Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 438


Once again, I’m making an appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 438, features Tom’s essay on using sizing for software testing, Kim Pries with a Software Sensei column (canned solutions), and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Organizations as Systems and Innovation”.

In this episode, Tom and I discuss how systems must fit into their context and ecosystem, otherwise it can be like dropping a high-performance sports car engine into a VW Beetle. Disney-physics may work in the movies, but it’s unlikely to be successful in the real world. If all the parts don’t fit together, friction ensues.

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

You can’t always get what you want…


You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

When it comes to systems, you can’t always get what you want, but you do get what you design (intentionally or not), whether it’s what you need or not.

In other words, the architecture of systems, both social and software, evolve through some combination of intentional design and accidental emergence. Regardless of which end of the continuum the system leans toward, the end result will reflect the decisions made (or not made) in relation to various stimuli. Regarding businesses (a social system), Ruth Malan, in her February 2012 “Trace in Sand” post, put it this way:

I have been talking about agility in terms of evolutionary ecology, but with the explicit recognition that companies, comprised after all of individuals, attempt to speed and alter and intervene and interject and intercede and (I’m looking for the right word here) shape evolutionary processes with intentional actions — concerted, but also emergent from more and less choreographed, actions and intentions. Being bumped along by the unpredictable interactions of others, some from within, but also from “invasive species” from other ecosystems looking for new applications for their adaptable, mutable capability set.

Organizations create and participate in business ecologies. They build up the relationships that stabilize parts of the broader ecosystem, and create conditions for organizational forms to thrive there. They create products, they create the seeds of the next generation of harvest. They produce variants on their family tree, to target and develop niches.

Ruth further notes that while business adapt and improve in some cases, in other case they have “…become too closely adapted to and integrated within an ecosystem that has been replaced or significantly restructured by some landscape reshaping change…”. People generally refer to this phenomenon as disruption and the way they refer to it would seem to imply that it’s something that happens to or is done to a company. The role of the organization in its own difficulties (or demise) isn’t, in my opinion, well understood.

Last Friday, I saw a tweet from Noah Sussman that provides a useful heuristic for predicting the behavior of any large social system:

the actual reason behind the behavior:

It’s not that people are actively working to harm the organization, but that when there is no leadership, where there is no design, where there is no learning, the system ossifies and breaks down. Being perfectly adapted to an ecosystem that no longer exists is indistinguishable from being poorly adapted to the present context. I’m reminded of what Tom Graves stated in “The game of enterprise-architecture”: “things work better when they work together, on purpose”.

Without direction, entropy emerges where coherence is needed.

This is not to say, however, that micro-management is the answer. Too much design/control is as toxic as too little. This is particularly the case when the management system isn’t intentionally designed. Management that is both ad hoc and rigid can cause new problems while trying to solve existing ones. This is illustrated by another tweet from Friday:

The desire to avoid the “…embarrassment of cancellation” led to the decision to risk the lives of a plane load of “…foreign TV and radio journalists and also other foreign notables…”. I suspect that the fiery deaths of those individuals would have been an even bigger embarrassment. The system, however, led to the person who had the decision-making power to take that gamble.

The system works the way you built it, even when you didn’t intend to build it to work that way.

Emergence: Babies and Bathwater, Plans and Planning



“Emergent” is a word that I run into from time to time. When I do run into it, I’m reminded of an exchange from the movie Gallipoli:

Archy Hamilton: I’ll see you when I see you.
Frank Dunne: Yeah. Not if I see you first.

The reason for my ambivalent relationship with the word is that it’s frequently used in a sense that doesn’t actually fit its definition. defines it like this:


1. coming into view or notice; issuing.
2. emerging; rising from a liquid or other surrounding medium.
3. coming into existence, especially with political independence: the emergent nations of Africa.
4. arising casually or unexpectedly.
5. calling for immediate action; urgent.
6. Evolution. displaying emergence.


7. Ecology. an aquatic plant having its stem, leaves, etc., extending above the surface of the water.

Most of the adjective definitions apply to planning and design (which I consider to be a specialized form of planning). Number 3 is somewhat tenuous for that sense and and 5 only applies sometimes, but 6 is dead on.

My problem, however, starts when it’s used as a euphemism for a directionless. The idea that a cohesive, coherent result will “emerge” from responding tactically (whether in software development or in managing a business) is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. I’ve never heard an explanation of how strategic success emerges from uncoordinated tactical excellence that doesn’t eventually come down to faith. It’s why I started tagging posts on the subject “Intentional vs Accidental Architecture”. Success that arises from lack of coordination is accidental rather than by design (not to mention ironic when the lack of intentional coordination or planning/design is intentional itself):

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.


The problem, of course, is do you want to be at the “there” you wind up at? There’s also the issue of cost associated with a meandering path when a more direct route was available.

None of this, however, should be taken as a rejection of emergence. In fact, a dogmatic attachment to a plan in the face of emergent facts is as problematic as pursuing an accidental approach. Placing your faith in a plan that has been invalidated by circumstances is as blinkered an approach as refusing to plan at all. Neither extreme makes much sense.

We lack the ability to foresee everything that can occur, but that limit does not mean that we should ignore what we can foresee. A purely tactical focus can lead us down obvious blind alleys that will be more costly to back out of in the long run. Experience is an excellent teacher, but the tuition is expensive. In other words, learning from our mistakes is good, but learning from other’s mistakes is better.

Darwinian evolution can produce lead to some amazing things provided you can spare millions of years and lots of failed attempts. An intentional approach allows you to tip the scales in your favor.

Many thanks to Andrew Campbell and Adrian Campbell for the multi-day twitter conversation that spawned this post. Normally, I unplug from almost all social media on the weekends, but I enjoyed the discussion so much I bent the rules. Cheers gentlemen!

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.

Back to the OODA – Making Design Decisions

OODA Loop Diagram

A few weeks back, in my post “Enterprise Architecture and the Business of IT”, I mentioned that I was finding myself drawn more and more toward Enterprise Architecture (EA) as a discipline, given its impact on my work as a software architect. Rather than a top-down approach, seeking to design an enterprise as a whole, I find myself backing into it from the bottom-up, seeking to ensure that the systems I design fit the context in which they will live. This involves understanding not only the technology, but also how it interacts, or not, with multiple social systems in order to (ideally) carry out the purpose of the enterprise.

Tom Graves is currently in the middle of a series on whole-enterprise architecture on his Tetradian blog. The third post of the series, “Towards a whole-enterprise architecture standard – 3: Method”, focuses on the need for a flexible design method:

But as we move towards whole-enterprise architecture, we need architecture-methods that can self-adapt for any scope, any scale, any level, any domains, any forms of implementation – and that’s a whole new ball-game…

He further states:

the methods we need for the kind of architecture-work we’re facing now and, even more, into the future, will need not only to work well with any scope, any scale and so on, but must have deep support for non-linearity built right into the core – yet in a way that fully supports formal rigour and discipline as well.

To begin answering the question “But where do we start?”, Tom looks at the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, which he finds wanting because:

… the reality is that PDCA doesn’t go anything like far enough for what we need. In particular, it doesn’t really touch all that much on the human aspects of change

This is a weakness that I mentioned in “OODA vs PDCA – What’s the Difference?”. PDCA, by starting with “Plan” and without any reference to context, is flawed in my opinion. Even if one argues that assessing the context is implied, leaving it to an implication fails to give it the prominence it deserves. In his post, Tom refers to ‘the squiggle’, a visualization of the design process:

Damien Newman's squiggle diagram

In an environment of uncertainty (which pretty much includes anything humans are even peripherally involved with), exploration of the context space will be required to understand the gross architecture of the problem. In reconciling the multiple contexts involved, challenges will emerge and will need to be integrated into the architecture of the solution as well. This fractal and iterative exploratory process is well represented by ‘the squiggle’ and, in my opinion, well described by the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop.

In “Architecture and OODA Loops – Fast is not Enough”, I discussed how the OODA loops maps to this kind of messy, multi-level process of sense-making and decision-making. The “and” is extremely important in that while decision-making with little or no sense-making may be quick, it’s less likely to effective due to the disconnect from reality. On the other hand, filtering and prioritizing (parts of the Orient component of the loop) is also needed to prevent analysis paralysis.

In my opinion, its recognition and handling of the tension between informed decision-making and quick decision-making makes OODA an excellent candidate for a design meta-method. It is heavily subjective, relying on context to guide appropriate response. That being said, an objective method that’s divorced from context imposes a false sense of simplicity with no real benefit (and very real risks).

Reality is messy; our design methodology should work with, not against that.

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

Abuse Cases – What Could Go Wrong?


Last week, in a post titled “The Flaw in All Things”, John Vincent discussed the problem of seeing “the flaw in all things”:

It’s overwhelming. It’s paralyzing.

I can’t finish a project because I keep finding things that could cause problems. I even mentioned this to our CTO and CEO at one point when we were trying to size some private deploys of our stack.

I couldn’t see anything but the largest configuration because all I could see was places where there was a risk. There were corners I wasn’t willing to cut (not bad corners like risking availability but more like “use a smaller instance here”) because I could see and feel and taste the pain that would come from having to grow the environment under duress.

I’m frustrated with putting everything in Docker containers because all I see is having to take down EVERYTHING running on one node because there’s may be a critical Docker upgrade. I see Elasticsearch rebalancing because of it. I see Kafka elections. Mind you the system is designed for this to happen but why add something that makes it a regular occurance?

I can certainly sympathize. For what it’s worth, it sounds like those making the trade-offs he’s worried about could stand to be a bit more inclusive. That doesn’t necessarily mean the decisions would change, but at least being heard and knowing the answers to his questions might reduce some of the stress (not to mention perhaps helping out those responsible for the decisions).

When making design decisions, having (or, at least, having access to) this level of knowledge and experience has a great deal of value. As I noted in “NPM, Tay, and the Need for Design”, you have to consider both the use cases and the abuse cases for a given system (whether software or social).

It’s not possible to foresee every potential flaw and it probably won’t be feasible to eliminate every risk that’s discovered. That being said, it doesn’t mean time spent in risk evaluation is wasted. Dealing with foreseeable issues before they become problems (where “dealing” is defined as either mitigating it outright or at least planning for a response should it occur) will work better than figuring it out on the fly when the problem occurs.

Understanding why “Should I?” is a more important question than “Can I?” is something I’ve touched on before. Snapchat is finding this out by way of a lawsuit over their filter that allows users to record their speed. Who would have thought someone might cause an accident using that?

Trial and error/experimenting is one method of learning, but it’s not the only method and is frequently not the best method. Fear of failure can hold back learning, but a cavalier attitude toward risk can make experiments just as, if not more costly. It’s the difference between testing a 9 volt battery by touching it to your tongue and using the same technique on a 240 volt circuit.

Abstract Dangers – When ‘And’ Meets ‘Or’

There’s an old saying that if you put one foot in a bucket of ice and the other in a bucket of boiling water, on average you’re comfortable. Sometimes analyzing information in the aggregate obscures rather than enlightens.

A statistician named Francis Anscombe pointed out this same principle in a more visual (though less colorful) manner more than forty years ago:

It’s an idea that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but was brought back to mind last week while reading an article on the Austrian school of economic theory posted on a site about medical practice and health care in the U.S. (diversity of interests and a very broad reading list is something I find useful, but that’s a topic for another day). The relevant passage:

When Ludwig von Mises began to establish a systematic theory of economics, he insisted on what he called the principle of methodological dualism: the scientific methods of the hard sciences are great to study rocks, stars, atoms, and molecules, but they should not be applied to the study of human beings. In stating this principle, he was voicing opposition to the introduction into economics of concepts such as “market equilibrium,” which were largely inspired by the physical sciences, and were perhaps motivated by a desire on the part of some economists to establish their field as a science on par with physics.

Mises remarked that human beings distinguish themselves from other natural things by making intentional (and usually rational) choices when they act, which is not the case for stones falling to the ground or animals acting on instinct. The sciences of human affairs therefore deserve their own methods and should not be tempted to apply the tools of the physical sciences willy-nilly. In that respect, Mises agreed with Aristotle’s famous dictum that ” It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with this at the same time. Human behavior is far from being as predictable as gravity and I agree with this for exactly the reason I disagree (at least in part) with the second paragraph. It is a mistake to characterize human action as intentional and rational. That’s not to say that all our choices are irrational and reactionary, but that there is a blend. Not only will different people respond in different ways to the same circumstance for different reasons, but the same person may react differently with different motivations on another occasion. Human nature isn’t rigidly deterministic and we consider it so at our peril.

Tom Graves post “Control, complex, chaotic” makes the same observation:

Attempting to ‘control’ complexity just doesn’t work: we need to treat the complex as complex, not as a ‘controllable problem for which we don’t quite know all the rules (but will know them all Real Soon Now, honest…)’.

Yet I’m also noticing another deeper problem: misguided attempts to apply complexity-theory to things that are neither rule-bound control nor pattern-based complexity, but are inherently ‘chaotic’ – a ‘market-of-one‘. Although we can identify definite patterns in health and health-care – that’s the whole basis of epidemiology, for example – neither rules nor statistics can help us deal with the blunt fact the everyone is different. The kind of patterns that we’d use in a complexity-model – probabilities, Bell-curve distributions, outliers, all that kind of thing – can all too easily mask the real underlying fact of uniqueness, from which that supposed ‘pattern’ will actually arise: somewhat like the barely-visible deep-randomness that underlies the visible patterns of Brownian-motion.

Trying to force something into a mold which it doesn’t fit is unlikely to work well.

Abstraction can be useful in understanding the contexts that influence the architecture of the problem. Designing an effective solution, however, will involve not just integrating the concerns of those contexts, but also dealing with any emergent challenges. The variability of human nature (in other words, sometimes the members of those contexts will not all think and act alike) can be one such emergent challenge.

Tom Grave’s again, this time from his “On mass-uniqueness”:

In practice, the scope of every system will comprise a mix of sameness and uniqueness – of predictable and unpredictable, certain and uncertain. If we design only on an assumption of sameness – as IT-systems often are – we set ourselves up for guaranteed failure. The same applies if – as is all too common – we say that our IT-system will handle all of the ‘sameness’ part of the context, and that the ‘not-sameness’ will Somebody Else’s Problem – without giving any means for that supposed ‘somebody else’ to be able to address the rest of the problem, or to link it up with the parts of the context that our system does handle.

The first requirement to make something that works in the real-world is to design for uniqueness, not against it.

In other words, a solution based on a poorly understood problem is unlikely to be a good fit. Abstraction is one tool to understand the problem, but doesn’t provide the whole picture. Shades of gray (black and white) is more likely than black or white.