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).

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 450


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 442


A new month brings a new appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 442, features Tom’s excellent essay on capability teams (highly recommended!), followed by a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Systems of Social Systems and the Software Systems They Create”. Kim Pries bats cleanup with a Software Sensei column, “Software Quality and the Art of Skateboard Maintenance”.

In this episode, Tom and I continue our discussion on the organizations as system concept and how systems must fit into their context and ecosystem. In my previous posts on the subject, I took more of a top down approach. With this post, I flipped things around to a bottom up view. Understanding how the social and software systems interact (including the social system involved in creating/maintaining the software system) is critical to avoid throwing sand in the gears.

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

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!

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.