, the end of the quest. That was the question, here’s the answer: The Decision. End of story. For most of us, that’s when the fun ends: a sense of relief, perhaps, that there’s no more need to quest, but also, well, no more need to quest… Final. That’s it. Full Stop. (or Period, if you speak the US version of English). An ending, that somehow ends up in a bunch of rules, with No Questions Allowed any more. A Why To End All Whys.

Kind of like the braces round a mathematical function: a=func(x,y) and all that. The opening-brace ( begins the question: what’s x? what’s y? what do we do with them? – exciting, new, gosh, wow! And then we hit the closing-brace ) that ends the question: its kind of ‘nothing more to say’, really. We have the answer, the decision. Nothing more to do. Oh. Oh well. (Except that in much of maths, and in computing too, we have parentheses within parentheses within parentheses: q=some(func(x,y), also(y,z, andalso(b,c))) – quests within quests! Fun within more fun – hooray! πŸ™‚ )

So we do have two different kinds of ‘Why’ – and they go into different places in our architecture.

One kind of ‘Why’ – the question, the ‘(‘ – goes above the Zachman space, goes above the Enterprise Canvas, goes into Archimate as intention. Think of it as a row above everything, or a backplane, or something like that: whichever way we view it, it pervades everything.

The other kind of ‘Why’ – the ‘)’, the decision – goes into the Zachman space as just another column, goes into Archimate as extension. Each decision is specific, explicit: it literally cuts off other choices in that context. We can connect it to things, show how it affects other things, but it doesn’t pervade everything in the way that the question does.

In that sense, it does make sense to put them in different places. (And also – very important – not to forget the intention. Zachman ignores it, or loses it somehow in its strange sideways jump; Archimate all but abandons it, when it squeezes all of its Intentional Concepts into the literal meaninglessness of Passive Structure; and Business Model Canvas doesn’t even bother, but seemingly assumes that the only ‘Why’ that matters is ‘How do we make money?’ The ‘questing Why’ is literally emotive, the source of all motivation: if we don’t explicitly include it in our enterprise models, we’ve just shut out any reason for anyone to be engaged in our whatever-it-is. Perhaps not a wise mistake…?)

In another sense, though, it’s still the same ‘Why’. Just different faces – or phases – of the same quest. That’s where so much of the confusion comes, because often where we place it is more about how we choose to look at it than anything else. Looking ‘downward’, we see a stream of decisions: “because so-and-so… therefore… therefore… therefore…”. Looking upward, we see a stream of reasons: “because… because… because…” – ultimately ending up in the the unquestionable ‘Because!’ of the enterprise-vision or whatever. (I tend to place only that ultimate ‘Because!’ and its immediate implied-values as that uppermost layer of the enterprise-model; everything else ends up at various levels of that Extensional side-column of ‘Why’.) The Knowledge Genes structure also describes this Janus-faced relationship well, though in a different way: move leftward towards the question of Why, rightwards towards the decisions of How. The same ‘Why’, and yet different; a different ‘Why’, and yet the same.

Two kinds of ‘Why’.

That are also the same ‘Why’.

Now why is that, I wonder…? πŸ™‚

14 Comments on “Two kinds of Why

  1. Great post. A way I have found useful is to think of the why as an assumption set that the business and technology community have when they start a project. One of the key roles of any architect is to render testable this set of assumption during design and iteration and also make the design mutable in the light of discoveries about those assumptions.

  2. The real Why is almost every time a gut feeling which can’t be expressed, because it is not based on free will. So people invent all kinds of why’s afterwards to support that gut feeling. That’s why most people get annoyed when you keep asking the why question πŸ™‚

    Dick Swaab has done research about this “free will” and says in “The paradox comes to mind that the only one who has all the possibilities, and is truly free, is the fetus. But the fetus can’t do anything because its nerve system is still too immature.”

    And Frans de Waal describes many examples in his book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” in which a lot of even “lower” animals like fish show behavior we think of as rational and human.

    So how useful is it to spend lots of time on the why part when activity is the real driving force for humans (and therefore for business and enterprises)?

  3. @Sudhi and @Justin Arbuckle

    Many thanks, both!

    Justin – re testing and assumptions: yes, exactly. Without some kind of ‘answer-Why’, we would have nothing to test – or at least, no test that could be meaningful, anyway. The Why defines the meaning of meaning for the respective test.

  4. @Ron Ross

    Hi Ron – oops… apologies… I’ve clearly hit across one of the (relatively few?) people whose heart doesn’t sink at the very mention of ‘business-rules’…? πŸ™‚ (Don’t worry, most people feel the same way about my own ‘bizarre’ focus on enterprise-architecture… πŸ™ )

    That’s a great post of yours – many thanks! (And also strongly agree with your comments about Zachman himself: he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, a real privilege to talk with him – and especially to spar with him about enterprise-architectures.)

    I haven’t seen any info on Zachman 3.0, though I’d have to say that if it’s still based on the metaphor of ‘engineering the enterprise’, it’s unlikely to improve anything anything in a fundamental way. The logic and structure of his framework is great, and always has been: it’s the underlying metaphor that doesn’t work. It’s true that an organisation can be described in a machine-like manner in some ways, but the most fundamental point about an enterprise is that it’s a human context: it isn’t a machine. And anything that tries to describe it as a machine – as the older Zachman frameworks certainly did – is guaranteed to be misleading at best, and in certain contexts seriously dangerous.

    The same applies to business-rules when they’re thought of solely as true/false logic. The real world is a lot more messy and complex than that (not least because we’re dealing with humans, who very often are not logical in their decision-making! πŸ™‚ ). Heaven knows I’ve had my disagreements with Snowden, but I do find the Cynefin framework useful as means to engage people in understanding where rule-based models do work, and where they don’t – which in turn largely delimits what we can automate, and what we can’t.

    Which is another reason why I’m so fond of this metaphor of ‘the two kinds of why’, because that iterative, re-entrant, recursive process of bouncing back and forth between the ‘question-Why’ and the ‘answer-Why’ – the two question-marks hooked together on your old business-card – provides with one of our most powerful means to challenge assumptions, to break free of an overly-simplistic true/false logic, and get down to the real ‘Why’ that drives everything in the respective context. A quest that really is worthwhile, in my opinion. πŸ™‚

    Thanks again, anyway – and would be great to continue the conversation with you on this.

  5. @Peter Bakker (Comment #4)

    Hi Peter – Hmm… Don’t think I can agree with you re ‘gut feeling’ and ‘free will’: in my experience/opinion, that’d be way too simplistic, in many ways entirely the wrong way round. Sorry.

    “So how useful is it to spend lots of time on the why part when activity is the real driving force for humans (and therefore for business and enterprises)?” Short answer: very useful indeed. A lot more useful than not doing so so, anyway. (How many businesses, shared-enterprises, entire countries have you seen drive themselves straight into the ground by looping round and round in activity without never questioning the assumptions on which their beliefs were based? I’ve seen way too many do just that over the past few decades… πŸ™ – haven’t you?)

    The key, I think, is not so much about whether that questioning of Why should or should not not be done (because clearly it must be done, as a simple requirement for survival in the real-world), but when and how much it should be done. And to my mind the Agile folks have the right approach: we don’t attempt to do Big Requirements Up Front, but do ‘just enough’ requirements, ‘just enough’ architecture, to provide a frame in which to get started – and then keep bouncing back and forth between activity and ‘questing’ as we go along.

    In short, it’s not an ‘either/or’. It’s a ‘both/and’. Always.

  6. @Tom G
    Hi Tom,

    There is a difference between “lots of time” and no time πŸ™‚ I agree that we will need all Kipling’s servants to create a complete story. But the Why is the hardest to rationalize and the most subjective of them all.

    I’ve only been an architect for one decade but in my experience CxO’s can hardly ever express in a clearly manner the reasoning behind their decisions or actions. Just this week I saw “100 Films and a Funeral” which also gave a good example how two CEO’s were acting like alpha male chimps killing the chicken with the golden eggs. Even at the end Cor Boonstra (CEO of Philips who sold PolyGram Filmed Entertainment) could not clearly explain why he had acted like he had done. He was a bit mumbling that he thought that PFE didn’t belong to the core business of Philips.
    So what would be the real value of knowing all those subjective why’s?

    Or to quote the rather successful CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs:
    “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
    So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something β€” your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

  7. Hi Tom,

    Nice blog on WHY.

    Here at knowledge genes we have a control called the “Ultimate WHYs” (in the left panel on a map). This is the direct equivalent to your “ultimate β€˜Because!’”.

    It means that you can address WHAT work you do in relation to your ultimate WHYs, instead of getting into a purely ‘reactive’ work habit.

    Those Knowledge Workers who tend to be pro-active in their work habits tend to work from a strong strategic vision (they understand the WHYs). This means they can apportion their time towards the right goals.

  8. @Peter Bakker – Peter, okay, I take your point. And it does align with my own experience: I’ve not so much ‘had a career’ as ‘careered’ from place to place and industry to industry, following more a gut-feel or whatever than an explicit identifiable idea or goal or theme.

    That’s at the individual level, though. The catch at the collective level is that if there isn’t a ‘totem-pole to unify the tribes’, what we get is a cacophony of careering, everyone pulling every which way at random. It sort-of works for some of the individuals, but it’s a really ineffective way to achieve collective goals or aims, because no-one knows what they are. Hence that need for a clearly-described trail of ‘Why’. That’s really the main point here, I think.

  9. @Oliver McPhee – Hi Oliver, and thanks. I like the ideas behind Knowledge Genes a lot, though I’ll admit I haven’t yet used it on a live client-project. (Getting them to even understand why we need to explore Why is hard enough, letting alone getting them to address Why, What and How in the disciplined way that Knowledge Genes would support… πŸ™ )

    I hadn’t known before about the ‘Ultimate-Why’ entities in Knowledge Genes – will be well worth following up.

    Must keep in touch on this, anyway? – and thanks again.

  10. @Tom G – Certainly Tom. It’s feedback from influencers like yourself that help us develop in the right direction. I’d love to work with you on a past, or current client project to road-test Knowledge Genes suitability. It will provide us with some great user testing & you with a clear understanding of how we could benefit your work.

    Feel free to use my work email: o.mcphee at @knowledgegenes com

  11. @Oliver McPhee – Oliver, thanks very much again, and yes, would be very keen to follow through when my current overload of brainstorming eases off a bit… 😐 (Email address duly noted – and thanks for the trust. I’ve taken the liberty of editing it to reduce the joys of spam-trawlers…)

    (For @Peter Bakker also) One of the practical difficulties I’ve had with this kind of disciplined ‘trail of Why’ (and, in KnowledgeGenes, also What and How) is that many stakeholders really don’t like doing it, largely because of what the exercise unearths. As I commented in a post about a year ago, there’s huge need for this work, yet unfortunately also a huge anti-want for it – and I don’t yet know enough about how to work my round that barrier. Oh well… πŸ™

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