Four principles – 4: Adaptability is everything
How do we work with change – and, especially, extreme-change – in an enterprise-architecture? At the really big-picture scale?
This is the fifth in a series of posts on principles for a sane society:
- Four principles for a sane society: Introduction
- Four principles: #1: There are no rules – only guidelines
- Four principles: #2: There are no rights – only responsibilities
- Four principles: #3: Money doesn’t matter – values do
- Four principles: #4: Adaptability is everything – but don’t sacrifice the values
- Four principles for a sane society: Summary
As in the other posts in this series, a bit of background first. At present I’m working on a book and conference-presentation about the role of the ‘business-anarchist‘. Part of that work involves exploring some ideas and challenges at the Really Big Picture Enterprise-Architecture (RBPEA) scope – enterprise-architecture at the scale of an entire society, an entire nation, an entire world – and then see where it takes us as we bring it back down again to the everyday.
As I described in the first post in this series, I’ve been looking for fundamental principles upon which long-term viability can depend, under conditions of often highly-variable variety-weather – the changes in change itself. To me, after several decades of study, there seem to be just four of these: there are no rules, there are no rights, money doesn’t matter, and adaptability is everything.
So here’s a bit more detail about the fourth of those principles for a sane society: that we need to set ourselves up to work with change, rather than against it – yet also still keep all of our actions always in alignment with the overall vision and values that we hold. Once we accept the reality of this, it has huge implications for our enterprise-architectures, at every scale – including our day-to-day work with existing enterprises…
Principle #4: Adaptability is everything – but don’t sacrifice the values
This principle might at first seem less controversial than the other three, but perhaps only until we start to fully understand its implications – because this is where the action really takes place.
The ultimate driver for all of this is deep-change: and much of the change that’s about to be thrust upon us – and already easily-visible on the horizon, for those of us who care to look – is going to be much deeper and more fundamental than anything any of us have ever known, not just for decades, but certainly for centuries, and most probably for millennia too.
As we’ve seen in the previous posts in this series, the blunt reality is that just about everything that our society and economics think of as ‘normal’ doesn’t work. It not only doesn’t work, but can’t work, in fact by its very nature cannot be made to work in any sustainable way – and, to remind us of that fact, all of the real indicators are warning us that we’re about to be hit by a vast wave of change, all the way up to the really-big-picture level..
Not just a wave in the usual sense, or even a tsunami, but more like a tsunami of tsunamis, coming in at us from almost every imaginable direction – and probably a lot more directions that we haven’t yet imagined, too. Ouch…
[I’m fairly certain that any enterprise-architect with any real awareness of the real-world will know by now what those indicators are, and what they already show us about what’s coming up over the horizon. If not, well, anyone even half-informed, half-observant and with half an eye on the future should be able to gather enough from half-an-hour’s wider study to give some idea of the scale of what we’re up against, even in the relatively near future, in terms of environment, climate, resources, economics, social, military, health and much else besides.
And to be blunt, what we can see now is just the first gentle swell of the tsunami as it starts to move across the ocean, long before its real scale emerges when it hits the shore. That most people – perhaps especially, most politicians – still seem adamant about keeping their and our eyes averted from all of this does not change the fact that it is fact, whether we like it or not. That in itself is a key part of the challenge we face here. Ouch again…]
If our world changes, we need to change with it – otherwise we die. That’s reality, folks. And the kind of ‘variety-weather‘ that we’re heading into over the next few decades is that fundamental that it’s likely to challenge our adaptability to the limit – yet adapt we must, if we want not merely to survive, but thrive, on the far side of that tsunami.
Which is where those previous principles come into the picture:
— Principle #1: There are no rules – only guidelines. Rules assume a static world: they can only work well – in fact can only make sense – in a world that doesn’t change. We’re about to head into a maelstrom of change, where predefined ‘rules’ that apply only to a world we’re no longer in are likely to be much more of a hindrance than a help. Even at best, they’ll slow us down and constrain our options just when we need most to be able to move fast in an inherently-unknowable direction. Rather than redundant ‘rules’, what we need are more-fluid guidelines that, like a storm-anchor at sea, can help us retain some sense of direction and clarity in working with change rather fighting in futility against it.
[A concrete example: quick, what’s the sum of the internal angles in a triangle? Yep, it’s 180°, of course. Except that, no, it isn’t: that’s just a special case, built up from some important yet all-too-easily missed assumptions. First, there’s the idea of a ‘degree’ – you’d get a different answer in radians, for example. Then there’s the decimal number-base: you’d get a different number in base-2, or base-13. (“What do you get if you multiply six by nine? Forty-two!” 🙂 ) And the sum itself is only valid for a triangle on a perfect flat plane; on a perfect sphere it’s anything from 180° to (just under) 540°, and different again for other topologies.
So what’s the right sum if you don’t know what the topology is? What’s the right sum if you don’t even know if it’s a triangle? In some contexts, getting the answer right might make the difference between life or death – which means that reliance on simplistic ‘rules’ that only work in certain special-cases could well be very dangerous indeed. When the world turns uncertain, what we need are guidelines in more-general form – of which perhaps the first and most useful we could turn to would be “Don’t Panic!” 🙂 ]
— Principle #2: There are no rights – only responsibilities. In principle, the concept of ‘rights’ should provide us with a very useful structure of social-guidelines – and as long as we do stay strictly at that ‘in-principle’ level, abstract ideas about ‘rights’ can and often do deliver useful guidance in those contexts. It is, of course, a really nice idea, and ideal: but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work in practice – the problems inherent in paediarchy and purported ‘rights of possession’ that are running rampant throughout ‘western’-society (and most everywhere else, now) have long put paid to that possibility. Oh well.
In any case, as per that previous post, ‘rights’ are just a form of rules that are applied across a context – which means that all of the problems and limitations of out-of-context rules apply here, as in Principle #1. And when purported ‘rights’ are misused – as they now so often are – they’re each expressed as a supposedly-absolute rule that applies only to others, not to self. To make it worse, the whole ‘rights-discourse’ actively prevents us from resolving contextual priorities, because each of these so-called ‘rights’ purports to be absolute, ‘inalienable’ and ‘non-negotiable’ in any way or form.
It is, in short, a mess – and especially so when facing a probable period of rapid, unpredictable and fundamental change forced upon us by ‘circumstances beyond our control’. The only practicable way out of that mess is to refocus our attention from ‘rights’ to responsibilities – the interlocking mutual-responsibilities that, in the real world, are what actually deliver the desired social-outcomes that we think of as ‘rights’.
— Principle #3: Money doesn’t matter – values do. For many people, in what is currently a money-based possession-economy, this is always going to be a hard one to grasp, but the point is perhaps best illustrated by an article by Heather Wood in the current BMJ (British Medical Journal):
The horrors at Stafford Hospital were failures of clinical care – but these were the symptoms, albeit deeply distressing, of a serious underlying illness. And that deep rooted pathology is the stranglehold that managers, many apparently devoid of an ethical code and certainly without a regulatory body, have on the NHS [UK National Health Service].
… Where some poor care may, arguably, stem from a fault line in the training of nurses, we found evidence that the poor care and failure to control infection were related to the determination of managers to drive through financial restraint and achievement of targets.
… All the failings at Mid Staffs derived from the handing of control of decisions on priorities from the clinical professions to managers who were ultimately expected to follow the orders of senior managers.
We should perhaps emphasise here that it’s not the managers themselves who were the sole cause of that particular mess – for example, the idea that any of them deliberately chose to put patients in harm’s way would be anathema to (almost) all, as a commenter noted:
In my experience [in the NHS], the majority of managers (at all levels) are well-meaning, hard-working individuals who have the unenviable task of trying to administer an organisation that is under-resourced and over-committed.
The problem is not in the people themselves: it’s in the ‘command and control’ / ‘money-first’ target-focussed mindset that drives choices and behaviours – and which doesn’t work well in a highly-unpredictable, inherently-uncertain context such as healthcare. And it’s that mindset that we need to challenge here – perhaps most of all in ourselves.
There’s also a very strong architectural theme here, as another commenter noted:
[The report] decries structural solutions but structure is the architecture for human behaviour. Mindless targets are not the only problem. The English NHS ‘market’ (now abandoned by Scotland and Wales) provides perverse incentives, encourages competitive secrecy and the associated suppression of unwelcome criticism.
At the end of Heather Wood’s article (behind the BMJ paywall, unfortunately), there’s a reminder that this must be driven first by values, not money:
The NHS, though it needs to run efficiently, is not a business. It is about diagnosing, treating and caring for patients in the best way. All its other functions should be subservient to that.
That, in essence, is what Principle #3 is about. If we view ‘making money’ as the only vision, and money as the only valid form of value – as mistaken nations of ‘shareholder-value’ and suchlike tend to force us to do – we lose connection with the real vision and values for the service-in-scope, which ultimately loses connection with the money too. But if we keep the focus on the real vision and values, using a whole-systems view to help maintain awareness of the revenues and costs in context (in all forms of value, not just monetary ones!), then the money will largely look after itself.
[It’s what I sometimes term the Performance Paradox: we typically get best performance in some parameter by paying detailed attention to everything except that specific parameter.]
And, to link that back to the larger scale of ‘the economy’ as a whole, perhaps take a look at two of my earlier posts from a couple of years back:
- Economics as enterprise-architecture – assess economics in terms of standard EA themes such as constraints, assets, locations, events, functions, capabilities and services
- Economics, currency and time – “a currency is a kludge to try to make a possession-based economy seem to work”
So how do we pull all of these principles together to support real-world adaptability and real-world change? How does all of this work in real-world practice? The classic example would be guerrilla-warfare – or all manner of ‘guerilla’-like derivatives, such as ‘guerilla-marketing’ or ‘skunkworks’ developments and the like. But to bring it down to the more personal and everyday – and definitely less war-like – here’s a real example from people I knew well some thirty or so years ago.
It’s Sunday today, and right now, as I write this, my elderly mother is at the local Quaker Meeting. The formal title for the Quakers is The Religious Society of Friends, and my mother has been an active member of the Friends for most of her adult life.
Collectively, Quakers hold an enormous variety of beliefs: but probably the common factor amongst all of them is a commitment to and awareness of personal responsibility in one’s choices and actions within a social context. In that sense the Quakers also are, technically speaking, social anarchists, each ultimately responsible only to one’s own conscience: somewhat bizarrely, the Friends movement is literally an anarchist organisation – and has been so for more than 350 years. (Note that this is almost the exact opposite to the ‘kiddies’-anarchy’ of paediarchy, where the whole thrust is the evasion of personal-responsibility.)
As an expression of that conscience, many Quakers are very active and committed in fields such as active-pacifism (many volunteered for the dangerous roles of stretcher-bearer or bomb-disposal in the First and Second World Wars), anti-slavery, and prison-reform. (That last one is in part from their own first-hand experience: over the centuries, many Quakers have died in prison for their faith and actions.) And many are committed to addressing, in practical ways, what they see as social ills such as alcohol, pornography and gambling.
Which brings us to Alan Corbould [not his real name]. An active member of the local Friends, he noticed one day in the local newspaper that some company wanted to open another betting-shop in town. Worse, it was to be open on Sundays. Worse again, it was to be sited in the small shopping-strip directly opposite the Friends Meeting House. Not good…
So he decided to do something about it: he took up gambling.
Or seemed to do so, at any rate.
For weeks, Alan could be seen frequenting all of the betting-shops in town. He’d be there, day after day, hour after hour. At each place, he seemed to be taking detailed notes about betting-form, or something like that. But whatever it was that he was doing, he was certainly friendly, uncritical, asked other customers for their advice and comments. He watched closely, with an attentive ear, as each of those customers placed their bets; and also friendly and uncritical in commiserating with them about their losses. No-one actually saw him place a bet himself – but still, perhaps not the behaviour one would expect from an otherwise sober and somewhat-severe Quaker elder. All in all, a bit odd…
Came the day for the formal magistrates’ hearing for the new betting-shop’s gaming-licence. Pretty much everyone thought it would be little more than a formality, but some tried to object as best they could.
The churches were all there: “Gambling is immoral!”, they complained. “Maybe it is”, said the magistrate, “but it’s legal – and the law is all that I can work with”. Embarrassed silence.
The other betting-shops were there: “It’ll put us all out of business!”, they complained. “Maybe so”, said the magistrate, “but unless you can prove it, there’s nothing I can do about that”. Embarrassed silence.
At that point, Alan stood up. “Actually, I can prove it”, he said, quietly. “Here are the detailed records of activity at each of the existing betting-shops in town over the past two months: you’ll see from these that there isn’t enough trade to support another shop. And here also are the records of the financial and social costs for the town’s social-services linked to the existing trade: you’ll see that adding yet another shop would cause excessive strain on the public purse.” A different kind of silence in the court, followed a quick scurry through the neat stack of paperwork that Alan had provided. “Gaming-licence refused”, said the magistrate.
No betting-shop outside the Friends Meeting House, and less support overall for gambling in town: Alan had won. But it’s interesting to review how he won, in terms of these four principles here:
— Principle 4: without ever compromising his own values, he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve the aim: he adapted his tactics to the specific context – even if some of those tactics were personally distasteful.
— Principle 3: while everyone else was focussed on the money, or on contextually-irrelevant ideas about other people’s ‘morals’, he maintained his own focus on and guidance from the values that he held as his personal conscience and personal responsibility.
— Principle 2: like the churches and the owners of the other betting-shops, he had the ‘right’ to complain, but, like them, it would have got him nowhere; instead, he looked at the interlocking mutual-responsibilities in the overall context, starting with his own.
— Principle 1: to achieve his aim, he needed to leverage and bypass other people’s assumptions about ‘the rules’ for the context; and he used his own commitment to vision and values to provide him with guidelines on how to do this.
Note too that he didn’t just adapt his tactics to the context: he also put in a lot of hard work to make it happen.
The real key here for Alan was that in adapting to a changing context, he was very clear about how he was willing to adapt – what he was willing to change, and what he wasn’t, in order to keep track to the overall aim. Abandoning one’s core-vision and core-values rarely works well, for anyone: it’s often described in epithets such as ‘betrayal’, or ‘selling out’. In short, adaptation is everything – but don’t sacrifice the values.
Yet the same will be true for more than just vision and values: it may also apply to assets, resources, relationships, locations, ideas, events and all the other primitives and composites that know from elsewhere in enterprise-architecture. Just as in Alan Corbould’s example, we need to know what we’re willing to change, adapt, even abandon, in working towards some much-desired outcome – and what we’re not willing to compromise. That’s what we need to explore as we move this downward out of the abstract and ‘big-picture’ to the more practical focus of everyday enterprise-architecture.
Implications for enterprise-architecture
To apply Principle #4 in enterprise-architecture, I would start with three things, all different, but interrelated.
The first is clarity on purpose, to underpin Principle #3. The point here is simply to have some idea of what we actually stand for – whoever or whatever the ‘we’ might be in this context.
For organisations, I’d typically run a workshop nicknamed ‘What business are we in?’, which specifically sets out to elicit this kind of information, and sort it out into structure, usable form. (See the chapter ‘Step 1: Know your business’ in my book Doing Enterprise Architecture – the free-download sample-edition includes this chapter, so it won’t even cost you anything! 🙂 ) The single most fundamental requirement here is to identify and establish an understanding of some kind of enterprise vision and values – because these can then be used as the fundamental anchors for all sensemaking and decision-making.
[Note that these vision and values need to be those of the shared-enterprise within which the organisation operates – not solely of the organisation itself. We do need to develop clarity around the organisation’s own drivers, of course, but if we centre this solely around the organisation, we will be unable to describe the drivers and success-factors for relations between the organisation and the shared-enterprise – information that we will definitely need in order to avoid anticlient issues and suchlike. This point is important: don’t miss it!]
The vision also implies a narrative, a story, the enterprise as story. To me, the vision has three distinct components that are shared by everyone in the shared-enterprise, and that identify the effective domain and boundaries of that enterprise as ‘enterprise’:
- the what or with-what – something that identifies for the content or focus for this overall shared-enterprise
- the how – some kind of action on that content or focus
- the why – a qualifier that validates and bridges between content and action
Perhaps the classic example for this is the vision for the TED conferences, “ideas worth spreading”: ‘ideas’ (content), ‘worth’ (qualifier), ‘spreading’ (action). The qualifier is important: the whole point is that these are not just ideas that are being spread around solely for their own sake, these are ideas that are worth spreading.Various other values fall out from the vision: they provide the reason for people to connect with each other across the enterprise, and the success-criteria for each of those interactions.
The next item is a framework for sensemaking and decision-making, in particular to support Principle #1, around the respective applicability of rules and guidelines. For this I’d typically use the SCAN framework:
The idea is that we ‘go for a walk’ around the context-space, using the framework as a metaphoric map. Wherever we come across something that seems certain, or that relies on certainty, we place it over towards the left; if uncertain, more to the right, with anything inherently-unique or inherently-random placed over on the far right edge. The baseline of the frame represents the ‘point of action’ where things actually happen in the real-world; the more abstract it is, or the more distant it is from the point of action, the further up the frame we’d place it.
In practice, most things start off spread out ‘all over the map’ – everything contains a bit of Simple, a bit of uncertainty, a bit of real-world action and a bit of ‘think-about-it’ time away from the action itself. Yet as we start to dig deeper – often using the frame recursively, or with other overlays – we’ll usually start to see emphases and patterns emerge. These in turn will give us more clarity on where ‘rules’ will probably work – over to the left of the ‘Inverse-Einstein test‘, the certainty-boundary – and where we’ll need more fluid guidelines – over to the right. (Note that we’ll also need to take variety-weather into account here – the ‘variety of the variety’, the changes and often-variable rates of change in the applicable factors and parameter of the context itself.)
As we start to ‘make sense’ of the context in this way, we’d then also interleave the mapping with the decision-making overlay for the SCAN frame:
The key point here is that we’re not just dealing with certainty versus uncertainty: decision-tactics themselves change as we get closer to the point of action. At any significant distance from the point of action, decisions will usually be ‘considered’, or ‘rational’ (or nominally so, at any rate); yet at the point of action they’re largely emotional. (Formal research and development on decision-making practices does emphasise this point: for example, in the book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono asserts that all decisions are ultimately ‘Red Hat’, or emotion-based.)
The role of ‘considered’ decision-making is to provide guidance for subsequent ‘no-time-to-think’ decisions that happen at the point of action. At that ‘considered’ level, there’s typically a bounce back-and-forth between certainty-side analysis (‘assertion’) and the inherent uncertainty of experiment (‘use’ – as in ‘making use of’). These are what deliver the rules and guidelines (‘belief’ and ‘faith’ respectively) to guide real-time action – such as packaged into principles and action-checklists.
Note that this isn’t just a crude categorisation exercise: we bounce back-and-forth between all the various frames and overlays, to help build up a better picture of what goes on in the context, and what’s needed to make it work well – to deliver service in accordance with the vision and values – under varying conditions of change.
Which brings us to the third item, patterns for architecture design and governance, to identify appropriate structures that can support this enterprise-story. A service-oriented approach is the most likely type of architecture to be able to accommodate instability and rapid change within the context: we can model this with Enterprise Canvas, for example. And the service-oriented architecture-pattern I’m using more and more for this these days, and that ultimately builds upon and reflects Principle #2, is one I’ve nicknamed ‘backbone and edge‘, in which a stable ‘backbone’ of services supports agility at the ‘edge’ – the point of contact with the customer, the point contact with the real-world.
Bear in mind that, with Enterprise Canvas, the term ‘services’ is used in its broadest sense: everything is or represents a service of some kind. It’s more than just databases or delivery-services: for example, the enterprise vision provides the services of a stable ‘ultimate anchor’ anchor for sensemaking and decision-making within the enterprise.
And the backbone-and-edge pattern is really about two themes: sharing, or availability and reliability of services; and responsibility, or governance of services and changes to services and their content:
— The backbone is anything – any service – that is used and referenced and shared by (almost) everyone in the enterprise. It’s literally fundamental to the whole operation: if some part of the backbone changes, it usually signals that it’s no longer quite the same enterprise. Because it’s so central, and so many people depend on it, we’re going to need to keep it under very tight governance. And we dare not let let it fail: we need real ‘fail-safe’ here, because so many people and systems will be affected if it breaks. The classic Waterfall-type governance models fit well with these needs.
— The edge is anything – any service – that is inherently uncertain: ‘what-if’ experiments, little ‘shadow-IT’ hacks, one-offs for specific customers’ specific needs, skunk-works projects and the rest. It’s often expected to break, in gfact in many cases, we even want it to break, so that we can learn from what and how it breaks: what we need here is not so much ‘fail-safe’ as ‘safe-fail’, where any potential damage from failure is already allowed-for and affects as few other systems or people as possible. The Agile-type governance models fit well with these needs.
The catch, of course, is that Waterfall and Agile don’t play nicely with each other: completely different mindsets, completely different ways of working. And in any case, between tightly-controlled backbone and free-form edge are a whole myriad of intermediate systems and contexts, upon which a whole domain might depend, for example, but that domain itself might well change shape in the next organisational reshuffle. Should we use Waterfall governance for those, or Agile? Well sort-of- both and sort-of neither, really…
In which case, what we’d need overall is a kind of meta-governance – a mode of governance that sits above all the individual governance-implementations, and selects the appropriate governance according to the criteria for that specific context, with Waterfall and Agile at opposite ends of a spectrum of governance.
We can usefully map this onto the SCAN frame. The more ‘backbone’ that something is – the more certain something needs to be, and the broader the range of people and systems that depend on it – the more Waterfall-type control we’d need to apply, and the further to the left we’d map it onto the ‘certainty’ side of the SCAN frame. Conversely, the more Agile and ‘edgy’ that it is, the more we’d map it to the right or ‘unorder’ side of the frame. Or, in visual form:
We could take this a step further, and also map systems and services according to how close they link to run-time or real-time action, in line with the ‘vertical’ dimension in the SCAN frame. But there’s often a close correlation between real-time and uncertainty anyway, so doing that extra mapping can perhaps be a bit too much like overkill: the old architecture-principle of Just Enough Detail definitely applies here too.
Notice that, over time, all of this is highly dynamic: experiments that work well will get migrated up to domain-level, and eventually even to the backbone, whilst some domain-level services (and, in relatively-rare cases, backbone ones) will end up drifting the other way, or drifting out of the picture entirely. The point about the meta-governance is that we know when and how this is happening, and apply the appropriate governance – the appropriate responsibilities – in each case.
To identify what needs to be in the backbone – and, for that matter, the respective domain-repositories, and the smaller not-quite-throwaway systems and services out on the edge – we’d use techniques such as layered modelling with Enterprise Canvas, together with fitness-landscape and variety-weather maps. There’s a lot more detail on this in various other posts here, including:
- Agility needs a backbone
- Architecting the enterprise-backbone
- Backbone and business-rules
- Same and different
- Linking enterprise-architecture with solution-architecture
- Enterprise-architecture and the Cloud
Vision lives in the backbone; values live in the backbone; core-services, core data, core capabilities and functions all live in the backbone; and we need to choose what those should be. That’s the whole point of enterprise-architecture: to identify and provide the right structures and story for the enterprise as it changes over time.
Note, though, that although it’s essential to the enterprise, the backbone is also one of the greatest constraints on enterprise-agility – so in practice we do need to keep it as simple and compact as possible. The same applies to the overall meta-governance – it needs to be simple and self-explanatory. Once we do get it right, though, we get the best of both worlds: an organisation that is agile and responsive to its customers’ needs, yet also reliable and predictable wherever it needs to be. That’s what we’re aiming for here – and at every possible scale, all the way up to the Really-Big-Picture level.