Why did you do that?

One part of my day to day life is that I research into areas and try to make sense of them, often against the clock. I’m either good at it, or the fool, because I’m frequently asked to do it.

To be honest “making sense of them” actually means deciding if what I’m looking at is suitable & beneficial, be it a technology or solution that my organisation could derive value from, or on the OU module I’m currently taking it’s more about how I can usefully use what I am learning about.

The thing about trying to make sense of something of interest is that its not just understanding it and how useful it could be, its about being able to articulate that to others, and it’s only when you try to communicate your understanding that you actually realise how little you actually do understand.

It’s interesting when presenting to others to see the various prejudices that are carried along with peoples thinking, which is generally made visible in the challenges that come back. Geoffrey Vickers came up with the idea of the Appreciative System which really applied to understanding why people think the way they do, which in turn means looking at their past and what events and values have shaped that view (their “Appreciative Setting”). So run back in history & see the key events and learning that someone, or a group, has been through and you can start to understand why they are thinking like they are and thus why you’re getting the specific challenges.

I’d suggest the same methodology would be well applied to some artifcacts as well. When I analyse a solution or technology, I often find things that at first glance leave me asking “Why on earth is it like that?”. A good example here is a project I’m working on around a major ERP deployment. One option we have is very mature with a large market presence running into hundreds of thousands of sites worldwide. Look underneath the covers at the way it works in some places, especially the integration between modules, and you find a regular muddle that makes little or no sense at first glance, indeed it almost suggests a lack of architectural governance. And speaking of the architecture, it also looks very strange in these days of objects and service oriented architecture.

Of course, at that point trying to present this to colleagues I got the same responses from them, and these unanswered challenges leave a feeling that doesn’t help with trying to present a benefits case. You end up with a senior exec saying “How can it be good for my business when everybody around you has these questions (that I don’t actually understand) that you can’t answer?”

Now try to use something like an appreciative system and run back through history – the integrations didn’t all come about at once, they appeared over time and in some cases represent the state of the art at that moment. Secondly they were probably developed in phases, so some represent must-haves that had to delivered in a first wave as quickly as could be done, later phases probably had the benefit of more time. And when you have a global base of that size, the cost & risk of rewriting older technology code to a newer technology just doesn’t make sense. These are conjecture on my part initially, but I can now ask questions to confirm or disaffirm my thinking.

I had a similar experience looking recently at the C++ language, based on some technical developments being done at Microsoft that could impact our development team. As a BCPL man myself, C++ looks way OTT: types on variables? objects? the referential model? Yuk! But then I found a paper written by Bjarne Stroustrup about the background and the design decisions made when evolving C++ and a lot became much clearer, as did positioning why you would want to use C++ in soem case and not in others.

In both cases, knowing why something has been delivered the way it has helps me to put it into context. No longer am I looking at face value and making decisions on that alone, but by tracking the past decisions I get an understanding of what underlies how what I’m looking at came to be, and that way I can make more sense of it.

The problem then comes in making compromises, as a strategist I want to reduce complexity and go for purity wherever possible. Yet in understanding as much of “Why?” as I can, I then understand where and why I need to make compromises on that. Fundumentally I move the messy problem from the technical domain over towards the business domain which can only be a good thing

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One response to “Why did you do that?

  1. Hi Russell
    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think it is a really useful reminder that when we speak of understanding the “context” of something that is not just about the context of here and now but the historical context too. Everything is what it is because of what it has been. I like the links you made to Vickers work too.
    Thanks
    Helen

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