The ‘Systems-Thinking’ Enterprise Architect

Even with the best and most complete of models and frameworks, the practice of Enterprise Architecture (EA) in organisations isn’t always effective. Analysis does not always explain everything that happens, and changes that Enterprise Architects (EAs) make do not always deliver the expected benefits.  When EA does not deliver value as expected, or when it cannot be represented as a transparent cause and effect relationship, some EA defenders draw our attention to long delays in the enterprise’s adoption of information technology.  In light of this, EA should be thought of as an investment against things that might otherwise go wrong — kind of like a ‘flu shot for 2025.  Other apologists blame flaws in the EA frameworks and methods used, or in the way that they are used.

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Designing in the post-consumer age

Christmas is coming, again.  Last year, Australians reportedly spent $A32B at an average of $A1,200 per person during the silly season.  Nearly twenty million of these gifts with a value of around $A1B were unwanted and were sold, re-gifted, stored or dumped.  For myself, a distinctive marker of post-consumerism came when a ten year-old family member declared a few weeks out from Christmas that he didn’t know what to ask for this year because he couldn’t think of anything he particularly wanted. It seems that between Christmas, birthdays, special days and rewards for good behavior the number of buying opportunities outstrips some family member’s needs or even desires.  So it seems we are now living in an age of post-consumerism, even for ten year-olds.  We are beyond some western models of growth, in uncharted territory.

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Can Systems Thinking help to solve problems like people smuggling?

Children overbaord.

Children overboard.

Political, social and economic problems amenable to the application of ‘systems thinking‘ are all around us. Take the Australian Prime Minister’s latest solution to the seemingly insoluble ‘boat people’ dilemma.  ‘Boat people’ are refugees fleeing central or south east Asia who make their way to Indonesia, purchase passage from a ‘people smuggler’ to Australia on a leaky boat, only to find that the tub starts to take water somewhere near Christmas Island. What typically plays out next is a media-driven frenzy of political posturing and talk-back vitriol, while the Australian Navy scoops up the survivors and deposits them in a remote detention centre.

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The stories designers tell

The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

The virtual presses are understandably full of accounts of Steve Jobs‘ significance and magnificence. Many raise mystical questions of what made Jobs special and whether others will ever be able to reproduce his success. Great stories from Apple insiders about Jobs are being told. Without wishing to cast the slightest dispersion on Jobs’ obvious genius in any way whatsover, I do find myself wondering what embellishments are being applied as his former disciples spin these yarns. Continue reading

Fallacies of masterplanning – Is ‘situatedness’ the new planning paradigm?

The only valid action is planned action.

Strategic planning, in common with most forms of master-planning, makes overt and implicit assumptions that a well-devised plan dictates the activity of the organisation it is designed for.  Maxims like ‘if you fail to plan you plan to fail’ have reinforced plan-bias in a generation of project professionals, managers and executives.  Failure of planned projects has often been attributed to human infirmity and inability to execute on the activities that the plan has made explicit, not on the paradigm of action and activity that assumes a priori ordered, linear execution.  It is time planners reconceived planning and their plans.

The very notion of plan as controller of action seems orthogonal to our dynamic, lattice-shaped always-on world.  From TED to HBR we are told constantly how social structures trump hierarchical structures, loose-coupling trumps static arrangements, agile trumps formal, right brain trumps left brain, collaborator trumps dictator.  Sure, you need a plan if you are building a bridge, but the stuff of knowledge work — the design and delivery of a new business service, for example — is subject to very different considerations.  But alternatives to master-planning have themselves been discredited or slow to be taken up.  Of these, ‘situatedness’ stands out as noticeably resonant with the new era of social enterprise.  The undisputed queen of situated cognition (thinking), Lucy Suchman, claimed in her landmark book:

the term situated action… underscores the view that every course of action depends in essential ways upon its material and social circumstances.

Rather than to attempt to abstract away action from its circumstances and represent it as a rational plan, the situated perspective of action studies ‘how people use their circumstances to achieve intelligent action’.  Rather than build a theory of action out of a theory of plans, the situated approach investigates how people produce and find evidence for plans in the midst of their situated actions.  Suchman’s account of islander navigators illustrates the polar extremes of thinking about human action and decisions in-the-moment.

Alternative views of human intelligence and directed action are suggested by contrasting the European and Micronesian approaches to navigation over many centuries.  The European navigator begins with a plan—a course—which he has charted according to certain universal principles.  He carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout the voyage is directed at remaining ‘on course’.  If unexpected events occur, he returns to his plan, and designs and executes corrective action.

Micronesian navigator.

By contrast, the Micronesian navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in a seemingly ad hoc fashion. He draws upon his tacit knowledge and familiarity with the environment, learned and infused over years or decades of living in the one place. Once at sea, he utilises information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the stars (without having explicitly mapped them) and steers accordingly. If asked, he can point to his objective at any moment but he cannot describe his course. Vast migrations of peoples in the eleventh and twelfth centuries over huge distances occurred, particularly amongst Pacific islanders, using just these methods of navigation.

The European navigator exemplifies the prevailing paradigm of purposive action. While the Micronesian navigator’s actual course is contingent upon unique circumstances that cannot be anticipated in advance, the European navigator’s path is derived from universal principles of navigation and is essentially independent of the exigencies of his particular situation.

Suchman’s story was based on work performed by Edwin Hutchins, now a distinguished cognitive scientist and ethnographic researcher who validated the reality and effectiveness of the navigational methods of the islanders as a young postdoc in 1978.  One take-away is how different ways of acting are favoured differently amongst cultures—how to act purposefully is at least partially learned and is subject to cultural variation. European culture favours abstract, analytic thinking where the ideal is to reason from general principles to particular instances. The Micronesians, however, navigated in relative terms, learning a cumulative collection of concrete, embodied responses.  They were guided by handed-down accounts combined with memory and experience accrued over years of actual voyages.  Suchman went on to argue that all activity is ‘fundamentally concrete and embodied’ and our responses to situations are both cultural and conditioned.

Micronesians and Europeans both use instruments and work to plans.  It is just that the instruments are of a different kind and the plans have different representations.  All actions, according to Suchman, are situated, and although we like to think of ourselves as drawing on the European tradition of cognition and planning, in reality we all act like Micronesian navigators most of the time.  The argument for situated action hinges on uncertainty.  Circumstances cannot always be anticipated ahead of time and are constantly changing, so we always find ourselves acting in a reactive fashion to some degree.  Our actions as they are observed to play out are never planned in the strong sense in which we expect planning to lead action.  In some forms of design, plans are best viewed as a weak resource for what is primarily a reactive and unpredictable series of decision-making episodes.

Suchman did not deny the usefulness of plans, but claimed that plans should be considered a priori improvisations and post hoc reconstructions of action.  In other words, that there is no strong cause and effect relationship between plans and actions.
It turns out that in many accounts, plans are more useful after acting than as a predictor of action.  It is often only when we are pressured to account for the rationality of our actions, given our ‘European tradition’, that we invoke the omniscience of a plan, or retrospectively and selectively reconstruct our situated actions so that they conform to an imagined or recovered plan, a behaviour referred to by academics as post hoc rationalisation.

When stated in advance, plans are necessarily vague, in so far as they must accommodate the unforeseeable contingencies of particular outcomes and situations.  When retrospectively reconstructed, plans systematically filter out detail that characterises situated actions in favour of detail and actions that appear to align with the plan.

The navigation story also illuminates our assumption that representations of actions (such as plans) can in fact be the basis for an account of situated action at all.  Culturally, acceptance of a causal relationship between planning and action is almost universal, so much so that to question it risks treading on belief rather than fact.  This belief is rooted in positivism and, of course, rationalistic thinking. 

So how valid is a priori planning for knowledge-intensive collaborations today?  Why can’t we just step into the canoe and pursue our goal in relative terms, independently of the structures of pre-ordained solutions or handed-down wisdom?  Are we even capable of disengaging ourselves from our European enculturation for a few moments to consider such a stance?  Come on all you paid-up members of professional project management associations, step up and take a swing at this one…

What would Marshall McLuhan make of twitter?

Marshall McLuhan

If Marshal McLuhan, father figure of media theory, was alive today, what would he make of twitter? Would he consider it the ultimate reality-defining medium? Would he consider it a force for cultural enrichment or cultural impoverishment? Or would he grasp the opportunity to be a foci of cultural influence by joining the twitterati?

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Problems with problems

Design thinking’ is being touted from the classrooms of Ivy-league business schools and the stages of innovation conferences as a new methodology for attacking ‘wicked problems’.  Design thinking, as Gartner analyst Nicholas Gall puts it, is a ‘major business trend that is driving fundamentally new approaches to enterprise transformation’.  Gartner’s particular brand of design thinking (‘hybrid thinking’) allows business leaders to ‘create successful outcomes to wicked problems by co-creating more meaningful, human-centred experiences’. 

Being able to consistently create successful outcomes to wicked problems is big claim.  Neither Tim Brown’s ‘design thinking’ nor Gartner’s ‘hybrid thinking’ have published definitive methods or even answers to how you might go about the task.  But it is true that increasingly, the traditional tools of systems analysis are looking dated and brittle in the face of business complexity and change.  It could be argued that as technology routinely automates many of yesterday’s problems, today’s problems get tougher. 

So-called ‘wicked’ problems are often sociological in nature, being of global or societal scale, involving large numbers of actors with divergent views and motivations.  The undisputed czars of sociological problems are Horst Rittell and Melvin M. Webber, who coined the term ‘wicked’ in 1967, long before American teenagers appropriated it as a synonym for cool.  A ‘wicked problem’ is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.  Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.  Some other characteristics of wicked problems include:

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution
  • The problem has no stopping rule
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique
  • A solution to a wicked problem is not usually repeatable
  • A wicked problem has no alternative solutions. 

Classic examples of wicked problems include long-standing economic, environmental, and political problems.  A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem.  There are many examples of wicked problems in public planning and policy, including global climate change, depletion of natural resources (forest-stripping, over-fishing), healthcare, managing epidemics, drug trafficking, security, nuclear weapons and waste.  In arguing that ‘the search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail because of the nature of these problems’, Rittell and Weber drew attention to the broad objectives of the new social sciences in the late 1960s.  Because all design effort addresses some kind of problem, it’s worth thinking about how problems are framed and understood by designers.

All design commences with an understanding of a problem, and all design methods must address problem definition as a starting point.  Definition of a problem is locked in time—a solution is called for because a problem exists now.  But problems and solutions exist in a kind of continuum.  Sometimes, looking at the history of a problem re-casts it as resulting from previous efforts to solve past problems.  Put simply, today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions, and today’s solutions are destined to become tomorrow’s problems. 

In the mid-nineteen seventies, computer programmers working in assembly language were faced with small memories on their computing machines.  They solved the problem by making efficiency their mantra, minimising the amount of ‘core’ used to store transaction fields such as dates by storing only the significant digits of a date.  The solution became idiomatic and was applied well past the point in time of its origin and need, even in languages such as ForTran and COBOL.  Twenty-five years later, the storage problem’s solution of the sixties had become the biggest and most expensive problem in the history of computers—Y2K.  The 2-digit date problem represents a change in temporal scope—never in their wildest dreams had the programmers of the 60’s expected their software to still be executing three decades later.  In the same period, Moore’s law had demolished the need for efficient date storage. 

Domestic architecture illustrates this point graphically.  Every walled-in porch, extension through the roof and out into the backyard evidences the gradual transition of societal expectations of acceptable housing, as successive generations start to perceive the previous generation’s comfortable solution as a constraining and intolerable problem.  Recognising this continuum of problems and solutions affords a more informed view.  At any point in time, the configuration of a house, an airframe, an industrial machine or a software product architecture is at once a problem and a solution, depending on where you stand. 

Another problem with problems is that of knowing when the problem has been adequately defined.  Design problems are full of uncertainties, both about the goals of the design effort and their relative priorities.  Most of the time, the software designer cannot be sure that all relevant aspects of the problem have been discovered.  This makes the boundaries between problem specification, analysis, design and coding fuzzy, and accounts for a major motivation for iterative software development lifecycles.  Design theorists recognised this a long time ago.  Back in the late 1980’s Egon Schirmbeck and Robert Venturi were amongst the first to challenge the established notion that design was a discrete stage in a sequence from product conception, through design and manufacture to product delivery.  They recognised that the design process could change a project’s goals:

To avoid misunderstanding, it should be mentioned that there is no logical sequence of steps in design.  Revisions of the goals made in the beginning ultimately determine the design process.  Venturi even considers it legitimate to define the ultimate goal of a design only after one has backtracked to it during a modification (Schirmbeck 1987, p.2).

Problem definition and solution design are in constant tension.  The process of designing uncovers and emits new problem elements which can subsequently change, extend or even invalidate elements of the solution already designed.  Problem definition needs to be viewed as being in dynamic tension with solution definition.  Problem definition invites opening up questions of objectives, goals, scope and function, whereas solution definition attempts to freeze these negotiable elements in time and space.

There are still other ways that problem definition is problematic.  Problems are not always black-and-white.  Many problem characteristics are subjective and require a degree of interpretation.  Different designers or stakeholders in the design process typically interpret problems or problem characteristics differently.  Bryan Lawson, author of How Designers Think, gives an example of subjective interpretation.  The particular problem involves a passenger train service that is losing money and is destined for closure unless something is done.  An industrial designer proposes a solution involving the redesign of a buffet car, drawing on their transport and vehicle design skills.  An operations researcher designs a solution involving a re-scheduled timetable, based on information collected about the current users of the service and the travel demographics of the regions serviced by the train.  A graphic designer proposes a solution based on modernising the internal decor of the train and redeveloping the menu and bar service within the buffet car.  All solutions address an aspect of the problem, all are feasible and implementable, and all make a difference.  So which one is right? 

There is no objective or logical way of determining the right scope for a given problem; indeed, there are many possible scopes to be chosen from.  The decision is typically made largely on pragmatic (i.e. economic) grounds—power, influence, time and resources.  Today’s designers need to understand the importance of taking a systemic view of the part of the problem made visible in the design brief.  In particular, an experienced designer must trace the processes and systems implied or discovered within the scope of the brief or problem description to their end-points, to ensure they are fully understood.  Similarly, designers must ensure their solution does not invalidate a behaviour or assumption of the enclosing systems.  Where problems are concerned, context is everything. 

The best place to find guidance on how to recognise problems as manifestations of the behaviour of systems is Peter Senge’s ‘Fifth Discipline’, which spurred the Systems Thinking movement.  As for methods that claim to reliably ‘create successful outcomes to wicked problems’, well, they don’t and probably never will exist. 

Schirmbeck, Egon. (1987), ‘Idea, form, and architecture: Design principles in contemporary architecture’, Van Nostrand Reinhold (New York). 

Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency.

Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber.
Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
, pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]

Nicholas Gall, David Newman, Philip Allega, Anne Lapkin, Robert A. Handler. (2010), ‘Introducing Hybrid Thinking for Transformation, Innovation and Strategy’, Gartner, 13 April 2010, Number G00172065.

Postscript 17 Jan 2013: I recently discovered this blog on problem-centric thinking — well worth watching: