Innovation, Agility, and the Big Ball of Mud in Meatspace

French infantry in a trench, Verdun 1916

Although the main focus of my blog is application and solution architecture, I sometimes write about process and management issues as well. Conway’s law dictates that the organizational environment strongly influences software systems. While talking with a colleague recently, I stated that I see organizations as systems – social systems operating on “hardware” that’s more complex and less predictable than that which hosts software systems (i.e. people, hence the use of “Meatspace” in the title). The entangling of social and software systems means that we should be aware of the architecture of the enterprise at the least in so far as it will affect the IT architecture of the enterprise.

Innovation and agility are hot topics. Large corporations, by virtue of their very size are at a disadvantage in this respect. In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, “The Core Incompetencies of the Corporation”, Gary Hamel discussed this issue. Describing corporations as “inertial”, “incremental” and “insipid”, he notes that “As the winds of creative destruction continue to strengthen, these infirmities will become even more debilitating”.

The wonderful thing (at least in my mind) about Twitter is that it makes it very easy for two people in the UK and two people in the US to hold an impromptu discussion of enterprise architecture in general and leadership and management issues in particular (on a Saturday morning, no less). Dan Cresswell started the ball rolling with a quote from a Hamel’s article: “most leaders still over-value alignment and conformance and under-value heterodoxy and heresy”. Tom Graves replied that he would suggest that “…heresy is a _necessary_ element of ‘working together’…”. My contribution was that I suspect that “together” is part of the problem; they don’t know how to integrate rebels and followers, therefore the heretics are relegated to a skunkworks or given the sack. Ruth Malan cautioned about limits, noting that “A perpetual devil’s advocate can hold team in perpetual churn; that judgment thing…by which I simply mean, sometimes dissent can be pugnacious, sometimes respectful and sometimes playful; so it depends”.

Ruth’s points re: “…that judgment thing…” and “…it depends” are, in my opinion, extremely important to understanding the issue. I noted that “that judgment thing” was a critical part of management and leadership. This is not in the sense that managers and leaders should only be the ones to exercise judgment, but that they should use their judgment to integrate, rather than eliminate, the heresies so that the organization does not stagnate. There is a need for a “predator”, someone to challenge assumptions, in the management realm as much as there is a need for one in the design and development realm. Likewise, an understanding of “it depends” is key. Neither software systems nor social systems are created and maintained via following a recipe.

While management practices are part of the problem, it’s naive to concentrate on that to the exclusion of all else. Tom Graves is fond of saying, “Things work better when they work together, on purpose”. This is a fundamental point. As he observed in “Dotting the joins (the JEA version)”:

Every enterprise is a system – an ‘ecosystem with purpose’ – constrained mainly by its core vision, values and other drivers. Within that system, everything ultimately connects with everything else, and depends on everything else: if it’s in the system, it’s part of the system, and, by definition, the system can’t operate without it.

The system must be structured to manage, not ignore complexity. Without an intentional design, things fall through the cracks. Tom again, from the same post:

To do something – to do anything, really – we need to know enough to get it to work right down in the detail of real-world practice. When there’s a lot of detail to learn, or a lot of complexity, we specialise: we choose one part of the problem, one part of the context, and concentrate on that. We get better at doing that one thing; and then better; and better again. And everyone can be a specialist in something – hence, given enough specialists, it seems that between us we should be able to do anything. In that sense, specialisation seems to be the way to get things done – the right way, the only way.

Yet there’s a catch. What specialisation really does is that it clusters all of its attention in one small area, and all but ignores the rest as Somebody Else’s Problem. It makes a dot, somewhere within what was previously a joined-up whole. And then someone else makes their own dot, and someone else carves out a space to claim to make their dot. But there’s nothing to link those dots together, to link between the dots – that’s the problem here.

Hamel’s use of the word “incremental” points the way to diagnosing the problem – enterprises have grown organically, rather than springing to life fully formed. Like a software system that has grown by sticking on bits and pieces without refactoring, social systems can become an example of Foote and Yoder’s “Big Ball of Mud” as well. Uncoordinated changes made without considering the larger system leads to a sclerotic mess, regardless of whether the system in question is social or software. My very first post on this blog, “Like it or not, you have an architecture (in fact, you may have several)”, sums it up. The question, is whether that architecture is intentional or not.

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One thought on “Innovation, Agility, and the Big Ball of Mud in Meatspace

  1. Pingback: Accidental Innovation? | Form Follows Function

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