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Zone of Chaos

December 3, 2008

The “edge of chaos” doesn’t exist in my world. Yes, I know it is only a metaphor, but I don’t think it is a very helpful one. The reason became obvious in a conversation I was having yesterday.

A government client is developing a massive information system to support a wide variety of functions. Old processes work in silos, abuse customers, are difficult to maintain, expensive to upgrade, and out of compliance with federal regulations. The vision is to create a system that is reliable and flexible, secure and accessible, coherent and optimized for individual functions, available to a wide network of users and tightly controlled, easy for newcomers and efficient for experts. In short the goal is to create an information environment that is simultaneously tightly and loosely constrained. Both technical and business experts wish there were an edge of chaos upon which they could build a system, but try as they might, no edge is in sight.

The business architecture, developed over the previous months, will help them navigate their way. Roger Sessions’ SIP methodology established a framework for quasi-independent, controlled interaction agents for business functions—ABCs (http://objectwatch.com/.) The current question is how to move this conceptual business design into a workable technical architecture and implementation platform.

We have been brought in to support the transformation of the human system as the information system moves through its various phases of development and implementation. If the technical solution is messy, you can imagine how much more messy the human beings and their constructs are. The meeting yesterday was a perfect example—business and technical leaders are working out fundamental assumptions and approaches. One of the key questions is whether the project will be managed as a single unit—built or outsourced—or whether it will be managed as a suite of complementary modules. Two points of view emerged. The one focuses on stability, security, risk reduction (or displacement), and ease of management. The other strives for the same things, but also adds adaptability, sustainability, and business fit into the mix.

The conversation began with a gulf between the two perspectives and the personalities that supported each. As we listed pros and consequences of greater and lesser constraint, the gulf narrowed to a line, and the line quickly morphed into a zone. Using the construct of adaptive action, the group drafted decision criteria for when to apply which approach. At various points, the conversation threatened to digress into philosophical debate. At those junctures, I suggested that we frame the dilemma and address it further when we have a specific, grounded situation in hand. I find that real work often clarifies the essentials and marginalizes the rest, so options for action become clearer in the concrete specifics.

On Monday we have an all-day meeting with business and technical stakeholders in the room. Again the questions of over- and under-constraint will shape our conversation. Again we will define the extremes and the practical zone of action that lies between. If we were thinking of this challenge as an edge, I think we would all be destined to fail. I will let you know how it goes.

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