Orders of Agility

Two weeks ago, Ruth Malan (@ruthmalan) of Bredemeyer Consulting and contributing author to the Cutter Consortium commented in her online journal (being maintained since 2006 and recommended!) that between the metaphor used by Tom Graves (@tetradian) in Agility Needs a Backbone and what I covered in Architecture and the Remainder of Design, there is a great way to talk about architecture and agility.

I agree. And more there is, there is definitely more to talk about…

In Architecture and the Remainder of Design and further comments, I argued that architecture provides an agility distribution instrument; that architecture is inherently not agile but simultaneously an instrument to push desired variation points out, to the boundary with or into agile territory.

Likewise it is an instrument to inhibit non-differentiating change, by burying the opportunity. Actually, to quote Dana Bredemeyer (@DanaBredemeyer), one can “prune the opportunity tree”. In Enterprise Agility, an Attempt to Get to the Bone I shortly covered the apparent paradox that agility also increases by reducing change, albeit the non-differentiating change, thereby leading to “leaner” structure. Clearly I am using the word “lean” here only as an adjective, a marker, no decorated meanings intended! Leaner structure is more coherent, carries less weight or — using a better word — mass, thus eases coordination, and so enhances the ability to move quickly and easily.

In fact, both “desired” and “non-differentiating” change options need to be addressed and to be brought in balance and that is what agility distribution is about. One could think that a start-up, with a small team and hardly any structure, with a lot of things happening by self-organisation (which in fact turns into structure too), is the summit of enterprise agility. But without much rigid structure, it is missing “non-differentiating” change being addressed, more often than not painfully experienced as soon as the start-up grows bigger and has to start fending off contenders. Simply put, there is hardly anything to balance the variability with. There is hardly any distribution that can be done. Thus no or little structure does not make agile! It offers plenty of room for change but hardly any quick and easy amplification of coordinated, directed change.

Indeed, Agility Needs a Backbone and it is architecture that can provide that, in fact architecture is that backbone! Of course, not withstanding all engineering (attempts), structure and the distribution thereof can be (partly) emergent. It may be what we simply find and often is. It may not be readily apparent, (partly) hidden in its complexity, something one can never be fully aware of, and not necessarily be well aligned with what is desired. But it will have specific quality characteristics nevertheless!

Much of the confusion about agility originates however from the unawareness of different orders of agility. All the above is not presenting the whole picture. What I tackled in Architecture and the Remainder of Design is about 2nd order agility, agility as a quality or state, the distribution of structure as it is that defines the rigid backbone and the set of variation points. The praises that for example the cloud receives is about 2nd order agility. But 2nd order agility in itself is useless if it is not aligned with and for a higher purpose: 1st order agility! If it is not, it simply adds to the non-differentiating change options and is counter-productive.

In explaining to the full extent what I mean with 1st and 2nd order agility, I would like to start with the framework described in the paper An Integrative Perspective on Information Management by Prof. Rik Maes (@hoogleerling), and which can be seen as an elaboration of the Strategic Alignment framework by Henderson & Venkatraman:

I have a particular interest in the structure layer that Prof. Rik Maes positions rightfully between strategy and operations.

The picture that I presented in Architecture and the Remainder of Design actually maps to these layers:

2nd order agility is represented by architecture and the remainder of, secondary, design. 2nd order agility determines the configuration set in support of 1st order agility.

1st order agility is change that can be performed abruptly while leaving competence intact. It represents the ready ability. It is agility that is embedded into the genes of the whole. There is no way to get outside the set that is provided. Even different combinations will bring no relief. But if the set does not suffice, there is still the choice of re-framing by changing structure so to change the set, hence by falling back on 2nd order agility. But doing so will come with a latency price tag, it will not happen abruptly and worse, will disrupt competence. If however structural agility distribution is handled well, it can still mean a world of difference: secondary design instead of architecture, with definitely superior latency. In fact regarding latency one could reasonably expect the following for an “enterprise” whole:

configuration → abrupt → seconds to months

secondary design → quick → months to years

architecture → slow → years to …

Many organisations neglect “real” enterprise architecture because it takes so long before benefits start to arrive — and thus much doubt exists if they will ever arrive — but surely miss grand opportunities: configuration and secondary design can never generate the abrupt or quick effect that they could potentially have. The backbone is lacking.

What is 1st order agility ultimately offering? Hopefully both strategic and operational agility. In a next round it determines the territory that can be explored for doing “right” things as well as the territory that can be exploited for doing things “right”. These round-trips ultimately determine how wholes, e.g. enterprises, are able to grow, improve and adapt over time, or collapse.

In effect:

Architecture has the potential to be the instrument to fixate the principles, either the aspiration for reliability in maintaining specific constants, or in maintaining specific variables, in a coherent manner.

So in conclusion: agility = structural agility (2nd order) + strategic agility (1st order) + operational agility (1st order). And architecture is the backbone.

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