How useful are principles in enterprise-architecture?
Not quite sure where this one started: probably from this Tweet a few days back by Anna Mar (@simplicableanna):
- simplicableanna: 7 Reasons You Need Architecture Principles http://bit.ly/xqzDkl #entarch
Gerold Kathan retweeted it, and I passed it on again as what I thought of as a useful summary. Nothing unusual there. But then one of my favourite EA thinkers, Richard Veryard, suddenly weighed in, in typically contrarian mood:
- richardveryard: @tetradian @gkathan @simplicableanna Have difficult #entarch decisions ever been resolved by appealing to bland uncontroversial principles?
Which triggered off one of those interesting back-and-forth enterprise-architecture debates:
- EricStephens: @richardveryard @tetradian @gkathan @simplicableanna #entarch Principles provide objectivity for decisions, even if pedestrian in nature
- richardveryard: @EricStephens @tetradian @gkathan @simplicableanna Is there objective evidence that principles improve decision-making? #entarch #groupthink
- chrisdpotts: Yes. #strategy | RT @richardveryard Is there objective evidence that principles improve decision-making? #entarch #groupthink
- EricStephens: @richardveryard @tetradian @gkathan @simplicableanna I have anecdotal stories only. Great question and research topic. Need to define metrix
- tetradian: @richardveryard: @EricStephens @gkathan @simplicableanna Is there objective evidence that principles don’t improve decisionmaking? #entarch
- richardveryard: @tetradian The lack of evidence that something doesn’t work is not a good enough reason to waste time on it.
- tetradian: @richardveryard plenty of anecdotal evidence (eg. I use principles often in my own decisions) – claims of ‘objective’ may be spurious here
- richardveryard: @tetradian I guess there are many popular #entarch beliefs that would be impossible to disprove. #pseudoscience
I would agree there – though it’d be the popular belief in the efficacy or even the possibility of ‘control’ that would be my first pick to question in this sense, with use of principles quite a long way down the list. But never mind – others continued the debate, anyway:
- BakedIdea: @tetradian @richardveryard where i work discussion +agreement on principles is essential part of decision making process… // not sure how youd empirically prove their value though. more, quicker, better decision? no way to measure success
- tetradian: @BakedIdea @richardveryard “no way to measure success” – yes, exactly. (or even ‘non-success’, in many cases)
- leodesousa: @richardveryard @tetradian in the early days of our #entarch practise principles helped us manage complexity – reduced dev platforms 7 to 3
- BakedIdea: @tetradian @richardveryard imo if you view part of #entarch as movin down a funnel of possibility then agreement on principles help movement
- krismeukens: @tetradian (cc @BakedIdea @richardveryard) So we’re actually in the chaos domain? No causality. Just act? Act-Sense-Respond? Mmm #cynefin
- tetradian: @krismeukens (cc @richardveryard @BakedIdea) principles are most use in ‘chaos domain’, as ‘seeds’ to provide equiv. of causality in Simple
- krismeukens: @tetradian (@richardveryard @BakedIdea) ok, makes sense, I’ll think about that.
- tetradian: @krismeukens (@BakedIdea @richardveryard ‘Act-Sense-Respond’ a bit misleading re principles: see http://bit.ly/w5kU1r , http://bit.ly/zQKAWi
I’ll admit that that last point from Kris Meukens about the Cynefin ‘Act-Sense-Respond’ sequence in the ‘Chaotic domain’ is a mild red-rag for me, given that I’ve spent literally years now trying to resolve the consequences of that one subtly-misleading mistake… I’ll agree that the sequence does occur, and is sort-of valid in its own way, as a sort-of method for sensemaking and decision-making in a high-variability context (i.e. ‘chaos’). But in essence that ‘method’ consists of ‘running away’ from the chaos as fast as possible, or preferably never be there at all. Which isn’t really much use for dealing with chaos as it is – and it also kind of defeats the object of the exercise anyway when we need to go into that chaos, intentionally, in order to create new ideas and options.
[For more on this, perhaps take a look at some of the posts on sensemaking with SCAN, such as ‘Comparing SCAN and Cynefin‘, or the posts on belief and faith, decision-making, and the series on linking intent and action (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3), (Part 4).]
This is where principles and the like come into the picture, because they provide a means to ‘pre-seed’ the variability, leveraging Gooch’s Paradox that “things not only have to be seen to be believed, they also have to be believed to be seen”. In effect, the principles provide a stabilising anchor in the midst of chaos, reducing the natural tendency to panic and ‘run away’.
The panic-state often triggered by the infinity (or near-infinity) of possibility within a chaos tends to be expressed in the classic adrenalin-responses: fight, flight or freeze. In practice, the functional purpose of the Cynefin Act-Sense-Respond sequence is to provide a means to shift the response-mode from ‘freeze’ to ‘flight’. What it doesn’t do is allow any option to remain in the chaos-space.
A much more useful approach is to centering-disciplines and the like to keep the panic at bay for as long as practicable, in conjunction with vision, values and more-actionable principles to provide a form of guidance within that space, all of it taking place in real-time.
The Act-Sense-Response sequence is only helpful in a high-variability context where principles are not used, and hence no guidance or ‘pre-seeding’ to re-constrain the variability towards a more useful outcome. As the published dynamics in the Cynefin framework make clear, the real risk of the Act-Sense-Response sequence is a collapse back to over-simplistic concepts of ‘control’; at best, it delivers a rather thin form of iterative sensemaking that kind of ‘dips its toes’ into the chaos and then runs back to the Complex-domain to make sense of what it’s seen – a cumbersome process that really slows things down. Hence, not recommended.
Given all of the above, I still don’t know why Richard Veryard was/is so vehement against the use of principles in real-time sensemaking and decision-making in enterprise-architecture. He didn’t seem to say much in those Tweets, other than that he sort-of regarded them as ‘pseudo-science’, without saying why. No doubt we’ll find out, here or elsewhere? But it seemed a conversation worth recording, anyway – I hope you find it useful!
[Update: later the same day]
Another Tweet came through from Kris Meukens, via Gerold Kathan:
- krismeukens: #principles are invariable inclusive/exclusive statements as a tool to constrain the space for emergence in a complex domain #cynefin
Yes, in Cynefin that’s true, and as far as it goes, I’d agree with it. However, there are a couple of very important points that are glossed over in Cynefin, which to me seem part of the cause for Cynefin’s fundamental flaws in what it labels the ‘Chaotic-domain’.
First, although we might say that “principles are invariable/exclusive statements … to constrain”, that’s not actually how it works in practice: in fact that’s more a Simple-domain true/false concept of principles than a fully-modal Complex-domain one. (Again in my experience, Cynefin’s structure makes it all but impossible to see the recursions that apply here.) Principles are the actionable expression of vision and values, and there’s always a set of trade-offs that we need to make between them – a contextual prioritisation that varies with every context, in line with Requisite Variety and the like. Which means that whilst the principles themselves may purport to be “invariable/exclusive”, the way we use principles is not. That’s a rather important difference.
Second, although Cynefin does work well for ‘considered’ sensemaking (i.e. in what it terms the Complex and Complicated domains), there seems to be no grasp at all in Cynefin that the ‘decision-physics’ change as we approach close to real-time – almost exactly analogous to the shift from Newtonian-physics to quantum-physics at very small scales. (The distinction may not be so obvious with sensemaking, but it’s absolutely crucial in decision-making – summarised by a phrase I used throughout the last series of posts on decision-making, that at the moment of action, no-one has time to think.) Cynefin seems to try to treat the sensemaking/decision-making processes as if they’re exactly the same at ‘considered’ and real-time timescales, which does not work in practice: hence why its handling of the Simple-domain is poor, and its handling of the Chaotic-domain woefully-inadequate.
Unfortunately it’s proved impossible to discuss any of this with Snowden – a fact illustrated all too well in his comments on this website. Since there’s no way to resolve these glaring flaws in the framework, I have, somewhat sadly, had to give up entirely on Cynefin, and restart from scratch. To be frank, I would strongly recommend that others in EA and related disciplines should do the same: useful as Cynefin may be in some other contexts, it’s simply not worth the problems that it creates in ours. Your choice, of course. 🙂