Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: the old Hegelian triad. But what’s that got to do with enterprise-architecture and the like?
Quite a lot, as it happens – though we might need to take a detour or two to get there, of course.
One point is that it’s not quite as simple as ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’. In the classic formulation, the antithesis is simply the negation of the thesis: it doesn’t really add anything, and the so-called ’synthesis’ is then little more than ‘the thesis after we’ve gotten the antithesis to shut up’, which doesn’t add anything much either. All a bit pointless, really.
So to make sense – to get some real value out of it – we need, as usual, to go back closer to the source. And as the Wikipedia page on Dialectic puts it:
Hegel did use a three-valued logical model that is very similar to the antithesis model, but Hegel’s most usual terms were: Abstract-Negative-Concrete. Sometimes Hegel would use the terms, Immediate-Mediated-Concrete.
The formula, Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, does not explain why the Thesis requires an Antithesis. However, the formula, Abstract-Negative-Concrete, suggests a flaw in any initial thesis—it is too abstract and lacks the negative of trial, error and experience. The same applies to the formula, Immediate-Mediated-Concrete. For Hegel, the Concrete, the Synthesis, the Absolute, must always pass through the phase of the Negative, that is, Mediation. This is the actual essence of what is popularly called Hegelian Dialectics.
In other words, the antithesis is not a negation of the thesis, but a challenge to the assumptions on which the thesis is based – which then leads to a synthesis that makes real practical sense. And that starts to look a lot more like enterprise-architecture.
Or, more precisely, in the business context, the three distinct roles of business-analyst, business-anarchist, and enterprise-architect.
Which might need a bit more explanation.
The business-analyst role is well-understood, I think. That’s the ‘thesis’ part of the triad, the Abstract, the Immediate. As the name suggests, it’s all about analysis, often about what can be seen in ‘the Now’, about order, certainty, honing the algorithms, defining the ‘best-practice’ methods for making decisions. It’s very good at enhancing efficiency through careful calculation; very good at doing things right.
The catch is that the real world is not just about efficiency, nor only about doing things right: it’s also about doing the right things, about bringing it all together to enhance overall effectiveness. And with analysis alone, it’s all too easy to create something that is extremely efficient at going off at full-tilt but in the wrong direction – which, in terms of its effectiveness (or lack of it), can easily be worse than doing nothing at all.
Which is why analysis alone is not enough.
Which is why we need those other two roles: the anarchist, and the architect.
The business-anarchist role is perhaps the least-understood of the three – certainly the least-popular, anyway. It’s the ‘antithesis’ part of the triad, the Negative, but also the Mediated. One of the key problems for analysis is that it’s entirely dependent on its assumptions: everything within that frame of assumptions would be valid enough if the assumptions are correct, yet analysis has no means within itself to test those assumptions, and make sure that they do indeed align with the real world of “trial, error and experience”. If no-one is willing to question the assumptions – or even admit that they are just assumptions – things can get kinda risky, or worse, very quickly indeed…
That’s a really crucial problem there, right at the core of all analysis; yet unfortunately it’s one that’s evaded all too often in a business context. And that’s especially true where the drive for ‘efficiency’ is allowed to override everything else. So if we’re going to get things to work well in the real world, we need some definite means to face those often rather unpalatable facts. And that’s where the business-anarchist role comes into the picture.
It’s an extremely important role, and also an extremely responsible one, too: namely, challenge every assumption. It’s not about ‘order’, but about ‘unorder‘ (to use Cynthia Kurtz’s valuable term). It’s about challenging, but it’s not negative, not merely challenging for the sake of challenging: it’s about creating space for mediation, for sensemaking in a deeper, more directed sense. It’s not just about doing things right, but also about being sure that we’re doing the right things, too, making sure that every assumption has a solid basis, so that the analysts can do their job well.
And the architect role is about bringing it all together again. It’s the ’synthesis’ part of the triad; but it’s also about the Concrete, about making things real, being effective – about doing the right things right in a concrete, practical way. It’s about bringing things together such that everything workswell together, responsive to change as required, and as a unified whole. Where the analyst takes things apart, and the anarchist takes apart the thinking that takes things apart, the architect brings everything together again, by resolving the fragmentation in new, more effective ways.
Some people seem to think that the architect role is rather abstract. But it’s not abstract at all, because the architect is responsible for bringing everything in scope to real, usable, useful completion in the real world. It’s not abstract: in many ways it’s perhaps the most concrete that anything can get.
And yes, it does indeed all start from the abstract. Sort-of.
Yet the point here is that this is also a triad: thesis, antithesis, synthesis; analyst, anarchist, architect. None of these roles stands alone: each depends on each of the others, always in dynamic tension with each other, dynamic balance: “the Concrete, the Synthesis, the Absolute, must always pass through the phase of the Negative, that is, Mediation”. And yet they’re also distinct and often very different roles. Tricky, that…
One way to resolve the architecture of that architecture is to have just one person doing all of those roles – after all, they’re different roles, not necessarily different people. But that can sometimes be quite a ‘big ask’, because each of the roles does demand different skillsets, different paradigms, even different worldviews – again, somewhat tricky. (It’s true, though, that the real ‘business analysts’ of the 60s, 70s and 80s used to do all of that, and many advocates of ‘design-thinking’ and the like would do much the same now. Most advocates of ‘real enterprise-architecture’, too.) But there are many different ways to do it, of course: “whatever works” is probably the best guideline here.
In a small organisation, or a country that has only a small pool of specialist staff, we might not have much choice, because there simply aren’t enough people around to do all the roles required – that was certainly my own experience in Australia over the past decade or so. By contrast, in a large organisations, we might well have the luxury to have separate jobs for separate roles. But whichever way we do it, we have to make sure that all three roles are adequately covered, are adequately supported, and that they do indeed work together in a unified way.
Analyst, anarchist, architect; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. What part(s) do you play in that triad, within your own work? And what happens if any part of it is missing, or out of balance, within your overall enterprise?
Over to you for comments and suggestions, perhaps?[Many thanks to Anthony Draffin for the initial Tweet that triggered the idea for this article. ]