6 years, 9 months ago

Designing for Emergence

The world around us is becoming more complex, it is almost accelerating away from us. Being able to plan in this ever evolving world is becoming even more difficult as time passes.  New technology, and approaches almost appear daily, which makes planning for these events, almost impossible.

Linear approaches to design are no longer the right thing to do in this ever moving world. Human needs are changing almost daily due to the changes in the economy, and advances in technology.

The irony is that organisations have stayed static, the business, which is exposed to the customer through the various engagements needs to be agile, but yet the organisation, which delivers the abilities still appears to be static.

We don’t want to be late to the party with a solution, when everyone else has already changed

Organisations still attempt to force best practices, and approaches, almost forcing constraints in the system, which hinders innovation, and forces organisations to be linear.

Standards, and constraints are forced onto the organisation by architecture, and various change teams, which tell employees how they should design various perspectives, which almost hinders the ability for great ideas to naturally emerge.

So the question is, how does the organisation respond to the challenges of emergence, but yet still keep order to the system, and at the same time somehow allow for great ideas to emerge.

To understand where we are going,we need to know where we have been.  So lets describe the role of standards, and what they aim to do.

Architecture standards and practices

Organisations have almost become like mini countries, with vast amounts of complexity, and diverse approaches.  The amount of history, which exists in organisations results in vast duplication, and makes change incredibly complex.

For this reason organisations invest heavily in architecture practices, which ensures that the environment is understood, and can be consistently managed.

As an architect/designer a significant amount of my time is spent documenting the various policies, and standards, which the organisation will have to adhere to, when defining, and managing specific organisational artifacts. These standards are also used as the basis of reviewing the work that people produce on a day to day basis.

Now as you read this, you are probably thinking, “if the organisation is following all these standards everything must be in control, and we should have no issues”.

All situations are not created equal, different situations require different responses, and approaches

The reality is no, in most cases standards are introduced into chaotic environments, and force people to change. The natural reaction of people is to rebel, particularly when the environment has no order in the first place.

round_hole_square_peg_text_11361Most failures in this area are due to architects being unable to sense their environment, and almost forcing a best practice on an environment, which is not ready to accept such order.

Very quickly architecture is seen as a hindrance, and people do their best to avoid all interactions with the architecture teams, they are seen as academics, who are out of touch with the needs of the organisation.

Forcing of standards has almost stifled innovation, due to the extent constraints have been applied across organisations. Now before anyone shouts, I am not suggesting we remove all constraints, as they are an essential part of our lives, however we need to be mindful on how we use them. If we want things to naturally grow in the system, we must apply constraints, which are smart, allowing innovation, and human creativity to naturally occur.

The question is how can we achieve this.

How do we create environments where new things emerge from the chaos that exists, and order can emerge, where the good emerging things are retained, and fostered as a standard.

 Crowd Sourcing

The term crowd sourcing was coined in 2005 about how businesses were using the Internet to outsource work to individuals. In simple terms it is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

crowdsourcing-cartoonRather than task specific employees with the daunting task of coming up with an idea, which then has to be sold to a wider audience, crowd sourcing encourages the wider audience to collaboratively come up with the idea naturally, which ensures the idea is almost immediately adopted.

When applying these approaches to design, significant time is reduced, and also costs, due to ideas provided almost daily.

The other interesting benefit is the types of ideas, which emerge from these groups, and the value they bring.  Adopting this approach provides ideas, which we could never have imagined on our own, and offers us totally new ways of working.

 Through connections, we are able to watch, and spot new emerging behaviours

Creating connections, and networks of people will allow us to take advantage of the knowledge of diverse groups, which will end up creating real value.

However we still some how need to create that consistency, which organisations still strive for.


One of the other values of architecture is the standardisation of terms. These terms describe the key organisational aspects, such as business capabilities, business processes, people etc.. The relationships between these terms is also something, which architecture spends significant time defining.

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In simple terms, we define what the various bits of lego are (naming, and structure), and which pieces are allowed to connect to other types of lego. These are the simple constraints in the system, which must remain, as it is these, which allow for consistency.

Combining an open source approach, with architecture will enable innovative things to naturally, and consistently emerge

It as this point is where the change should occur.


Adopting an open source type approach, would provide users with a blank canvas, almost using the terms defined by architecture as the lego to be creative with.  New viewpoints will naturally emerge, which can be retained by architecture, standardised, and put back into the system for people to use on a daily basis.

New viewpoints, and approaches will be adopted by the wider organisation, and only the viewpoints, which add value will be used on a daily basis.

Very quickly order will naturally occur in the system, due to the wider organisation contributing to the design.

The “So What” moment

Customer needs are changing daily, organisations need to be adaptive, and also creative to develop the new abilities, which businesses need to meet the demands of their customer’s. Linear thinking to design is no longer the answer, new ideas must emerge naturally, but then implemented in parallel.

No longer can we force constraints into the system, we must use these in a smart way, which ensures a standard is followed, without hindering the creativity, which is required in the new competitive world.

The more complex the problem, the more help you need.

Organisations are already starting to adopt a variety of collaboration, and knowledge management tooling.  By changing the cultural behaviour the real benefits of these tools can be realised.

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Through diverse teams collaborating together the organisation will then be able to define new viewpoints, and possibly new abilities, which offer the customer more innovative solutions.

The architecture teams introduce order into the organisation, but it is an order which naturally occurs, as the employees of the organisation are collaboratively working together to define the viewpoints, which offer them the most value.

This on its own is probably one of the most significant changes for architecture, but there are a few others worth mentioning.

  •  Improved customer engagement – New ideas, and abilities emerge naturally due to the organisation having a platform to create new solutions in a consistent way.
  • Order naturally emerges – New ideas which emerge, can be fostered by architecture, and put back into the system, which starts to bring a usable standard
  • Acceleration of ideas – Open source approaches to solving problems, will speed up the idea process, which will create new views, and innovative solutions.
  • Architecture relevance – Architecture starts to become a key collaborator in the wider organisation, which enables it to be successful.
  • Innovative business models – New ideas captured in diverse communities will result in the creation of brand new business models, which would not have been possible following traditional approaches.
  • Achievable and relevant standards –  Standards, which are defined are relevant to the environment due to the views, which naturally emerge.
  • Informed data – Data from open source networks, will enable architecture to spot new behaviours, and standards which are emerging. This will also help gauge how maturity in the organisation is naturally evolving.

This post is probably a stretch, but I think the real value of an organisation is the knowledge, and skills of the people within it. To enable consistency, but also allow for great ideas to emerge, we must give the wider organisation a platform to be successful.

In the top-performing companies it is a norm that colleagues support one another’s efforts to do the best work possible.

Architecture can play a significant role, through providing the terms, and tools to make this possible. This is probably a new birth for the profession, as no longer will we force standards, we will leverage social networking, and collaboration tools, to enable us to stay closer to our users, allowing for achievable standards to emerge, by grabbing the opportunities as they arrive through listening, and watching.


  1. Meta Model Image, Nick Malik / EBMM
  2. Quotes, and article background, Tom Hulme/IDEO