More on ‘the toad in the road’

How can we ensure that the ideas and models that we use are appropriate to the context? What methods can we use to evaluate new ideas? Perhaps more to the point, how do we protect ourselves from ideas that won’t fit in our architecture-ecosystem?

This extends the previous post on ‘Coping with the toad-in-the-road‘, where the ‘toad’ is “a clear, simple, easy-to-understand wrong answer” – in other words, something that isn’t appropriate or useful in the context.

(Again, I want to emphasise that the ‘toad’ here is an out-of-place idea or model or theory – not a pejorative description of a person!)

In general I use the idea of a ‘living system’ as my core metaphor for an enterprise – which in turn suggests other metaphors such as an ecosystem or, on a smaller scale, a simple suburban garden.

So imagine that the ‘garden’ describes the ways in which we ourselves do our enterprise-architecture. It’s a garden of ideas and models and tools and techniques – an environment for ideafarming, perhaps. Some people’s gardens might be formal, constrained, regimented, rather like that at a classic French chateau. Other people’s might be large enough to contain the kind of sweeping vistas of which Capability Brown might be proud. I’d have to admit that my own idea-space is, uh, a bit more eclectic? – the style sometimes referred to as cottage garden’, with its own definite charm and vibrancy and bright colours everywhere and occasional surprising juxtapositions, but with so much semi-intentional ‘unorder’ that some people might at first see it only as a mess. Oh well.

Whatever the style of garden, though, we need to be careful what we introduce. Some ‘good ideas’ can run rampant if they’re let loose in the wrong place: consider the damage done by now-wild rhododendrons in northern Wales, or gorse (furze) or rabbits in Australia. Which, in turn, brings us to the metaphor of the toad-in-the-road.

I like toads. We used to have one that lived very happily for years in the laundry-drain just outside the house: we had to remember to take it out of there before we did any washing, and politely put it back again afterwards. (True story. 🙂 ) They’re often very long-lived; some can survive drought for decades, hibernating in a little patch of damp somewhere beneath the surface, popping up again as soon as the conditions are right. And although there are some toads that we won’t want in a garden – or anywhere, really – most of us wouldn’t mind a toad that will fit in well with our ecosystem. Toads are wonderful for keeping down the slugs and other garden-pests: if we have a strawberry-patch, we definitely want a good toad. But we don’t want that toad in the road – or anywhere else where it doesn’t fit, is probably putting itself at risk in any case, and is demanding our attention when we could really do without it being there.

Hence, the same with ideas that are out of place for the context: the metaphoric toad-in-the-road.

It’s not ‘an elephant in the room’. It’s not ‘an eight-hundred-pound gorilla’, or ‘a bull in a china-shop’. It really is quite small: it’s just a toad in the road – an idea that’s in the wrong place. (If it was in the right place, it’d be back under the strawberry-patch, happily munching on slugs. Metaphorically speaking, anyway.) But it somehow looms much larger in our attention than it really is – especially when it’s sitting out there, in the road, in the way, and generally making a right old nuisance of itself. Sigh… “oh no, not again”… yep, that kind of feeling.

In the previous post, I came up with a list of four categories of toad-in-the-road:

  • 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, especially when it’s over-excited
  • the bloomin’-nuisance toad that we’re best off to toss out of the garden, and keep out as best we can
  • the darned-dangerous toad that we need to keep out of our space at any cost

In reality, though, there aren’t any categories as such: they’re all toads, each with their own characteristics. And in terms of working out what to do with the toads – especially those that have just arrived in our garden – it might be more useful to take a somewhat different approach:

  • what is the natural habitat for this toad? [where does this idea or model really belong?]
  • are there any seasonal concerns, such as mating-season? [where is this idea in terms of the ‘hype-cycle’ and the like?]
  • are there any behavioural characteristics of which we need to be aware, such as aggressiveness or excessive timidity? [in what ways is this idea promoted, and by whom?]
  • is it likely to be toxic or invasive in our ecosystem? [does this idea tend to destroy, override or block out other more-useful ideas?]

Every toad-in-the-road has its own distinct combination of these themes – and the combination will usually vary over time or context, too. Hence it’s probably more useful to take this approach than some overly-simple set of categories.

Every idea has its own habitat – the place or context where it would most naturally fit. When evaluating a new idea, a key part of that task is to identify where it claims to fit, versus its ‘natural’ fit – because often there’ll be a mismatch. In many cases, the mismatch will arise from a conflict on terminology: a term that has a specific meaning in one context has a significantly different meaning in another context – which creates a toad-in-the-road when the previous meaning is carried through to the new context.

One example from the previous post was Roger Sessions’ work on minimising ‘complexity’ in IT-systems: it’s a very good idea that does make sense in an IT-context, where ‘complex’ is a kind of synonym for ‘extremely complicated but controllable’ – but it doesn’t make sense in non-IT enterprise-architecture, where ‘complex’ means something that, by its nature, cannot be controlled. In that sense, its ‘natural habitat’ is IT: we need to ensure that it’s only used in IT, and gently dissuaded from wandering anywhere outside of that domain. We might describe that as negotiating with the toad to help it find its way home.

Some of the most useful ideas are ‘mash-ups’ – a fertile hybrid resulting from a re-mix or re-use of an idea in another perhaps-‘unnatural’ habitat. Perhaps the most important point in evaluating these is that it’s technology, not science – almost by definition it can be unlikely to make sense in strict ‘scientific’ terms, because it’s doing a mix-and-match across domains. For the same reasons, evaluating such ‘mash-ups’ may require quite a lot of contextual skills and experience – a lot more than the simple logic-proofs that apply in the straightforward ‘exact-sciences’. We should also note that whilst people who are over-enamoured of science-like certainties may rail against ‘miscegenation’ and the like, fact is that ‘mix-and-match’ is an important part of evolution, and hybrids often bring vigour back into a tired environment.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of valuable ‘mash-up’ ideas: they’re common in almost every environment, though in some cases they have to be hidden for a while from the ‘truth police’ until they prove their value – the story behind the discovery of quasicrystals, which won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, being one infamous example of the latter. (We also see fascinating examples in the natural world: for example, blue-tits and other small birds taught each other how to peck through the metal-foil caps on milk-bottles in Britain to get at the cream underneath.) Mixing metaphors a bit – and why shouldn’t we, in this case? 🙂 – we might describe this as an ‘ugly duckling’ kind of toad: we need to work with the toad to help it find out who it really is and where it would truly belong.

Some ideas are just plain wrong – often because there’s not enough rigour or muscle behind them, or because they’re a kind of sterile hybrid from the wrong kind of re-mix. This, of course, is the flip-side of ‘mix-and-match’: many of the mash-ups just won’t work in any domain. The evaluation-rules will vary according to context – science for science, art for art, and so on – so we need to take especial care when an idea bridges across domains, whence multiple and often conflicting evaluation-rules would apply.

An example of a cross-domain mismatch – also mentioned in the previous post – is the notion of ‘engineering the enterprise’, embedded in parts of the Zachman framework, implicit in almost all of Taylorist ‘scientific management’ and its derivatives, and also in many of the ideas about ‘enterprise ontology’. This notion might make sense if ‘the enterprise’ was some kind of machine: but by definition it’s a human construct – “the animal spirits of the entrepreneur” and suchlike. The only way that ‘engineering the enterprise’ can be forced to make sense is if we force people to act as if they’re machines – which rarely delivers good outcomes for anyone. Sadly, once we’ve evaluated this kind of idea and found that there really is no way it could work, the only kind thing to do is put it out of its misery: we could describe this as respectful euthanasia for the toad.

Some ideas may be too simple to survive on their own – usually the result of too much repetition in the same place, slowly wearing away all of the useful rough-edges and exceptions. Simplicity is not inherently a problem – in fact it’s often of real value when we look for a starting-point for new hybrids, or a mix-and-match to address true complexity. What we’re evaluating here is the crucial difference between ‘simple’ – which often isn’t simple at all – and overly-simplistic – which isn’t much use to anyone.

Every ‘law’, ‘rule’ or ‘regulation’ – whether scientific or otherwise – is an abstraction of some kind, a simplified version of some aspect of the real world. There are no shortage of examples: in most contexts we’re surrounded by them, everywhere we look, and there’s no question that they do usually make work and life more simple. It can become a toad-in-the-road, though, whenever anyone starts to believe that the world really does work accordance with that purported ‘law’ or whatever: because the blunt fact is that the real world is rarely that simple. If it is too simple, yes, it does still have its uses, but we need to acknowledge its limitations: we could describe this as finding a sheltered space for the toad, protected from the rough-and-tumble of the real world.

Ideas may have their own seasons – often following the ‘hype-cycle’ or some other lifecycle. For any new idea, the early part of the hype-cycle is like a breeding-frenzy – and however useful the idea may turn out to be in the longer term, we’re not going to get any sense out of anything until that mating-season is over. We need to catch the idea either before the breeding-frenzy starts, or wait until all the dust and hype settle down again.

On the IT side of enterprise-architecture right now, obvious examples include the hype around cloud-computing and IT-consumerisation and, of course, the wild proliferation of ‘certification schemes’ (or scams, as some would put it…). For business-architecture it’s all the excitement about business-models rather than business-plans. We can also see that previous breeding-frenzies around ideas such business-process outsourcing, Agile development or Six Sigma have faded back enough for us to be able to evaluate what aspects might be useful in specific contexts. But whilst the breeding-frenzy is in full flow, just about all we can do is put up large warning-signs, and hope for the best.

(By the way, that triangular symbol above is the standard ‘Migratory Toad Crossing Ahead‘ warning-sign: UK DOT 555.1, to be precise. An essential item for your enterprise-architecture office! 🙂 )

Ideas can be aggressively territorial – it ‘hogs the space’, blocking out everything else. Often this will be associated with a ‘term-hijack‘, where a narrow subset of a context is purported to be the whole of that context – actively blocking out any view of the rest. These types of ideas can be a serious pest, because they’re so busy claiming and defending ‘their’ territory that they can make it all but impossible for other often-more-useful species in that ecosystem to survive. When evaluating new ideas or models, we need to test for any such tendencies: these are usually typified by over-simplification or over-certainty, endless repetition of its catch-phrases, habitual attempts at term-hijack, and a strong tendency – sometimes backed by force – to redirect any straying attention back to itself.

In enterprise-architecture, the most obvious example at present is the IT-centrism inherent in TOGAF and the like, though a new ‘business-centrism’ is also now coming to the fore. In both cases the underlying driver – in addition to the rather pointless ‘need’ to dominate the entire ecosystem – is an overly-simplistic misuse of the notion of a ‘centre’ to the architecture. (In reality, there is no single centre to the ecosystem, but rather that everywhere and nowhere is ‘the centre’, all at the same time.) There are all too many other examples of the ‘territory-grab’ problem, of course, in just about every aspect of enterprise-architecture. As for tactics, we may need to put up metaphoric warning-signs – as for any idea’s breeding-frenzy – but our best approach here is to always emphasise the whole ecosystem, and adjust the structure of ecosystem as necessary to dissuade this toad’s dominance.

Ideas can be too noisy in the way they promote themselves – ‘too noisy’ in the sense that, again, they drown out out other potentially-valuable ideas, but more by actively demanding our attention rather than blocking our view of everything else. This tends to happen a lot when the hype around some new idea is building at full blast, and especially so where the idea is forcefully promoted by some charismatic figurehead. It’s difficult to evaluate any ideas at all when we can barely hear ourselves think, let alone hear about anything else…

A good example for enterprise-architecture was all the hype around the earlier versions of Andrew MacAfee’s ‘Enterprise 2.0‘. The notion of using social-network software within a business was – and still is – a good idea: but the initial over-focus on technology above everything else was plainly absurd, and describing it as ‘Enterprise 2.0‘, implying an entirely new kind of enterprise, was even worse – a ludicrous if largely-unintentional term-hijack. But again, this is only one of all too many examples: the current over-hype of ‘anything-Cloud’ is another ‘noisy toad’ that we’re dealing with right now. Probably the best tactics here are to block out the sound where necessary, and emphasise our other senses instead.

Some of the most useful ideas may be too quiet for us to notice – the converse of ‘too noisy’. There are a lot of good, useful ideas out there: but they’re often so diffident and quiet that it can be difficult to identify their potential value to our ecosystem when we find them, or even to find them at all.

For me, in enterprise-architecture, one example would be Nigel Green‘s VPEC-T. Another would be the stream of ideas on sensemaking and the like on Cynthia Kurtz‘s StoryColoredGlasses website, and especially her crucially-important concept of ‘unorder’; which leads in turn to the work on business-story work by Shawn Callahan and colleagues at Anecdote. Everyone has their own examples, no doubt. But given the cacophony and near-chaos that’s always around us in the idea-garden, we do need to make a deliberate effort to understand the deeper needs of our ecosystem, and keep our eyes and ears and other senses open for the ‘the quiet ones’ that often matter most.

Some ideas are naturally toxic – they make it impossible for other ‘competitor’-ideas to thrive, or even survive, in that context. These are the cane-toads of our idea-garden: and whilst any idea can be toxic in some sense, it’s especially common with out-of-place paradigms, because by definition they purport to be a complete or final ‘the truth’ about the whole of a ‘world’ – and hence will always attempt to exclude every other possible view. When evaluating new ideas, we need to note how much they depend on asserting that something else is ‘wrong’ – and if so, why. We also need to identify the contexts to which it does apply, and which it doesn’t – because any ‘territory-grab’ beyond its natural context will automatically tend to make it toxic to other more-useful ideas in that broader space.

There’s a subtle point to watch here. In a sense, any idea that’s over-territorial or even over-noisy is sort-of-toxic: it will certainly tend to block out everything else, for a while at least. But in the case of ‘cane-toad’ ideas – truly toxic ideas – it’s not a behaviour as such: more that they poison everything, just by their very existence. As I said in the previous post, we probably don’t have many true ‘cane-toads’ in enterprise-architecture as such – though IT-centrism certainly comes close – but in the broader business sphere and beyond, such ‘cane-toads’ definitely do exist. Examples include the near-feudal concepts that still dominate most management-models; the absurd over-obsession with money as a measure of value in business; the insanely-inadequate notions of ‘economics’ on which our world supposedly depends; and, going deeper, the dangerous delusions of ‘rights’ and, deeper still, the all-pervasive, ever-pernicious paradigm of possession. (Those last are so toxic that, to be blunt, we need to kill them off before they kill us all…)

We do need to careful not to harm something that’s simply out of place, so for most ‘cane-toads’ the preferred tactics would be to isolate and remove, and publish warnings to other ‘gardens’ about the risk. Yet for any lethally-toxic toad – one that poses an existential threat to every ecosystem – the only safe tactics are to eradicate and exterminate entirely: and we do need to face up to the fact that on rare occasions that is the only option we have.

Many ideas can hibernate, re-emerging whenever the conditions seem right – and we need to note that this applies even to the most toxic of ideas. Every ‘toad in the road’ is “a simple, clear, easy to understand wrong answer”: and because they’re simple, because they seem clear, and because they’re easy to (sort-of) understand, that tends to make them very attractive, and very popular. Which means that despite the fact that they’ve long been identified as a ‘wrong answer’ – in some cases a ‘wrong answer’ for any question – they still on keep coming back, and coming back, and coming back, like a toad re-emerging with the rains after a drought. The catch with ‘idea-toads’ is that they often change their surface-appearance each time: but underneath it’s the same mistakes, the same old shallow, stupid, over-simplistic ideas – hence that dread feeling of “Oh no, not again…”.

For our discipline, probably the classic example is Taylorism – or rather, the vapid belief beneath its supposed ‘scientific management’ that everything can successfully be made subject to a simplistic sense of ‘order’. We know it doesn’t work, other than in quite narrow and clearly-constrained contexts: that fact has been proven time and time again, not least by Deming and others at the ‘front-line’ of production and elsewhere. But the same mistake still keeps coming back, time after time, for the simple reason that people want to believe in the myth of ‘control’. Hence, for example, Davenport and Hammer & Champy’s ‘Business Process Reengineering‘, an almost unmitigated disaster – other than in the few cases that didn’t try to use technology as the sole basis for complex business processes. Hence, for example, the many misapplications of Six Sigma, which by definition only makes sense in a context where there are literally millions of identical events. And hence, at present, the sad struggles of proponents of ‘business-rules engines‘ to get them to deliver any real value in business-contexts that, again by definition, are often inherently beyond any feasible rules’. Oh well…

For any of us blessed – or cursed – with long memories, dealing with the vampire-like return of yet another formerly-vanquished toad can be both sad and extremely frustrating. So in evaluating any supposedly-‘new’ idea that has aspects that we sense we might have seen before, we need to check its anatomy and underlying structure – and we need to be especially careful to do so whenever the conditions are right for the return of any well-known toxic-toad.

Ideas may take on any combination of these characteristics – and the combinations may vary even for a single idea in different contexts or in different stages of its lifecycle. In evaluating ideas, and testing for a potential ‘toad in the road’ we do need to be careful of applying assumptions that themselves may not be valid in a different time or place. We also need to respect the nature of the toad itself: applying ‘scientific’ criteria to evaluate an artistic idea has never worked well – and the inverse has rarely been much use, either…

We see a lot of these ever-changing combinations in enterprise-architecture. For example, IT-centrism is a Simple idea that keeps re-emerging from the depths, no matter how much we push it away; and as soon as it appears again, it has an immediate and usually very-noisy mating-frenzy with whatever the current technology might be. It’s much the same with Taylorism, as above. Right now, the ‘big noise’ is around ‘cloud-computing’ and related ideas such as ‘platform-as-a-service’ – which, once we think about it for more than a minute or two, is just a current hybrid of some very old ideas (centralisation, service-orientation) and some somewhat-newer ones (access-from-anywhere, any-platform). So whenever faced with this, or any other ‘new’ idea, all we need to do is apply the various tactics described above – and erect the appropriate ‘Toad Warning’ signs wherever they’re needed.

Do remember, though, that it’s ‘Toad Warning’ – not ‘No Toads!’ (A nice shiny triangular sign, as above – not the more threatening circle-with-a-slash-through-it type of sign.) We like our idea-toads; and even if we don’t want to touch them (ugh…? yuk!), most toads are good – in the right place, such as out in the garden, protecting our precious plants from parasites and pests. So all that we don’t want here is – yikes! – a Toad. In. The. Road!

In short, be kind to your idea-toads, treat them well, treat them with respect, find them their proper place if need be – and remember, that next toad-in-the-road that you meet could well be one of yours…? 🙂

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