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).