Systems of Social Systems and the Software Systems They Create

I’ve mentioned before that the idea of looking at organizations as systems is one that I’ve been focusing on for quite a while now. From a top-down perspective, this makes sense – an organization is a system that works better when it’s component parts (both machine and human) intentionally work together.

It also works from the bottom up. For example, from a purely technical perspective, we have a system:

Generic System

However, without considering those who use the system, we have limited picture of the context the system operates within. The better we understand that context, the better we can shape the system to fit the context, otherwise we risk the square peg in a round hole situation:

Generic System with Users

Of course, the users who own the system are also only a part of the context. We have to consider the customers as well:

Generic System with Users and customers

Likewise, we need to consider that the customers of some systems can be internal to the organization while others are external. Some of the “customers” may not even be human. For that matter, sometimes the customer’s interface might be a human (user) rather than software. Things get complicated when we begin adding in the social systems:

Generic EITA with Users and customers

The situation is even more complicated than what’s seen above. We need to account for the team developing and operating the automated system:

Generic System with Users, customers, and IT team

And if that team is not a unified whole, then the picture gets a whole lot more interesting:

Generic System with Users, customers, and IT teams

Zoomed out to the enterprise level, that’s a lot of social systems. When multiplied by the number of automated systems involved, the number easily becomes staggering. What’s even more sobering is reflecting on whether those interactions have been intentionally structured or have grown organically over time. The interrelationship of social and software systems is under-appreciated. A series of tweets from Gregory Brown last week makes the same case:

A number of questions come to mind:

  • Is anyone aware of all the systems (social and software) in play?
  • Is anyone aware of all the interactions between these systems?
  • Are the relationships and interactions a result of intentional design or have they “just happened”?
  • Are you comfortable with the answers to the first three questions above?

Organizations as Systems and Innovation

Portrait of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

Over the last year or so, the concept of looking at organizations as systems has been a major theme for me. Enterprises, organizations and their ecosystems (context) are social systems composed of a fractal set of social and software systems. As such, enterprises have an architecture.

Another long-term theme for this site has been my conversation with Greger Wikstrand regarding innovation. This post is the thirty-fifth entry in that series.

So where do these two intersect? And why is there a picture of a Swedish king from four-hundred years ago up there?

Innovation, by its very nature (“…significant positive change”), does not happen in a vacuum. Greger’s last post, “Innovation arenas and outsourcing”, illustrates one aspect of this. Shepherding ideas into innovations is a deliberate activity requiring structural support. Being intentional doesn’t turn bad ideas into innovations, but lack of a system can cause an otherwise good idea to wither on the vine.

Another intersection, the one I’m focusing on here, can be found in the nature of innovation itself. It’s common to think of technological innovation, but innovation can also be found in changes to organizational structure and processes (e.g. Henry Ford and the assembly line). Organization, process, and technology are not only areas for innovation, but when coupled with people, form the primary elements of an enterprise architecture. It should be clear that the more these elements are intentionally coordinated towards a specific goal, the more cohesive the effort should be.

This brings us to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. In his twenty years on the throne, he converted Sweden into a major power in Europe. Militarily, he upended the European status quo in a very short time (after intervening in the Thirty Years’ War in 1630, he was killed in battle in 1632) by marshaling organizational, procedural, technological innovations:

The Swedish army stood apart from its’ contemporaries through five characteristics. Its’ soldiers wore uniform and had a nucleus of native Swedes, raised from a surprisingly diplomatic system of conscription, at its’ core. The Swedish regiments were small in comparison to their opponents and were lightly equipped for speed. Each regiment had its’ own light and mobile field artillery guns called ‘leathern guns’ that were easy to handle and could be easily manoeuvred to meet sudden changes on the battlefield. The muskets carried by these soldiers were of a type superior to that in general use and allowed for much faster rates of fire. Swedish cavalry, instead of galloping up to the enemy, discharging their pistols and then turning around and galloping back to reload, ruthlessly charged with close quarter weapons once their initial shot had been expended. By analysing this paradigm it becomes apparent that the army under Gustavus emphasized speed and manoeuvrability above all – this greatly set him apart from his opponents.

By themselves, none of the innovations were original to Gustavus. Combining them together, however, was and European military practice was irrevocably changed. Inflection points can be dependent on multiple technologies catching up with one another (since the future is “…not very evenly distributed”), but in this case the pieces were all in place. The catalyst was someone with the vision to combine them, not random chance.

Emergence will be a factor in any complex system. That being said, the inevitability of those emergent events does not invalidate intentional design and planning. If anything, design and planning is more necessary to deal with the mundane, foreseeable things in order to leave more cognitive capacity to deal with that which can’t be foreseen.

Storming on Design

From Wikimedia: VORTEX2 field command vehicle with tornado in sight. Wyoming, LaGrange.

My youngest son has recently fallen in love with the idea of being a storm chaser when he gets older. Tweet storms are more my speed. There was an interesting one last week from Sarah Mei regarding the contextual nature of assessing design quality:

Context is a recurring theme for me. While the oldest post with that tag is just under three years old, a search on the term finds hits going all the way back to my second post in October, 2011. Sarah’s tweets resonated with me because in my opinion, ignoring context is a fool’s game.

Both encapsulation and silos are forms of separation of concerns. What differentiates the two is the context that makes the one a good idea and the other a bad idea. Without the context, you can come up with two mutually exclusive “universal” principles.

A key component of architectural design, is navigating the fractals that make up the contexts in which a system exists. Ruth Malan has had this to say regarding the importance of designing “outside the box”:

Russell Ackoff urged that to design a system, it must be seen in the context of the larger system of which it is part. Any system functions in a larger system (various larger systems, for that matter), and the boundaries of the system — its interaction surfaces and the capabilities it offers — are design negotiations. That is, they entail making decisions with trade-off spaces, with implications and consequences for the system and its containing system of systems. We must architect across the boundaries, not just up to the boundaries. If we don’t, we naively accept some conception of the system boundary and the consequent constraints both on the system and on its containing systems (of systems) will become clear later. But by then much of the cast will have set. Relationships and expectations, dependencies and interdependencies will create inertia. Costs of change will be higher, perhaps too high.

This interrelationship can be seen from the diagram taken from the same post:

System Context illustration, Ruth Malan

It’s important to bear in mind that contexts are multi-dimensional. All but the very simplest of systems will likely have multiple types of stakeholders, leading to multiple, potentially conflicting contexts. Accounting for these contexts while defining the problem and while designing a solution appropriate to the problem space is critical to avoiding the high costs Ruth referred to above.

Another takeaway is that context can (and likely will) change over time. Whether it’s changes in terms of staffing (as Sarah noted) or changes in the needs of users or changes in technology, a design that was fit for yesterday’s context can become unfit for today’s and a disaster for tomorrow’s.

Managing Fast and Slow

Tortoise and Hare Illustration

People have a complicated relationship with the concept of cause and effect. In spite of the old saying about the insanity of doing the same old thing looking for a different result, we hope against hope that this time it will work. Sometimes we inject unnecessary complexity into what should be very simple tasks, other times we over-simplify looking for shortcuts to success. Greger Wikstrand recently spoke to one aspect of this in his post “Cargo cult innovation, play buzzword bingo to spot it” (part of our ongoing conversion on innovation):

I am not saying that there is no basis of truth in what they say. The problem is that innovation is much more complex than they would have you believe. If you fall for the siren song of cargo cult innovationism, you will have all the effort and all the trouble of real innovation work but you will have none of the benefits.

I ran across an interesting example of this kind of simplistic thought not long ago on Forbes, titled “The Death of Strategy”, by Bill Fischer:

Strategy is dead!

Or, is it tactics?

In a world of never-ending change, it’s either one or the other; we can no longer count on having both. As innovation accelerates its assault on what we formerly referred to as “our planning process,” and as S-curves accordingly collapse, each one on top another, time is compressed. In the rubble of what is left of our strategy structure, we find that what we’ve lost is the orderly and measured progression of time. Tim Brown, of IDEO, recently put it this way at the Global Peter Drucker Forum 2016, in Vienna: “So many things that used to have a beginning, a middle and an end, no longer have a middle or an end.” Which is gone: strategy or tactics? And, does it matter?

Without a proper middle, or end, for any initiative, the distinction between strategy and tactics blurs: tactics become strategy, especially if they are performed in a coherent and consistent fashion. Strategy, in turn, now takes place in the moment, in the form of an agglomeration of a series (or not) of tactics.

The pace of change certainly feels faster than ever before (I’m curious, though, as to when the world has not been one of “never-ending change”). However, that nugget of truth is wrapped in layers of fallacy and a huge misunderstanding of the definitions of “tactics” and “strategy”. “Tactical and Strategic Interdependence”, a commentary from the Clausewitzian viewpoint, contrasts the terms in this manner:

Both strategy and tactics depend on combat, but, and this is their essential difference, they differ in their specific connection to it. Tactics are considered “the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves” while strategy is “the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”[8] Through the notion of combat we begin to see the differentiation forming between tactics and strategy. Tactics deals with the discrete employment of a single combat, while strategy handles their multiplicity and interdependence. Still we need a rigorous conception. Clausewitz strictly defines “tactics [as] the theory of the use of military forces in combat,” while “Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the War.”[9] These definitions highlight the difference between the means and ends of tactics and strategy. Tactics considers the permutations of military forces, strategy the combinations of combats, actual and possible.

In other words, tactics are the day to day methods you use to do things. Strategy is how you achieve your long term goals by doing the things you do. Tactics without strategy is a pile of bricks without an idea of what you’re going to build. Strategy without tactics is an idea of what to build without a clue as to how you’d build it.

Fischer is correct that strategy executed is the “…agglomeration of a series (or not) of tactics”, but his contention that it “…now takes place in the moment…” is suspect, predicated as it is on the idea that things suddenly lack “…a proper middle or end…”. I would argue that any notion of a middle or end that was determined in advance rather than retroactively, is an artificial one. Furthermore, the idea that there are no more endings due to the pace of change is more than a little ludicrous. If anything, the faster the pace, the more likely endings become as those who can’t keep up drop out. Best of all is the line “…tactics become strategy, especially if they are performed in a coherent and consistent fashion”. Tactics performed in “…a coherent and consistent fashion” is pretty much the definition of executing a strategy (negating the premise of the article).

Flailing around without direction will not result in innovation, no matter how fast you flail. While change is inevitable, innovation is not. Innovating, making “significant positive change”, is not a matter of doing a lot of things fast and hoping for the best. Breakthroughs may occasionally be “happy accidents”, but even then are generally ones where intentional effort has been expended towards making them likely.

In today’s business environment, organizations must be moving forward just to maintain the status quo, much less innovate. This requires knowing where you are, where you’re headed, and what obstacles you’re likely to face. This assessment of your operating context is known as situational awareness. It’s not simple, because your context isn’t simple. It’s not a recipe, because your context is ever-changing. It’s not a product you can buy nor a project you can finish and be done with. It’s an ongoing, deliberate process of making sense of your context and reacting accordingly.

Situational awareness exists on multiple levels, tactical through strategic. While the pace of change is high, the relative pace between the tactical and strategic is still one of faster and slower. Adjustments to strategic goals may come more frequently, but daily changes in long-term goals would be a red flag. Not having any long-term goals would be another. Very specific, very static long-range plans are probably wasted effort, but having some idea of what you’ll be doing twelve months down the road is a healthy sign.

Situational Awareness – Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Infinity symbol

Situational awareness, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “…the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event”. In other words, it’s having a handle on what currently is and what is about to happen. It’s a concept that is invaluable to a wide range of interests, particularly management/leadership, architectural design, and innovation. It’s a concept that crosses levels, from tactical to strategic. Just as socio-technical systems architectures exist in a fractal space (application to solution to enterprise), so too does the concept of situational awareness. As such, it’s a common theme for this site, particularly over the last year or so.

The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop, developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, is a framework for decision-making that explicitly incorporates situational awareness:

OODA Loop Diagram

Coupling sense-making with decision-making is critical to achieve a balance of both speed and effectiveness. In my opinion, acting without taking the state of the environment into account is a recipe for disaster. Equally important (likewise, in my opinion), is understanding the dynamic nature of situational awareness. As Boyd’s diagram above shows, it’s not a linear process. Additionally, the very nature of a loop should convey the fact that there’s neither beginning nor end. This is a key concept.

One of the sites that I follow is Slightly East of New, which is run by an associate of Boyd’s and dedicated to his theories. A recent post on that site, “The magic of the OODA loop”, related a paragraph from a sci-fi novel, The Apocalypse Codex, that referred to OODA:

Observe, orient, decide, act: words to live or die by. Right now, Persephone is disoriented — on the run, cut off. It’s time to go on the offensive, work out where she is and what’s going on, then get the hell out of this trap.

It was an interesting post, but nothing noteworthy, until I got to this comment:

I find the phrase, “…on the run, cut off.” very interesting, within the context of “disoriented”. To me, “on the run” mean a decision has been made and acted on, whereas “disorientation” usually means that one can’t make a decision.
Likewise, “cut off” is the position you find yourself in, after all the decisions have been made and, after thinking about it, it is the posture you observe yourself to be in.
In other words, on the run and cut off is not really a disorientation, but a reality.
So, while you may not survive, you have made a decision to run or you are about to make a decision and join the otherside.
I suppose it just depends on where those words show up in the narrative, as to if you made the decision or your competitor made the decision for you.

I may be over-sensitive to the phrasing, but “…decision has been made and acted on…” and “…after all the decisions have been made…” strike me as being too static and too linear. Every action/inaction follows on decision/indecision. The point “…after all the decisions have been made…” is terminal (for the person who has made all the decisions they will make). In my opinion, it is key to bear in mind that the clock is always running and that the reality being processed is already past. Too much attention to the state of what is (or rather, was) takes away from the more important task of getting to a better “to be” state. Additionally, decisions and contexts should be thought of as not just linear, but fractal (e.g. having multiple levels from tactical through strategic) as well.

Loops that have an end are no longer loops. Likewise, we have to be able to strike a balance between just focusing on what’s relevant (too much context/backstory can cause information overload) and the point where we’ve trimmed away necessary context.

Actively thinking about sense-making and decision-making can seem overly academic. The activities are so foundational to nearly everything that they can feel instinctual rather than learned. I suspect that’s a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”. Depending on the application, contempt for developing the best possible situational awareness could be fatal.

[OODA Loop diagram by Patrick Edwin Moran via Wikimedia Commons]

Strategic Tunnel Vision

Mouth of a Tunnel

 

Change and innovation are topics that have been prominent on this blog over the last year. In fact, Greger Wikstrand and I have traded a total of twenty-six posts (twenty-seven counting this one) on the subject.

Greger’s last post, “Successful digitization requires focus on the entire customer experience – not just a neat app” (it’s in Swedish, but it translates well to English), discussed the critical nature of customer experience to digital innovation. According to Greger, without taking customer experience into account:

One can make the world’s best app without getting more, more satisfied and profitable customers. It’s like trying to make a boring games more exciting by spraying gold paint on the playing pieces.

Change and innovation are not the same thing. Change is inevitable, innovation is not (with a h/t to Tom Cagley for that quote). As Greger pointed out in his latest article, to get improved customer experience, you need depth. Sprinkling digital fairy dust over something is not likely result in innovation. New and different can be really great, but new and different solely for the sake of new and different doesn’t win the prize. Context is critical.

If you’ve read more than a couple of my posts, you’ve probably realized that among my rather varied interests, history is a major one. I lean heavily on military history in particular when discussing innovation. This post won’t break with that tradition.

The blog Defense in Depth, operated by the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, has published two posts this week dealing with the Suez Crisis of 1956, primarily in terms of the Anglo-French forces. One deals with the land operations and the other with naval operations. They struck a chord because they both illustrated how an overreaction to change can have drastic consequences from the strategic level down to the tactical.

Buying into a fad can be extremely expensive.

The advent of the nuclear age at the end of World War II dramatically transformed military and political thought. The atomic bomb was the ultimate game-changer in that respect. In the time-honored tradition, the response was over-reaction. “Atomic” was the “digital” of the late 40s into the 60s. They even developed a recoilless gun that could launch a 50 pound nuclear warhead 1.25-2.5 miles. “Move fast and break things” was serious business back in the day.

This extreme focus on what had changed, however, led to a rather common problem, tunnel vision. Nuclear capability became such an overarching consideration that other capabilities were neglected. Due to this neglect of more conventional capabilities, the UK’s forces were seriously hampered in their ability to perform their mission effectively. Misguided thinking at the strategic level affected operations all the way down to the lowest tactical formations.

It’s easy to imagine present-day IT scenarios that fall prey to the same issues. A cloud or digital initiative given top priority without regard to maintaining necessary capabilities could easily wind up failing in a costly manner and impairing the existing capability. It’s important to understand that time, money, and attention are finite resources. Adding capability requires increasing the resources available for it, either through adding new resources or freeing up existing ones by reducing the commitment to less important capabilities. If there is no real appreciation of what capabilities exist and what the relative value of each is, making this decision becomes a shot in the dark.

Situational awareness across all levels is required. To be effective, that awareness must integrate changes to the context while not losing sight of what already was. Otherwise, to use a metaphor from my high school football days, you risk acting like a “blind dog in a meat-packing plant”.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 407

SPaMCAST logo

This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 407, features Tom’s essay on Test Driven Development, Kim Pries on what makes software “good”, Steve Tendon on TameFlow, and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”.

Change is inevitable, dealing with it effectively is not. It takes learn, a cohesive whole-enterprise culture of intentional, effective sense-making and decision-making (learning) to make effective moves in a dynamic world.

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