“It depends…”

What’s the one phrase that enterprise-architects use time after time, and that drives almost everyone else crazy? Well, it depends…

“It depends.” Yeah, we know it prob’ly depends, but just gimme the answer, willya? Frustration indeed…

Going back to a previous theme, this is actually one of the core differences between specialist and generalist.

Or perhaps more accurately, between thinking in terms of concrete versus abstract.

Or maybe how versus why; or boxes versus between-the-boxes.

Or functional versus non-functional.

Or quantitative versus qualitative, perhaps?

It depends which way we look at it, you see?

(“Why do you always answer a question with another question?”, he asked, in exasperation. “Uh… do I?”, was the architect’s inevitable reply…)

The generalist always wants to know first about context, to make sure that we get the right things done. But all the specialist wants to know about is the content, to get things done right – or even done at all. And bein’ stuck waitin’ around for those darn generalists to make their minds up about what depends on what and why and all-that-whatever does not help to get things done!

Why does everything have to depend on everything else!! Why can’t you stop saying “Well, it depends” all the time, and just decide something for once!!!

Yeah, that’s a real crazy-making clash for everyone, right there, a real wicked-problem

But what do we do about it?

Well, it depends…

Posted in Business, Complexity / Structure, Enterprise architecture Tagged with: , , , ,
10 comments on ““It depends…”
  1. AS says:


    And may be to add “theory” vs “practice”?

    One of frustrations is the example of the high-energy physics (i.e. CERN) in which there are two types of people – theoretical and experimental. And those two groups work perfectly together. And EA is simpler than physics.


  2. Tom,

    Great topic. I like to think that there are two uncontrollable forces and one mitigator facing every project:

    Barrier 1: Complexity (Problem has as many tangles as it does)
    Barrier 2: Time (Value has an expiration date)
    Mitigator: Experience (# times team has been around this block)

    In my experience, the problem tends to get magnified when complexity is higher (i.e. new problem or horizons), time is perceived to be tight, and experience in the space is lower. In this case, the doers feel the time pressure and want to get moving and the thinkers want to get it right the first time, and spend more time trying to map out the problem.

    IMHO, there’s a balance which is based on a solid scheme for prioritizing concerns:

    Importance: how much stakeholder value does this issue affect?

    Difficulty: how hard is it to solve? how many degrees of freedom

    Centrality: how many things depend on this (directly or indirectly) and will need to be redone if we get it wrong

    Certainty: how much do we really know about this issue? How much can we conceptualize vs. how much experimentation is needed?

    If a team can enumerate the problems (not the alternative solutions) and quickly rank them on this scale, the ones that rise to the top are the only ones the thinkers need to fret about.


    • Tom G says:

      Thanks, Charlie – good points.

      That last point is probably the closest direct link here: the need for certainty. “It depends…” is all about facing uncertainty. (Okay, some might argue that it’s more about avoiding uncertainty – but at least it acknowledges that uncertainty exists, whereas the usual ‘do-it-now!’ over-certainty all too often doesn’t…)

  3. Gene Hughson says:

    I’ve never seen this as a specialist vs. generalist issue, but more a clash of personality types. One extreme values decisiveness over all, another values deliberation most. I’ve always tried to swing between the regions between the two depending on circumstances.

    • Tom G says:

      Hi Gene – I’d certainly agree about decisiveness-versus-deliberation: I’ve seen it often too. It also occurs often in an inverse form: over-decisiveness to avoid facing uncertainty (a lot of psychology research on that) versus over-deliberation (often linked to fear of failure).

      Yet I have seen the specialist-versus-generalist issue, often, in its own right. Specialist tend to align with (over)-decisiveness, and generalist with (over)-deliberation, but in essence they’re orthogonal axes rather than mirror-reflections of each other. In my experience, anyway. 🙂

  4. I think this is again touching the topic of Taoism. So to me it is all about finding a new balance and that can only be gained by shifting from one stable situation to another stable situation. So if you as me it is not A vs B, but always A and B and the forces between the two of them. Or to pick up your new blog post: It is not so much about the boxes (A, B) alone, but also about the line (forces) between them.

    • Tom G says:

      @Kai: “I think this is again touching the topic of Taoism”.

      Yes, strongly agreed. Perhaps there’s also a useful parallel here of Confucian (rule-bound, certainty-driven) versus Taoist (principle-oriented, acknowledging of inherent-uncertainty). The challenge is that they’re fundamentally different paradigms and worldviews: each’s core tenets are such that it tends to regard the other’s core driver as a form of evasion of reality – a classic wicked-problem!

      • I believe it is only wicked as long as one stays inside one of the models. At the moment in time when both models (Taoism (A), Confucianism (B)) are brought into context and by that the force between them the greater context helps to solve the problem (and that does not have to be wicked). Getting the people out of their individual context is a challenge though. Therefore I (try to) apply always remember the next larger context principle.

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