Coping with ‘the toad in the road’

Every discipline is blighted by their own versions of an all-too-common problem: “For every difficult, complex, challenging question, there’s at least one clear, simple, easy-to-understand wrong answer”.

In Australian parlance, that type of magnificently-misleading ‘wrong answer’ is known as ‘the toad in the road’.

Every ‘trade’ has its toads, in some form or another. In the case of enterprise-architecture, given our necessarily very broad scope, we do seem to have rather a lot of them. Oh well.

It’s a toad. It sits there, blocking the way. In reality, it’s not actually that big, but it somehow demands our attention, making it difficult to deal with anything else. But we can’t just drive over it, stomp on it, squash it into a literally bloody pulp: I know that some people would do that, but it does have its own right to live, after all. Yet we do need to be careful: some toads are downright toxic. And, it’s well, kinda, yuck… no-one seems very willing to pick it up and put it politely out of the way… Oh joys…

Yeah: that kind of problem.

So how do we deal with ‘the toad in the road’?

It’s different in every case, of course.

Some of the toads in our space are really no problem: they’re just in the wrong place, that’s all. Some of them are positively genial, the kind of toad that, if it had a hat, would doff that hat with a broad smile and an offer to share a slightly-chewed slug. Like all toads, of course, they’re stubborn and they’ll stand their ground, which isn’t exactly helpful when they’re in the middle of the driveway and we need to get moving for the day; but they’re usually quite cooperative as long as we’re respectful about how we shoo them back under the strawberries instead.

Roger Sessions‘ IT-oriented version of ‘complexity’ is one such toad: it’s fine for IT, but for enterprise-architecture it’s an over-extension of ‘order’ into a realm of inherent ‘unorder’, and it really doesn’t work. Likewise John Zachman‘s notion of ‘engineering the enterprise’: it would make sense if an enterprise was an aircraft, which, however, it isn’t. Oops. In both cases, it’s definitely “right idea, wrong place”; and yes, we do all kinda know it. Sure, there will always be arguments about the positioning of that kind of toad: but people like Roger and John are unfailingly courteous and polite, so much so that it’s always a pleasure to disagree with them yet again. 🙂 It’s just a kind of game we play from time to time, and we all know it’s a game – sort of how a toad would really like it if the driveway would turn itself into a strawberry-patch because that’s what they know best, and it’s somehow our fault that it isn’t.

There are other kinds of toad that are somewhat similar, but they often seem a bit brainless, so it’s lot harder to negotiate with them. The real problem is that there’s just so many of the darn things: they turn up everywhere, all crawling over each other beneath our carefully-tended bushes and shrubs, digging around for worms and grubs, and generally making a right old mess of everything in the process. Their all-pervasive slime and stench is… well, let’s just say we wouldn’t call it pleasant? 😐 – and they don’t really help in any way in the garden.

At present, the dominant toad of that type in our space is IT-centrism, though there are signs that a relatively-new species of business-centrism is beginning to move into our enterprise-architecture garden as well. Perhaps we shouldn’t mind so much, but it’s difficult to get any rest with the constant croaks of “Cloud! Cloud!” and the like… Sigh… Unfortunately, it is hard keep them out of the garden – and if we do somehow succeed in doing so, we’d probably block out all the friendly toads as well, which would be a real loss. Other than the mess that they make, though, these toads are fairly harmless, and there’s probably not much we can do anyway until they get the other side of their current breeding-frenzy (otherwise known as ‘sales-hype’ and ‘certification’). In the meantime, we just need to be careful where we tread, and keep on tidying up the mess as best we can.

There are a few types of toad that we really don’t want in the garden – in fact we need to apply considerable care to keep them out of the entire metaphoric country. These are the cane-toads of a trade – so poisonous that they’ll kill off just about everything in sight, just by their mere presence. Yikes… The real tragedy of the cane-toad, though, is that often it’s initially thought of as some kind of saviour – as was true of Taylorism in our industry’s case, for example. But the reality is that they’re seriously toxic, in almost every possible way – and that toxic nature soon wipes out any possible value they may have had. Not a good idea…

Some disciplines – social-work, in particular – seem beset by cane-toads on every side; by contrast, we don’t seem to have any at present in enterprise-architecture, which makes us fortunate indeed. There’s some risk that IT-centrism and the like could turn into cane-toads, but they don’t seem to have done so as yet – though they’re certainly enough of a problem for us as it is. Taylorism and its more recent sub-species such as BPR and over-hyped ‘business-rule engines’ have been fairly serious cane-toads for us in the past, but each seem now to have faded back into a more natural niche in the overall enterprise-architecture ecosystem. The existence of cane-toads, though, should warn us to be very careful of what we introduce into the enterprise-architecture garden, and to be wary indeed of the ever-present risk of unintended-consequences.

And there a few types of toad that are kind of in the middle – literally in the middle, too, because often it seems that all they really want to do is get in the way. In some cases there may only be one individual of a species in our garden: but like the brainless toad, it somehow manages always to be right in the middle of where need to be – and it won’t budge. At all. Unless it can do so in order to get in our way again… It’s perhaps not as toxic as the cane-toad, but it’s definitely in the wrong place – yet will not respond to any kind of reason, or any request to move on. It just sits there, puffing itself up like a bullfrog, making lots of noise, demanding our attention, and generally acting like it’s the only thing that could matter to anything or anyone in any way. It could perhaps be of use elsewhere in the garden: but since it won’t move there, we never really get much of a chance to find out. What it somehow never manages to accept is that in reality it’s nothing special – it’s just another toad. That’s all. A toad in the road: another darn nuisance that we could really do without…

For enterprise-architecture, IT-centrism has been a bit like that, though it is getting somewhat more amenable these days. All the hype around Cloud is getting to be a bit too much of a toad-in-the-road these days, too. But for me at least, by far the worst toad of this type is Cynefin. It seems we can’t ever talk about complexity without Cynefin insisting on getting in our way. We struggle to talk about even the simple or the complicated without accidentally invoking its unwanted presence. We can’t talk about uniqueness or inherent uncertainty – the business sense of ‘the chaotic‘ – without Cynefin demanding that it alone knows the truth about that space – when in reality it has nothing useful to say other than that we shouldn’t be there. Much like IT-centrism, it has perhaps rather too many characteristics of a cult. And whilst in principle it could be useful in enterprise-architecture, we can’t make much use of it in practice, because its promoter endlessly insists on barging into our space, spitting venom at anything he regards as ‘heresy’ – literally, ‘to think different’ in any way from himself.

We’ve all spent too much time hiding in fear from those attacks: I know way too many people – myself included – who’ve had to invoke Bob Sutton’s ‘No Asshole Rule‘ in that person’s direction, too. The bleak reality is that I’ve spent way too much time and effort pandering to his insatiable demands – much like the pointlessness we supposedly ‘must’ go through in order to get round a toad that endlessly insists on putting itself in our way, and then blaming us for the resultant conflict.

After the last attack, though, I took a more careful look at his snarky putdowns, in which he dismissed my work as valueless, a “hash-up”, “invalid in certain essential aspects” – yet notably failing to give any details as to how or why it should be so regarded. Hmm… time to stand up for myself, for once? So I’ve spent the past few days proving, to myself at least, that my work on context-space mapping is of value, by using it to assess Cynefin itself in terms of its usefulness – or lack of usefulness – for our enterprise-architecture discipline.

The results have been, uh, interesting… (I’ll publish it here if anyone wants, though I’d warn that it’s kinda long even by my standards…) It certainly confirms that, in present form, Cynefin is indeed likely to be useful in the Complex domain; but it’s of questionable value in any other domain, and inherently worse than useless for anything in the Chaotic domain. Another interesting point was that, despite its promoter endlessly railing at anyone who dares to use Cynefin as a categorisation-framework, that’s exactly how he himself uses it in ‘his’ much-publicised HBR paper [PDF]. And that analysis also highlights some nagging suspicions that the base-level Cynefin Framework is actually a Simple-domain technique that’s merely masquerading as a Complex-domain tool – which would be neither helpful nor wise.

Perhaps the most disturbing point, though, is what came up from a more detailed cross-comparison from the context-space map. That’s that the simplified version of Cynefin that’s all that most people see, and the way in which it uses its purported theoretical base in complexity-science, make it an almost perfect tool for (mis)use by any consultant who wants to pander to the fears of worried executives, and provide them with spurious ‘evidence’ that they’re ‘in control’ of something that, by definition, cannot be controlled. That’s not good – doing that would be seriously dishonest, so surely no-one would be so unethical as to do that, would they? And yet that temptation is built right into the very fabric of the framework… worrying indeed…

But the most important point this is this: it’s just another toad. Yes, sure, for our own safety, we might well need a shovel to scoop the wretched thing up: and, despite the strong temptation to use the shovel in another way entirely, we can toss that toad into another discipline’s garden where it might be more at home – and then make darn sure that it doesn’t come back again into ours. That’s probably the best way to deal with that type of toad.

So that’s four types of toad-in-the-road we all have to deal with, perhaps rather more often than we’d like:

  • the friendly toad that gets in the way a bit, but is really useful in the right place
  • the not-much-use-for-anything toad that gets a bit too much in the way for a while, especially when it’s over-excited
  • the darned-dangerous toad that we need to keep out of our space at any cost
  • the bloomin’-nuisance toad that we’re best off to toss out of the garden, and keep out as best we can

What’s your experience of ‘the toad in the road’? What are the various types of toad that you have to wrestle with in your own work? And how do you best cope with each?

Comments/experiences/suggestions, anyone?

[Update: A reminder, because a couple of people already seem to have missed this point: in this context, the ‘toad’ is not a person, it’s an idea – “a clear, simple, easy-to-understand wrong answer”. For example, the idea of IT-centrism is an example of the second type of ‘toad’. This is very important indeed: for example, in no way would I describe either Roger Sessions or John Zachman as ‘a toad’ (though knowing them both, they might quite like the image above of “doffing a hat with a broad smile and offering to share a slightly-chewed slug”… 🙂 )]

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2 comments on “Coping with ‘the toad in the road’
  1. Tom: There is a very easy and simple way around toads in roads. Walk past them. I did and I’m happy.
    http://www.storycoloredglasses.com/p/confluence-sensemaking-framework.html
    Stop confusing ideas with names. Ideas belong to all, names don’t. If a particular constellation of names represents a toad in the road, fine. Use other names. Yes, toads should not be toads, but shoulding hurts everyone, while forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It’s not like there is any shortage of names for the things you and I want to talk about. Use other names. If those particular constellations of names didn’t exist could you still speak about the ideas? Of course you could. At some point it becomes your problem, not the toad’s, if you can’t get past it. The toad can’t help being a toad. You can. (^_^)

    • Tom G says:

      Cynthia – Well put, again: many thanks.

      There’s a possible mix-up here, and perhaps again I need to reaffirm that a ‘toad’ here does not refer to a person (though yes, there some people like that… 😐 ), but to an out-of-place idea – “right idea, wrong place” and the like, hence ‘a toad in the road’. As you’ll see in my most recent post, ‘Time for this old toad to move on‘, I’m perfectly willing to apply the ‘toad-in-the-road’ label to my own ideas and techniques, having recognised that I’ve been struggling to make them work for a context where at present they really won’t fit.

      That said, there is real problem of ‘term-hijack’ when someone or some group insist on using or reframing a key term away from or in a narrower scope than the ‘natural meaning’ of that term, and then aggressively asserting that that is the only possible meaning of the term. The obvious example right now is ‘economics’: its literal or ‘natural’ meaning is “the management of the household”, yet the ‘economists’ now insist that economics is almost exclusively about money – but yet as any parent will know all too well, managing the money of a household may not be easy, but it’s almost the easiest part of the household to manage when compared to anything else. Hence the ‘natural’ meaning of big-picture ‘economics’ is the management of the whole of the ‘household’ that we share with everything else on this planet – not simply the money-bit of the narrow human-only segment of the ‘household’.

      When the ‘natural term’ for a concept has been hijacked in this way, it then becomes very difficult to talk any other part of the concept, or even the subset in relation to the whole scope. If we try to invent a new term – perhaps by borrowing from another language – it at best sounds somewhat artificial: and the ‘hijacked’ usage of the term still sits there, blocking the way. It is a real problem, and I admit I don’t know quite what to do about it – other than to not pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. And there are a lot of these ‘term-hijacks’ around: I can list at least a dozen or more really serious ones straight away, with which, by comparison, this specific ‘toad’ in question is, yes, very trivial indeed. Oh well.

      But thanks again, anyway. 🙂

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