[This essay is excerpted from
Chapter Five of Response
Ability The Language, Structure, and Culture of the Agile Enterprise,
John Wiley & Sons, 2001, 304 pages, Rick Dove]
Many parallels are being drawn between business and biological organisms, business and
ecology, business and chaos theory, business and ant hills, business and neurological
nets, and other complex, adaptive, self-organizing systems. However, simply referencing
the metaphorical links and then postulating a new business paradigm doesn't appear
successful in communicating anything to people with operational concerns.
business systems and most businesses are not ready for autonomous self-organization akin
to that in nature, yet they must become more adaptable. I don't like using words
like "ecology" to explain in shorthand the potentially rich and useful concept
of self-organization. For one, these soft-edged metaphors turn off a lot of hard-edged
business people who occupy a large portion of the organizational power structures -
especially in operations and manufacturing where monthly shipping targets are expected to
be met regardless of the circumstances. For another, nature has the patience and
resilience to absorb a lot of failed or marginal experiments that would terminate a
business enterprise. And besides, nature doesnt care who wins.
Most businesses are
not ready for
akin to that in nature.
Ten years of research indicates
that a business-system structure consisting of reusable
components reconfigurable in a scalable framework can be an effective base model
for creating adaptable systems. The nature of the framework appears to be a critical
factor. To illustrate this point and introduce the framework/component concept we will
look at three different types of construction toys; making observations about how they are
used in practice rather than what might be done with them in theory. Construction toys
offer a good metaphor because the enterprise systems we are concerned with must be
configured and re-configured constantly, precisely the objective of most, though not all,
I grew up in the age of the Erector Set. I watched my daughter grew up
with Lego. Both dominated the construction-toy market of their eras (Legos era
continues). Though my experience with Erector Set construction goes back to childhood,
seeing one on someone's living room rug doesn't call for hands on action the way Lego
does. You can build virtually anything over-and-over again with either; but there are
fundamental differences in their structures that give them different dynamic
characteristics. Both consist of a basic set of core construction components, and both
have a structural framework enabling connectivity of the components into an unbounded
variety of configurations.
One popular Erector Set kit featured a picture of a 2-foot high Ferris
wheel on the box cover. A current day collector/re-seller suggests on his web site that
few people ever completed or even attempted this pictured construction, though the
complexity was alluring. By (unfair) contrast, there have been massive whole-town
reproductions made from Lego. Perhaps it is the tedium of using nuts and bolts to connect
the construction components of Erector Set that inhibits large construction. Whatever the
cause, Erector Set is not as scalable in practice as Lego.
Modern day Erector Set kits can be purchased for constructing specific
things, like a small airplane that can be assembled in many different configurations. Lego
offers similar kits, and both toys include a few necessary special parts, like wheels and
cowlings, to augment the core construction components. Watch a child work with either and
you'll see the Lego construction undergoes constant metamorphosis, perhaps starting with
one of the pictured configurations, but then being reconfigured into all manner of other
imagined styles. With the Erector Set kit the first built model is likely to remain as
first configured in any one play session. Erector Set, for all its modular structure, is
just not as reconfigurable in practice as Lego.
Lego components are plug compatible with each other, containing the
connectivity framework as an integral feature of the component. A standard grid of bumps
and cavities on external component surfaces allow them to snap together into a larger
configuration. The Erector Set connectivity framework by contrast employs a
special-purpose intermediate sub-system used solely to attach one part to another - a nut
and bolt pair, and a 90 degree elbow. The components in the system all have many holes
through which the bolts may pass when one component is connected to another. When a nut is
lost a bolt is useless, and vice versa. When all the nuts and bolts remaining in a set
have been used, any remaining construction components are useless, and vice versa. All the
parts in a Lego set can always be used and reused, but Erector Set, for all its modularity, is not as reusable in practice
In contrast to both of these construction toys is the model-builders
kit. You can get one of these for an airplane, too. The finished glued-construction, or
maybe snapped-together, model will have a lot more esthetic appeal then the Lego or
Erector Set versions; but what it is is what
it will remain for all of time. The parts are not reusable, the construction cannot be
reconfigured, and one intended size precludes any scalability. A highly integrated system,
this construction kit offers maximum esthetic appeal for one-time construction use. The
accompanying figure depicts the essential differences of all three kits.
adaptive systems theorists speak of the vibrancy and adaptability that exists between the
borders of chaos and order. Too much order and nothing much happens in response to an
environmental change. Too much chaos and nothing much happens with coherency and purpose.
In our construction-toy examples the model-builders glued-together kit is highly ordered
with a single purpose in mind. The Erector Set, with its nuts and bolts connectivity,
allows connection to almost anything with a hole, while simultaneously making the
connection/part-interaction process tedious - often resulting in many simple constructions
with novel appendages - chaos is the result. Lego walks between, accommodating the
moment-to-moment whim and imagination of the user with a readily adaptable system.
The model building kit has a tight framework:
a precise construction sequence, no part interchangeability, and is highly integrated.
Erector Set has a lose framework that doesn't encourage interaction among parts, and
insufficiently discriminates among compatible parts. Each component in the Lego system
carries all it needs to interact with other components, and the interaction framework
rejects most unintended parts.
These construction toys are all "good" systems. But Lego is
the more adaptable. Lego is also the dominant construction toy of choice among our
pre-teen builders - who appear to value experimentation and innovation.
Fixed frameworks, no matter how enlightened, will become obsolete with
time, and restrict the applicability of systems they are meant to enable. Frameworks must
evolve. Part of the success of the Lego toy is due to a good initial framework design that
required virtually no evolution for many years. Recently, however, someone at Lego saw fit
to incorporate changes that brought motion and computer-programmed microprocessor control
to Lego constructions, a move sure to extend its popularity and use beyond what would have
been otherwise. The framework now includes an additional interface very different from the
physical bumps on the blocks: a radio link to a computer, and a specification for
downloading codes into a construction's microprocessor controller.
In subsequent essays we will explore how a framework/module architecture
and these ten design principles can be used to create highly response-able systems, and
agile enterprise. We will see that such systems and enterprises are composed of
loosely-coupled components whose reuse, reconfiguration, and scalability is both
constrained and enabled by the framework that binds them.