Belief and faith at the point of action

What is it that drives decisions at the exact moment of choice and action? – even in the most mundane, everyday action? If the choice-point itself is a true moment of chaos – a point where literally anything is possible – then what is it that guides us through each of those infinitesimal yet ubiquitous moments?

A lot of this is still tentative, very much ‘a work in progress’. Yet what I’ve found myself returning to again and again over the past few days, whilst working on the design and workflows for the SCAN app, is a pairing of two words: belief, and faith.

[Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all religious on you. (Well, probably not, anyway. 🙂 ) This is still the same enterprise-architecture exploration about the context of SCAN, about sensemaking and decision-making at real-time, particularly in what some would term the ‘Chaotic domain’.

Minor warning, though: this is written in English, and from the perspective of an Anglo culture. I think (believe? guess?) that what follows is close to generic across all human cultures, but note that you may well need to do some translation here, both linguistic and cultural.]

Where SCAN’s ‘Simple’ and ‘Not-simple’ are about about how to describe sensemaking, belief and faith seem more about decision-making – the actual moment of choice that immediately precedes each moment of action. In other words, decision-making in real-time. And because sensemaking, decision-making and action are all intertwined with each other within real-world practice, belief and faith also map onto the SCAN frame in much the same way as for real-time sensemaking.

[There’s also a mapping to the full SCAN, that extends this outward to the scope where there is more time available for review, but I’ll describe that in another post.]

In short, belief maps to the known, the certain, the Simple; whilst faith maps to the unknown, the uncertain, the Not-simple:

As in sensemaking, the crucial distinction occurs where the modality of the decision-choice changes from a Simple deontic true/false to a Not-simple true alethic logic of ‘possibility and necessity’:

— over on the left-side, belief provides a straightforward black-or-white choice: true or false, right versus wrong, culturally ‘proper’ versus ‘politically incorrect’;

— over on the right, choices are more blurry, more uncertain, more ‘shades of grey’ – or more colourful, perhaps – and the only guide we have is faith or trust that what we do is right. (Right in its own way, but still ‘right’ in some sense.)

Both of these are actually about the individual, about ‘I’. Which it should be, of course, because that’s all we have at the exact point of action: our own choice, and our own ‘response-ability’.

Belief is fast, and importantly doesn’t demand any personal skill as such: the whole point is that they’re deemed to be ‘true’ for all who enact them, regardless of who or what enacts them. (A belief may be believed to apply only to self – such as ‘nothing goes right for me’ – but is still held as an ‘absolute truth’ in that sense.) This has both advantages and disadvantages, mainly relating to how well the belief does match up to actual reality. Advantages include:

  • simple beliefs are useful when the person enacting them has only a limited level of skill and ‘response-ability’ – “just follow the instructions, kid…”
  • even for those with skill, simple beliefs are useful as a structured fallback for whenever the faith falters in the context and in one’s own ability – “when all else fails, follow the instructions”
  • advising acceptance that some contexts are constrained by ‘laws’ of some kind – particularly the physical-world constraints implied by ‘scientific law’ and the like
  • beliefs are also useful as a disciplined means to temper excess enthusiasm – “trust to Allah, but tie the camel first”

A classic example of a structured belief of that last type is the checklist – mapping out essential safety-checks and other ‘known truths’ prior to or during any activity that is inherently uncertain.

The disadvantages of ‘prepackaged’ belief-structures are more complex, and often rather more subtle:

  • the usefulness of beliefs ultimately depends on the myth of ‘control’, the myth of predictability and certainty – none of which may be valid in a real-world context
  • beliefs themselves can and do act as perceptual filters, potentially rendering invisible essential contrary information from the context
  • as guides for choice and action, beliefs can apply inappropriate constraints to action in any given context – following ‘the letter of the law’ rather than ‘the spirit of the law’
  • in much the same way, beliefs can be used to evade difficult or challenging choices – for example, ‘morals’ as ‘the lazy-person’s ethics’

Faith is often the only choice-mechanism available whenever the context is inherently uncertain. It also correlates closely to skill – so much so that, in essence, ‘skill’ is a proxy for the real-world reliability of faith in one’s own ability to work with the inherent uncertainties of a given type of real-world context. In other words, skill is what determines whether we really can do what we believe or hope we can do in that kind of context.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t about skill: it’s just about faith, or trust. Every change of belief requires ‘a leap of faith’; innovation or experimentation always requires us to accept that we don’t know what the outcome will be. (That’s very different from belief, where we do expect the outcome to be what we expect.) A modal-logic of possibility and necessity is the only place where ‘the impossible’ first becomes possible – and thence, through skill, becomes probable, then predictable, and eventually something resembling certain, a kind of ‘law’ in its own right. It may end up as a checklist or some other pre-packaged set of beliefs – but it always starts with faith, in the midst of a moment of inherent uncertainty.

As with belief, there are disadvantages to faith too: not least what we might describe as ‘misplaced faith’, where lack of skill – or plain old lack of awareness – leads to inappropriate outcomes. Whether we like them or not, sometimes the constraints of belief do apply – such as in most (though not all) assertions of ‘scientific law’ and the like.

So in practice we need to be able to bounce back and forth along SCAN’s ‘horizontal’ axis of modality. Sometimes we need to hold to a Simple true/false belief; sometimes we need to let go into the Not-simple world of faith and trust. And of course, recursively, there are no set rules about which one should always apply at any given moment – which means that this too is a skill in itself. It’s Complicated, perhaps, or Complex… yet in real-time action we don’t even have time for either of those. All we have is this decision, right here, right now – no time for anything else. Belief that we know what to do; or faith that the results we need will arise from within the chaos itself.

All of which means that, as enterprise-architects, we need to understand how belief and faith work within our organisation and enterprise, and provide structures to support them in real-world practice.

Enterprise-architecture implications

It’s essential to draw a distinction here between the individual and the organisation. Belief and faith are expressed in practice directly by the individual, or indirectly by proxy, such as via the design or operation of a semi-autonomous machine or IT-system. Yet in an organisational context, it’s the collective belief and faith that we want expressed in action – expressed by the individuals on behalf of the organisation, the collective.

In effect, that’s the key role of organisational culture – and despite the wishes of executives and others, it’s not as simple as it looks… For enterprise-architects, it also means that we often have to address aspects of organisation-architecture that are more usually the territory of HR and change-management and the like – which means that we have to tread carefully at times, and engage in some potentially-challenging negotiations. But the payoff is an enterprise-architecture that really works – for everyone.

The organisation’s beliefs-in-action are expressed in definitive statements such as work-instructions, reporting-relationships and business-rules. One of the architectural concerns here is to provide support such that these business-rules and the like are actually implemented in practice, in real-time decision-making.

To make this work, we in effect need each individual to take up those shared-beliefs as if they are their own personal beliefs. This is especially important wherever these rules must normally be followed ‘to the letter’ – such as in regulatory compliance.

It’s crucial to understand, though, that rules cannot be imposed onto individuals from outside, whether by fiat or threat of force. Although as an organisation we can give ourselves the illusion that this has been done, it rarely works in practice: instead, there will usually be a myriad of small ‘failures’, ranging from unconscious errors to covert rebellion, which effectively sabotage the intended functional impact of the rules. (The former will tend to occur more often in collective-oriented cultures, the latter especially so in individual-oriented cultures.)

What does work is to engage people in the rules – the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how’ and ‘what’. To use the terms from Hagel, Brown and Davison’s The Power of Pull, we create that engagement by shifting from ‘push’ to ‘pull’. In an enterprise-architecture, we do this by treating organisational-beliefs in much the same way as for organisational-values. The Enterprise Canvas model describes a generic structure for this purpose:

  • create awareness of the rules-structure, its purpose and rationale, and the context for its use
  • build capability to apply the rules-structure in real-time practice
  • apply the rules-structure in run-time decisions
  • verify and validate the usage of the rules-structure
  • derive lessons-learned from the (attempted) usage of the rules-structure

Working with HR, change-management, process-management and others, we create what is in effect a PDCA-type learning-loop, to develop, apply and revise the business-rules and other belief-structures for the organisation.

The faith-in-action side of that decision-making modality-spectrum deals with anything that isn’t covered appropriately by business-rules and the like – which is a large part of most real-world organisational contexts. For enterprise-architecture, the two key focus-areas are skills-development, to enhance individual ‘response-ability’; and vision, values and principles, to enhance consistency in decision-making across the collective.

The skills-issue is one that is almost completely missing from most current-enterprise-architectures, especially those of an IT-centric bent. That’s rapidly becoming a lethally-dangerous oversight – see the Sidewise post ‘Where have all the good skills gone?‘ – and one that we need to address, working in conjunction with HR, organisational-development units and suchlike. EA will come into the picture by mapping out skills-requirements and competency-levels needed within enterprise-capabilities; the actual skills-development would usually be out of scope for EA, of course, though overall much of it would follow that generic structure for values as above.

The values-issue is one I’ve been pushing for a very long time as the true core of the enterprise-architecture: for example, it forms the topmost layer of abstraction in Enterprise Canvas, and thence acts as the anchor for the generic structure described above for values-management services. The reason why it’s important is that if the organisation isn’t clear about its values, then what will be used instead – as the drivers for ‘faith’-type decision-making – will be whatever values happen to be around for that individual. Which could be anything at all. Including not just a destructive ‘me-first’, but a really destructive ‘me-only’. In other words, not a good idea… clarity on values matters.

A lot more that could be said on all of that, but I’d probably best leave that for the moment. The only point that does need to be added here is the importance of story – the enterprise as story, the enterprise is the story – as the ‘glue’ that holds all of this together.

Overall, the real point here is this: that at the point of action – and despite whatever we might plan beforehand – decisions seem to be taken primarily on the basis of belief, or of faith or trust. Which means that, architecturally, we need to design for that fact. Not a trivial point, then.

More on this in another post soon, but any comments so far, anyone?

3 Comments on “Belief and faith at the point of action

  1. Tom, I keep going up and down about this one. Part of the problem is maintaining the focus on the specific use you make here of the words belief and faith. Nothing wrong with your usage but in common parlance they are often used interchangeably (perhaps incorrectly but they are anyway). Lose that focus and the whole picture gets fuzzy.
    If I understood correctly, you’re talking about how enterprises make decisions. That’s then on a spectrum from belief to faith.
    So belief based decisions are those where the enterprise (the whole collective or selected decisions makers) feels there is enough evidence to justify a particular action, takes it and propagates it by some means or other (rules are, I suspect, only one way of propagating decisions and I want to avoid the risk that we get caught about in a parallel discussion on the merits and demerits of rules – it’s happened before).
    Faith (or trust – you introduce the term at the end and appear to give it the same meaning) based decisions are those where we don’t necessarily have enough evidence and where we take a decision based on what we/the enterprise want to be true, which in turn is based on our/the enterprise’s values.
    Am I getting this right? If so, I’ll say now that the more I think about this the more significant a contribution I think it is to understanding enterprises.
    What I don’t understand properly is the summary. You say “decisions seem to be taken primarily on the basis of belief, or of faith or trust” (i.e. one or the other). That by implication is a strong statement that decisions are not (often) taken on the basis of proven fact or indeed of any shade of nuance between belief and faith/trust. Am I misunderstanding?

  2. @Stuart Boardman – Oops… There’s an absolutely key point here that I obviously haven’t made clear enough, otherwise you wouldn’t have said “If I understood correctly, you’re talking about how enterprises make decisions”.

    To clarify, this isn’t about how enterprises make decisions collectively, as such. It’s about how individuals make decisions at the exact (real-time) moment of action. The former builds out of the latter, obviously: but the crucial point is the difference between intent versus actual – and they can be very different.

    (To give another example from a different context, compare the economists’ ‘rational-actor theory’ (intent) versus marketers’ focus on the decidedly non-rational decisions that actually drive the real-world market.

    From the thought-experiments and self-observation I’ve been doing on this, it seems faith and trust are related but not actually the same: trust often seems to be a halfway-point between intent and action, rather than the ‘leap of faith’ that seems to be a real driver around actual change in real-time.

    Fact seems to play little to no part in the actual real-time moment of decision: the main role of ‘facts’ (and yes, those quote-marks are deliberate, for exactly the reasons you give in your ‘The Times They Are A’Changin’ post) seems to be to help to set up beliefs that then apply at that moment of action.

    One way to look at this is by analogy with the difference between Newtonian physics versus quantum-physics (ultra-small scale) or cosmological-physics (ultra-large scale). Newtonian physics is what applies at most of the levels that we deal with; but it’s actually underpinned by quantum-physics, which can introduce some very weird shifts in what would otherwise look like an ‘ordinary’ Newtonian world – especially whenever we’re dealing with some form of uniqueness (nuclear fission, for example, to continue that context).

    This is where the timescale becomes so important in SCAN: this is the decision-making flipside of the SCAN sensemaking. When time is compressed right down to the moment of action, we get a weird shift from a ‘Newtonian’-like context (the normal ‘enterprise’ world of ‘facts’ and emergence and suchlike) to a ‘quantum’-like world which – as I’m coming to understand it – works in a very different way, with this near-mystical-seeming focus on belief and faith, and bouncin g back and forth between them.

    I did warn that it was work-in-progress, and it’s clear I haven’t explained it well enough yet – apologies. There’s at least another couple of posts I need to do on this, about how this layer links up with the world of ‘facts’ and the like, and then tying it all together again from an EA perspective. I just hope this gives something of start on those ideas, anyway.

    But again, though, many thanks for the questions – much appreciated.

  3. @Stuart Boardman – To clarify one key part of your comment above:

    “So belief based decisions are those where the enterprise (the whole collective or selected decisions makers) feels there is enough evidence to justify a particular action, takes it and propagates it by some means or other (rules are, I suspect, only one way of propagating decisions and I want to avoid the risk that we get caught about in a parallel discussion on the merits and demerits of rules – it’s happened before).
    Faith (or trust – you introduce the term at the end and appear to give it the same meaning) based decisions are those where we don’t necessarily have enough evidence and where we take a decision based on what we/the enterprise want to be true, which in turn is based on our/the enterprise’s values.”

    Remember the ‘Inverse Einstein test’: on one side, we have the expectation that doing the same thing will lead to the same results; on the other, that doing the same thing may well lead to different results (and conversely, that doing different things may be needed if we are to achieve the same results).

    What I’ve labelled ‘belief’ – and which might well be called ‘fact’, even though that isn’t quite the same – sits on the ‘same thing/same results’ side: we believe that doing this predefined action will achieve the required results. There’s a sense of certainty there. From this, one of (at least?) three things may happen:
    — the belief is ‘correct’ in that it does lead to the expected results (which reinforces the belief)
    — the belief is ‘incorrect’ in that it doesn’t lead to the expected results, but we shift over into the ‘faith’ side of the balance in order to cope with that ‘not-knowing’ (sort-of weakening the belief, but in a way which allows the belief to change in accordance with the real-world)
    — the belief is ‘incorrect’ but we blame the world for not matching up to our expectations (which reinforces the invalid belief in a way that eventually leads to catastrophic failure)

    What I’ve labelled ‘faith’ – and which might well be called ‘trust’, even though it isn’t quite the same – sits on the ‘same things/different results’ side: we know that we don’t know what the outcome will be, but we trust/have-faith that it’s the right thing to do. Notice that when it does turn out to have been ‘the right thing to do’, that in itself can create belief, and thence (potentially-misleading) sense of predictability.

    I’m well aware that a lot of this sounds a bit bizarre: as I said, at the moment this is still very definitely ‘work in progress’. Yet even though it’s more than a bit arcane, I do think it’s worth exploring – primarily to help gain a better sense of how sensemaking and decision-making really do work within enterprises. More to come on this, anyway: Watch This Space, I guess?

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