Systems Thinking Complicates Things

4th UK Rock Paper Scissors Championships by James Bamber via Wikimedia

 

I’ve had the honor and pleasure of appearing as a regular on Tom Cagley‘s SPaMCast podcast for almost three years now. Before I write one of my “Form Follows Function on SPaMCast x” posts, I always listen to the podcast to make sure that the summary is right (the implication being, relying purely on my memory won’t be right). I got a bonus while writing up last week’s appearance, because Tom asked an excellent question that deserved its own post: does thinking about a problem (legacy systems, in the instance of last week’s discussion) holistically/systematically complicate things?

Abso-freakin’-lutely.

It is much easier to avoid all the twists and turns and possibilities inherent in systems thinking. A simpler approach, picking one lever to pull/one button to push, makes it much easier to come up with a solution.

It just doesn’t work very well at coming up with solutions that actually work.

When there is a mismatch in complexity between problem and solution architectures, this mismatch will be an additional problem to deal with. This will apply when the solution is more complex than the problem space warrants and when the opposite is the case. Solutions that fail to account for the context they will encounter are vulnerable. This is the idea behind the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Human nature can push us to fix problems quickly, and quick will generally equate to simple. It takes time to analyse the angles and consider the alternatives. How often have you seen people ask for “the best” way to do something absent any context? How often have you seen people ask “why would someone ever do that?”

I’ll answer that by asking 3 questions:

  • since Rock beats Scissors, why would anyone ever choose Scissors?
  • since Paper beats Rock, why would anyone ever choose Rock?
  • since Scissors beats Paper, why would anyone ever choose Paper?

Reality isn’t binary. It’s not what’s “best”, it’s what’s fit for purpose in a given context and there are lots and lots of contexts out there.

This isn’t to say that all quick, simple interventions are wrong. If you find yourself in a house fire, more action and less comprehensive deliberation may well be in order. The key is matching the cost (largely in terms of time) of defining the problem space with cost (in terms of both effort and risk that the intervention adds to the problem) of crafting the solution.

Rock, Paper, Scissor, Lizard, Spock rules diagram

It’s almost guaranteed that the system contexts we deal with (both technical and social) will evolve toward more and more complexity. Surprises will emerge as a matter of course. We don’t need to make more by failing to take a more holistic view when we have the time to do so.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 454

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I’m back for another appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 454, begins with Tom talking about iteration planning. Jeremy Berriault comes next with a segment on QA team leads and I bat cleanup with a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Trash or Treasure – What’s Your Legacy?”.

Tom and I discuss the concept of legacy systems: what they are, whether they’re trash or treasure (sometimes both), and how they impact an organization.

You can find all the SPaMCast episodes I’m in under the SPaMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Organizations as Systems – Kurosawa, Clausewitz, and Chess

16th Century Market Scene

In order to respond appropriately to the context we find ourselves in, it’s helpful that we be able to correctly define that context. It’s something humans aren’t always good at.

Not too long ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was all the rage as among executives. While the book contains some excellent lessons that have applications beyond the purely military, as someone in my Twitter feed noted recently, “Business is not war”.

[Had I realized that the tweet, in combination with another article, would trigger something in my byzantine thought processes, I would have bookmarked it to give them credit – sorry!]

Business is, indeed, not war. In fact, one of the nuggets of wisdom to be found in Clausewitz’s treatise, On War, is that war is often not war. Specifically, what he is saying is that the reality of a concept often diverges from our (mis)understanding of that concept. Our perception is colored by factors such as our experience, beliefs, and interests. Additionally, our tendency to employ abstraction can be both tool and trap. Ignoring irrelevant detail can simplify reasoning about something, assuming that the detail ignored is actually irrelevant. Ignoring relevant detail can quickly lead to problems.

The game of chess illustrates this. Chess involves strategy and has its origins as an abstract simulation of war. Beyond promoting a very rudimentary type of strategic thought, chess is far from capable of simulating the complex social system of warfare. Perhaps if all the pieces were sentient and had both agency and agenda (bonus points for contradictory ones potentially conflicting with the player’s agenda), it might come closer. Perhaps if the boundaries of the arena were indeterminate, it might come closer. Perhaps if the state of the terrain, the composition and disposition of forces (friend, as well as foe), and the goals of the opponent were less transparent, it might come closer.

In short, the more certainty there is, the less accuracy there is. Where the human aspect is ignored or minimized, you may gain certainty, but it comes at the cost of losing contact with reality. Social systems are highly complex and treating them otherwise is like looking for a gas leak with a lighter – you may be able to do so, but your chances of liking the results are pretty small.

This post was originally planned to be for last week, but I stumbled into a Twitter conversation that illustrates my point (specifically re: leadership and management), so I wrote that first as a preamble. Systems of practice designed for a context where value equals effort expended are unlikely to work well in a knowledge work context where the relationship between effort and value is less direct (where, in fact, the value curve may invert past a certain point). Putting an updated veneer on the technique with data and algorithms won’t improve the results if the technique is fundamentally mismatched to the context (or if there is a disconnect between what you can measure and what you actually want). Sometimes, the most important thing to learn about management is when not to manage.

Disconnects between complex contexts and simplistic practices transcend the management of an organization, reaching into the very architecture of the enterprise itself (both in the organization and its relationship to its ecosystem). Poorly designed organizations (which includes those with no intentional design) can wind up with their employees faced with perverse incentives to act in a manner that conflicts with the best interests of the organization. When the employee is actually under pressure from the organization to sabotage the organization, the problem is not with the employee.

Just as with a software system, social systems have both problem and solution architectures. Likewise, in both cases the quality of the solution architecture is dependent on how well (or not) it addresses the architecture of the problem. Recognizing the various contexts in play and then resolving the conflicts between them (to include resolving challenges arising from the resolution of the original conflicts) is the essence of architectural design, regardless of the type of system (software or social). Rather than a static, one time activity, it is an ongoing need for sensing system health and responding appropriately throughout the lifecycle of the system (in fact, stopping the process will likely hasten the end of the lifecyle by way of achieving a state where the system cannot be corrected).

Management, Simple and Wrong – Semantics, Systems, and Self-Correction

Villain Caricature

Simple responses to complex situations are both seductive and dangerous. The difficulty in juggling lots of variables tempts us to employ abstraction so as to avoid being overwhelmed. Abraham Maslow’s observation, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”, applies. Some things (e.g. landmines) react badly to being treated as if they were nails. Having more tools in the box may help avoid problems.

This isn’t the post I had in mind to write next, but it’s one that came about by accident (via a multi-day mass participant Tweet-storm, with my participation beginning here). I had planned an Organizations as Systems post re: multiple players in multiple contexts (competing, and possibly conflicting goals and motivations) and I stumbled into a conversation that should provide a nice preamble to that post which should follow this one.

Before I dive in, two quick notes:

  • Rather than try to summarize the entire conversation, I’m going to lay out what I brought to and took from it. There are far too many tweets and, as of this writing, I can’t be sure the conversation has concluded.
  • My thanks to everyone involved, whether named or not. This kind of civil, if contentious, dialog is much appreciated. When ideas rub together, it can produce irritation, but sometimes they also get polished.

Management is one of those things that, like landmines, tends to react badly to the hammer of simplistic thought. We can see this in managers who apply (or misapply) theories of management, particularly ones like scientific management (AKA Taylorism) to contexts where it is extremely inappropriate and counterproductive. Whether there really exists a context where Taylorism is actually appropriate or productive is a question for another day. We also see the hammer in reactions to abuses that dismiss all value of management out of hand. While the reaction is understandable, that doesn’t make it credible. The vicious circle just becomes more vicious; heat is generated but without corresponding light.

One thing that’s necessary to pin down is what we mean by the term “management”. Are we talking about a concept (“…the administration of an organization…”)? Are we talking about the job/profession? Perhaps the discipline (branch of knowledge) or academic discipline (field of study) is what we’re talking about. We could be talking about a theory management, or we could be talking about management practices, either individually or grouped into systems of management. Knowing specifically what’s being referred to is critical for evaluating statements. A very valid criticism of a specific theory or system (e.g. Taylorism) will likely fall apart when applied to the concept as a whole due to the fact that the concept is far broader and contrary examples are easily found.

Another issue relates to intent. Few would argue the universal detriment of poor management practices. Extracting the maximum possible effort from your employees is unlikely to result in the generation of the most value in the context of knowledge work. These practices are the very antithesis of fitness for purpose in that they do not materially benefit the organization and they alienate employees (which is yet another hit to the organization where the product is knowledge work). And yet, there are still managers that manage in that very manner. Are they, each and every one, evil? A simplistic answer, hard against either end of the spectrum, is almost surely going to be wrong. That being said, in my experience the distribution is skewed more towards the “no” side than not (just as I’ve found people who only perform when driven to it to be a very small minority).

Why would someone who wants to do their job well and in an ethical manner resort to practices that are harmful to all parties? With sadism eliminated as a motivation (there just aren’t enough in the population to account for all the positions to be filled), the far more plausible answer would be culture, tradition, and/or lack of knowledge regarding alternatives. In short, when the outcome of a system doesn’t match the intent, there’s a bug in the system.

The disconnect between leadership and management is also a problem. Leadership, admittedly, is a concept distinct from management. It makes sense that not every leader needs to be a manager. The extent to which we as a society tolerate management absent leadership, however, is shocking and part of the problem. Consider a tweet from Esther Derby:

I would argue that steering and enabling can be considered leadership qualities as much as management activities. There’s a place for supervision and compliance, however knowing how to achieve results without forcing the issue is, in my opinion, an extremely useful skill. This is not manipulation, rather a matter of understanding goals and how to achieve them intelligently. It’s a matter of understanding how to resolve potential conflicts between the goals and motivations of an organization, groups, and individuals and adapting the system so that the outcomes more closely track the intent. The alternative is allowing the system to degenerate into a web of perverse incentives that increase the gap between intent and outcome. This gap may benefit some individuals, but at the cost to other individuals and the organization as a whole.

Medicine is something that has been through a number of changes, large and small, by finding a way to adapt. While the concept of medicine (diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease and injury) has remained constant over time, the practices and theories have evolved greatly. The discipline itself has evolved so that not only does it adapt to change, but that it adapts in as optimal a manner as possible. In short, it has developed a culture of learning.

Understanding organizations from a systems standpoint means recognizing the need for sensing the fit between the system and its contexts (learning) and then steering to correct any mismatches (management). Simplistic approaches to management (particularly relatively static ones that have little save tradition to recommend them) can only lead to a widening gap between the intended outcome and actual results. At some point, this gap becomes wide enough to swallow the organization.

[Villain Carricature by J.J. via Wikimedia Commons.]

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 450

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It’s time for another appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 450, features Tom’s excellent essay on roadmaps and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Holistic Architecture – Keeping the Gears Turning”.

Our conversation in this episode continues with the organizations as system concept, this time from the standpoint of how the social system impacts (often negatively) the software systems the social systems rely on. Specifically, we talk about how an organization that fails to manage itself as a system can lead to an architecture of both the enterprise and its IT that resembles “spare parts flying in formation”. It’s not a good situation, no matter how well made those spare parts are!

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPaMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Holistic Architecture – Keeping the Gears Turning

Gears Turning Animation

In last week’s post, “Trash or Treasure – What’s Your Legacy?”, I talked about how to define “legacy systems”. Essentially, as the divergence grows between the needs of social systems and the fitness for purpose of the software systems that enable them, the more likely that those software systems can considered “legacy”. The post attracted a few comments.

I love comments.

It’s nearly impossible to have writers’ block when you’ve got smart people commenting on your work and giving you more to think about. I got just that courtesy of theslowdiyer. The comment captured a critical point:

Agree that ALM is important, and actually also for a different reason – a financial one:

First of all, the cost of operating the system though the full Application Life Cycle (up to and including decommissioning) needs to be incorporated in the investment calculation. Some organisations will invariably get this wrong – by accident or by (poor) design (of processes).

But secondly (and this is where I have seen things go really wrong): If you invest a capability in the form of a new system then once that system is no longer viable to maintain, you probably still need the capability. Which means that if you are adding new capabilities to your system landscape, some form of accruals to sustain the capability ad infinitum will probably be required.

The most important thing is the capability, not the software system.

The capability is an organizational/enterprise concern. It belongs to the social systems that comprise the organization and the over-arching enterprise. This is not to say that software systems are not important – lack of automation or systems that have slipped into the legacy category can certainly impede the enterprise. However, without the enterprise, there is no purpose for the software system. Accordingly, we need to keep our focus centered on the key concern, the capability. So long as the capability is important to enterprise, then all the components, both social and technical, need to be working in harmony. In short, there’s a need for cohesion.

Last fall, Grady Booch tweeted:

Ruth Malan replied with a great illustration of it from her “Design Visualization: Smoke and Mirrors” slide deck:

Obviously, no one would want to fly on a plane in that state (which illustrates the enterprise IT architecture of too many organizations). The more important thing, however, is that even if the plane (the technical architecture of the enterprise) is perfectly cohesive, if the social system maintaining and operating it is similarly fractured, it’s still unsafe. If I thought that pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers were all operating at cross purposes (or at least without any thought of common cause), I’d become a fan of travel by train.

Unfortunately, for too many organizations, accidental architecture is the most charitable way to describe the enterprise. Both social and technical systems have been built up on an ad hoc basis and allowed to evolve without reference to any unifying plan. Technical systems tend to be built (and worse, maintained) according to project-oriented mindset (aka “done and run”) leading to an expensive cycle of decay, then fix. The social systems can become self-perpetuating fiefs. The level of cohesion between the two, to the extent that it existed, breaks down even more.

A post from Matt Balantine, “Garbage In” illustrates the cohesion issue across both social and technical systems. Describing an attempt to analyze spending data across a large organization composed of federated subsidiaries:

The theory was that if we could find the classifications that existed across each of the organisations, we could then map them, Rosetta Stone-like, to a standard schema. As we spoke to each of the organisations we started to realise that there may be a problem.

The classification systems that were in use weren’t being managed to achieve integrity of data, but instead to deliver short-term operational needs. In most cases the classification was a drop-down list in the Finance system. It hadn’t been modelled – it just evolved over time, with new codes being added as necessary (and old ones not being removed because of previous use). Moreover, the classifications weren’t consistent. In the same field information would be encapsulated in various ways.

Even in more homogeneous organizations, I would expect to find something similar. It’s extremely common for aspects of one capability to bear on others. What is the primary concern for one business unit may be one of many subsidiary concerns for another (see “Making and Taming Monoliths” for an illustrated example). Because of the disconnected way capabilities (and their supporting systems) are traditionally developed, however, there tends to be a lot of redundant data. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (e.g. a cache is redundant data maintained for performance purposes). What is a bad thing is when the disconnects cause disagreements and no governance exists to mediate the disputes. Not having an authoritative source is arguably worse than having no data at all since you don’t know what to trust.

Having an idea of what pieces exist, how they fit together, and how they will evolve while remaining aligned is, in my opinion, critical for any system. When it’s a complex socio-technical system, this awareness needs to span the whole enterprise stack (social and technical). Time and effort spent maintaining coherence across the enterprise, rather than detracting from the primary concerns will actually enhance them.

Are you confident that the plane will stay in the air or just hoping that the wing doesn’t fall off?

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 446

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It’s time for another appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 446, features Tom’s essay on questions, a powerful tool for coaches and facilitators. A Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Go-to People Considered Harmful” comes next and Kim Pries rounds out the podcast with a Software Sensei column on servant leadership.

Our conversation in this episode continues with the organizations as system concept and how concentrating institutional knowledge in go-to people creates a dependency management nightmare. Social systems run on relationships and when we allow knowledge and skill bottlenecks to form, we set our organization up for failure. Specialists with deep knowledge are great, but if they don’t spread that knowledge around, we risk avoidable disasters when they’re unavailable. Redundancy aids resilience.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPaMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!