Technical Debt Is Not Debt; It’s Not Even Technical

Co-authored with Dr Paidi O’Raghallaigh and Dr Stephen McCarthy at Cork University Business School as part of my PhD studies, and originally published by Cutter Consortium’s Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practice on 22nd of July 2021

Take a minute and write an answer to the question, “What is technical debt?” Then read this article and reread your answer — and see if it still makes sense.

Technical debt is a common term in technology departments at every company where we’ve worked. Nobody explained technical debt; we assumed it was a fundamental property of the work. We never questioned our understanding of it until we discovered a paper by Edith Tom et al. entitled “An Exploration of Technical Debt.” Turns out, we didn’t understand it at all.

Now, one major concern in academia is rigor. Academics like to get deep into a topic, examine the nuances, and bring clarity. After thoroughly reviewing more than 100 seminal papers on technical debt, we saw it as an amorphous ghost, with enormous differences and inconsistencies in its use. Next, we began looking at it in practice, asking colleagues, ex-colleagues, and working technologists, but couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation for it there either. Ultimately, we went back to the original source to figure out the history — and get a sense of its evolution.

One thing that is agreed on: the term technical debt came from Ward Cunningham. Cunningham is the inventor of the wiki and a tech legend. In the early 1990s, his team was building a piece of financial software, and he used a metaphor from the world of finance to explain to his manager how the team was working. As he later explained in a paper at the OOPSLA conference in 1992:

A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite. Objects make the cost of this transaction tolerable. The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation, object-oriented or otherwise.

The metaphor quickly became part of standard technology discourse. Because the conference focused on object-oriented development, it took hold in that community. Popular tech authors such as Martin Fowler and Steve McConnell soon took it on, helping it become part of the broader language in software development. Today, the use of “technical debt” has become commonplace, from a mention in a single paper in 1992 to over 320 million results from a Google search as of July 2021.

Over time, Cunningham saw the term shift to signify taking a shortcut to achieve a goal more quickly, while intending to do a better job in the future. In 2009, dissatisfied with how the metaphor had mutated, he clarified the use of technical debt in a YouTube video. Cunningham disliked the notion that technical debt signified “doing a poor job now and a better one later.” This was never his intention. He stated:

I’m never in favor of writing code poorly, but I am in favor of writing code to reflect your current understanding of a problem, even if that understanding is partial.

But it was too late. By that time, the metaphor had outgrown his initial intent. It was out in the wild, excusing terrible decisions all over the globe. Technical debt now represented both debt taken on intentionally and the more insidious form, hidden or unintentional debt — debt taken on without the knowledge of the team. It had also moved past code and spread to areas as varied as technology architecture, infrastructure, documentation, testing, versioning, build, and usability.

Technical debt allows practitioners to look at tech delivery through the lens of debt. Is this an appropriate lens? Debt repayment has one vital characteristic: it is easy to understand. Debt repayment has three properties that are straightforward to grasp — principal amount, interest rate, and term (i.e., length of time to repay). But when comparing technical debt, there is no agreement on the principal, no agreement on the sum owed. There is no concept of an interest rate for technical debt because technologists individually evaluate each project as a unique artifact. Finally, term length isn’t a fixed concept in technical debt — in fact, Klaus Schmid even argues that future development should be part of the evaluation of technical debt.

Enormous effort and energy have gone into trying to calculate an accurate number for technical debt across many technology and academic departments. Unfortunately, trying to glue a direct mathematical representation to a metaphor seems to have failed. The idea of technical debt as a type of debt doesn’t hold up well in this light.

So is it technical? This depends on whether we consider only the originating action, or the consequences that follow. If an aggressor punches a bystander in the face, we consider not only the action of the aggressor (the originating action) but also the injury to the bystander (the impact of that originating action). Through this lens, technical debt can only be technical if we consider where it originates, as opposed to where it has an impact. Technologists take on the originating action; the business suffers the impacts of those decisions. Technical debt affects:

  • Competitiveness by slowing/speeding up new product development
  • Costs (short-term decrease/long-term increases in development cycles)
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Whether a company can survive

Once we realize that technical debt is a company-wide concern, we can no longer consider it technical, this label is too narrow and doesn’t communicate its significance. In fact, our current ongoing research shows that technical debt may even have an impact beyond the company, and we need to take an even broader view (its effect on society as one example). 

The most important takeaway: we must broaden our awareness of technical debt. In the same way that company executives examine financial cash flows and sales pipelines, we must communicate the consequences of taking on technical debt to this audience. Our most important challenge is to find a shared language to help business stakeholders understand the importance of unknown decisions made in technology departments.

Finally, look back at how you defined technical debt at the beginning of this article. Do you communicate the action or the impact? Is it suitable for a business audience? What is?

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If you would like to work in Workhuman with talented people on some of the most interesting challenges in technology and society, please contact me, or browse open roles here.

Thank you so much, Mark.


Buffet-Style Architecture

The New World of Public Self-Governance

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

— Attributed to Henry Ford


The tendency to cling to the past when predicting the future is clear throughout history. This is as true today as it ever has been. Even in the future-defining world of technology, people still cling to anachronistic ideas.

To get the structure of the business right, a company must reorganise itself around empowered teams that can operate at speed. For technology architecture to play a pivotal role, it must leave the old workhorses of the past behind and move to modern transportation. Indeed, architecture must refocus on three core principles: (1) accelerated change, (2) decentralised decisions, and (3) public self-governance.

Why Does Any of This Matter?

Recall these three promising businesses that crashed and burned in the midst of major technological change?

  1. At its peak, telecoms giant Nortel had almost 100,000 staff members and celebrated over 100 years of success. In 2009, it filed for bankruptcy.
  2. In 1988, Kodak celebrated 100 years of existence, buying Sterling Drug for US $5.1 billion; in January 2012, it, too, filed for bankruptcy.
  3. In 2008, social network Friendster had more than 115 million registered users and was among the top 40 visited sites on the Internet. It shut down all operations on 14 June 2015.

All three businesses attempted to transform far too late. In each case, the company clearly saw a disruptive change emerging in its path. Early on, each business thought that the disruption was merely a fad and that size and history would offer protection from it. Ultimately, they all failed.

The world has not been slowing down since these companies found themselves in trouble; it has been speeding up dramatically. In his essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil explains that “technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So, we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)”’

Kurzweil uses multiple cases to show that the evolution of technology is increasing at an incredible pace.

Incredibly Ray Kurzweil gave personal permission for use of the diagram above

The diagram above shows a good representative example, where computing power goes from the equivalent of an insect’s brain in the year 2000, up to a human brain’s in 2025, to all human brains by 2050. Supporting this type of exponential growth might be the single most important thing a company does for its survival. If a company can’t adjust quickly, it may have to shut its doors as new business strategies hand the advantage to competitors.

How Is EA Meeting This Challenge?

The answer to this question really depends on what “enterprise architecture” (EA) means. No single clear identity exists today for architecture in an enterprise. Indeed, the ISO/IEEE site lists 78 separate architecture groups with associated frameworks. These different groups aggressively defend their “one true answer,” recalling the poetic words of W.B. Yeats in “The Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

While inside the architecture community an argument over the best framework rages, to outsiders it resembles crows fighting over scraps at the dump. The winner is important to the crows and a few bystanders but relatively unimportant to the rest.

More important than architectural identity is understanding the value architecture brings today. The value of a sales division is clear: to bring in revenue; the finance division’s value is to manage the company finances, and so forth. A typical department knows its value proposition thoroughly. A member of a well-run department can explain its contribution in an elevator and still have time to discuss last night’s game before reaching the desired floor. However, it is rare for an architect to speak about architecture’s value to the company in clear business terms.

In the quest to uncover the value of architecture, academic research fares no better, showing that despite all expended effort, framework-based architectures have failed to deliver. Complexity and the increased rate of change in technology have transformed the business landscape, but architecture hasn’t kept pace. The following quotes from academia and industry groups provide some insight:

  • There exists no single comprehensive view of the ways an architectural practice might add value to an organisation. — Vasilis Boucharas et al.
  • Measuring EA effectiveness is often deemed difficult by both practitioners and researchers. — Wendy Arianne Günther
  • Useless at best, and harmful at worst. — Svyatoslav Kotusev

What Should Architecture Do?

Architecture should play a key role in creating the strategy for a digital business. But strategy alone is not enough. As famed organisational theorist Jeanne Ross notes:

“A great strategy is valuable only if a company is capable of executing that strategy. And whether or not a company can execute its strategy depends largely on whether it is designed to do so. In other words, it depends on business architecture — the way a company’s people, processes, systems, and data interact to deliver goods and services to customers.”

So, as we hinted to earlier, architecture must go deeper by focusing on three pillars: (1) accelerated change, (2) decentralised decisions, and (3) public self-governance.

The Three Pillars of Digital Architecture

1. Accelerated Change: Optimise for Speed

As we know, external change is happening at an exponential rate. This changes the speed of execution from a useful to a critical success factor. If companies aren’t readying themselves and getting their business architecture right today, they increase the chance of becoming irrelevant tomorrow.

Companies slow to change have always been at a disadvantage. My first-person experience of this comes from my time working at a small telecoms company in Ireland in the late 1990s, leading a team of three. Telecoms consumers began to ask for additional content, such as recommended listings, sports scores, and local weather. Providing this content meant that operators could charge more and increase revenue.

We spent five months building a new workstation platform that offered these new services and then flew to Nortel in Rochester, New York, USA, hoping to sell it. It turned out that a team of 50 people in Nortel had been working for two years to build the same platform and were nowhere near completion when we showed up. The key difference was that Nortel’s organisational structure slowed them down, while ours allowed us to move as fast as we could.

In the end, Nortel took so long in deciding whether to buy our software, we approached a telco directly and won the deal ourselves, in effect becoming a competitor. The world outside Nortel started to move faster than the world inside, but they didn’t notice until it was too late, contributing to the downfall of this once great institution.

Today, companies must reorganise quickly so that they can move faster, keep up with the external rates of change, and avoid becoming the new Nortel. Optimising for speed means shortening the time from idea to implementation — from lightbulb to lights on.

2. Decentralised Decisions: Power to the Teams

Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2006 causing fatalities, lost homes, and devastation in many towns and cities, including New Orleans, Louisiana. The agency with overall responsibility for disaster management was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Most agencies tasked with providing relief, FEMA in particular, did not do so adequately. The top-down chain of command was mostly useless when those on the ground needed to make immediate decisions. People felt disempowered and stifled by bureaucracy.

One notable exception was Walmart. Walmart shipped almost 2,500 truckloads of merchandise and medication to New Orleans before FEMA even began any relief efforts and provided trucks and drivers to community organisations. How was Walmart able to act almost immediately after the hurricane when the government agencies responsible for providing relief took days (sometimes weeks) to get to affected areas?

A key reason is Walmart’s decentralised decision-making. The company gives both regional and store managers authority to make decisions based on local information and immediate needs. As Hurricane Katrina approached, Walmart CEO Lee Scott sent a message directly to his senior staff and told them to pass it down to regional, district, and store managers:

“A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing”.

On the ground, Walmart staff turned stores into emergency sleeping quarters, set up temporary police headquarters, and, in one case, ran a bulldozer through a store to collect undamaged supplies and give them to those in need. People could make life-saving decisions because they didn’t need to wait for permission. They already had permission as part of their job.

Today, in a world of accelerating change, companies must empower teams like Walmart did. To achieve this, decentralising the decision-making process is vital – it empowers individuals and reverses bureaucracy, which is toxic to innovation. As world- renowned business thinker Gary Hamel and his coauthor Michele Zanini note in Harvard Business Review,

“Bureaucracy is the enemy of speed … bureaucracy is a significant drag on the pace of decision-making in their organization”.

So, how does architecture enable decentralised decision-making, reduce bureaucracy, and accelerate work? Public self-governance helps answer this question.

3. Public Self-Governance: From Governance Blockades to Buffet-Style Decisions

Traditional technology governance resembles theatre, where various stakeholders play parts in a process that makes the actors feel satisfied. The decided lack of applause from the enterprise is telling.

Governance committees decide centrally, causing delays in work and frustration to parties awaiting an outcome. They rarely have the same level of information as the team on the ground. Of course, the committees can request more details, but this only increases delays. Occasionally, they assume knowledge and rule on matters in semi-ignorance, acting like an unaccountable early European monarchs.

The book Accelerate discusses highly sophisticated and complex technology projects. In considering the usefulness of a change advisory board (CAB) or central approval process, the authors found that:

“External approvals were negatively correlated with lead time, deployment frequency, and restore time, and had no correlation with change fail rate. In short, approval by an external body (such as a manager or CAB) simply doesn’t work to increase the stability of production systems, measured by the time to restore service and change fail rate. However, it certainly slows things down. It is, in fact, worse than having no change approval process at all”.

A central approval process is akin to a restaurant with only one server. The server can handle a few tables. As the company grows, the number of tables also grows. The order queue gets bigger and diners face a longer wait. Eventually, diners are upset, the food gets cold, the server is exhausted, and ultimately quits. We need instead to move to a buffet model, where diners can serve themselves, the food is hot, and a smiling server is on hand in case anything additional is needed.

Enterprises must move away from the old model of centralised decision-making to a model of public self-governance. Away from monarchy and toward democracy, giving teams the knowledge and authority to make decisions in the open.

What Is Public Self-Governance?

Public self-governance is a simple process, where teams ask themselves three questions after first stating the purpose of the proposal:

  1. Is there a positive return?
  2. Is this a Type 2 decision?
  3. Is this easily reversible?

If all three answers are yes, then the team makes the answers available internally and begins work immediately. This process increases the speed of decision-making, increases autonomy within teams, and creates a culture for innovative ideas to blossom. Team members are more engaged, and both they and the company reap any rewards that materialise. Let’s break these questions down.

A. Is There a Positive Return?

This question concerns the business case and is merely asking whether the ROI is greater than the cost. This simple question, however, has a deep impact, helping people at every level of an organisation consider ROI as they dream up new proposals.

B. Is This a Type 2 Decision?

This question considers scope and comes from Amazon. Jeff Bezos, in his 2015 letter to shareholders, explained the two types of decisions within Amazon: Type 1 are high-impact choices, while Type 2 are lower-stakes choices that can be more easily reversed. Amazon leaves Type 2 decisions to its teams.

With public self-governance, an individual at any level can make a Type 2 decision, which provides autonomy and allows immediate action. Type 1 decisions are made by senior stakeholders with consideration of a wider set of factors (e.g., risk, business environment, company performance, alignment with strategic goals). Training individuals to distinguish Type 1 from Type 2 decisions is part of an enterprise’s learning journey.

C. Is This Easily Reversible?

This question concerns complexity. If a proposal needs integration into existing systems, or requires new data, complexity increases. The higher the level of complexity, the greater the work needed to reverse the action. To answer this question, one must break it down further and consider the following three categories:

  1. Data. Is the data protected? Can it be retrieved and/or deleted?
  2. Integration. Are integrations or custom development required? Is this work easily reversed?
  3. Users. How does removing the feature impact its users?

The answers to all public self-governance questions should be openly available within the company, and the architecture group should perform continuous retrospective reviews. If any issue arises, or if any of the three answers is no, the architecture group then becomes a partner, helping to generate a business case and thoroughly work through the proposal. This proactive approach allows other teams without issues to move forward with no delays.

Public self-governance requires a culture that encourages experimentation and is tolerant of failure. If something is easily reversible, then it is low risk. If it doesn’t deliver as expected (i.e., less value, higher cost, more complexity), it can be halted, with lessons noted, and everybody can then move on to the next decision.

Other Considerations

Financial Purse Strings

“Negotiating budget exceptions — often necessary when a company has to move quickly — was also impeded by bureaucracy” — Hamel and Zanini

In most companies, costs will also need finance approval. Bureaucracy costs money; therefore, it is cost effective to give blanket approval to all proposals below a set maximum amount.

Danger: Technologists in Control!

A word of warning: it is important to review answers to the public self-governance questions, continue an open dialogue, and support a learning culture. There is a difference between giving increased autonomy to technologists and abdicating any responsibility as a firm. The cautionary tale of Netscape should serve as a stark reminder of too much free rein given to technologists.

In 1995, the Netscape Navigator browser had over 80% of the market. Riding on this wave of success, Netscape began to rewrite the browser entirely, so it would support its newly created JavaScript programming language. Netscape intended to obliterate the all-conquering Microsoft, making Windows, according to Netscape VP of Technology Marc Andreessen, appear like a “poorly debugged set of device drivers.”

To the technologists in the firm, this was an obvious choice: rewrite the entire browser (i.e., the entire business) from scratch, removing old code and old bugs. It was just a matter of cleaning out the cobwebs to prepare for a new paradigm shift.

The full rewrite took two years — two years without new features, without meeting new customer needs, or dealing with competitive threats. By the time Netscape released its new Netscape Communicator browser, Microsoft Internet Explorer was everywhere, and Windows was the desktop platform of choice. Meanwhile, Netscape’s market share slid irreversibly, from close to 90% in 1995, dropping to 5% by the end of 2001. Netscape went from total dominance to a vague footnote. Plus, in an ironic twist, the new browser was buggy and slow compared to the old version.

AOL ended up purchasing Netscape in early 1999, and, by 2003, the company disbanded altogether, an ignominious end to what had looked like a brilliant future only eight years earlier. Here, Andreessen made a major decision solely on a technology basis. Referring to the public self-governance form, this was a Type 1 decision made as if it were Type 2. Netscape should have considered an array of factors, including risks, business strategy, and competitive threats. Ignoring these factors ultimately caused its demise.

As we see in the Netscape example, judgment is still necessary in making good quality decisions. Using public self-governance allows a business to scale its decision-making, but a business must also reinforce the learning culture so that staff members understand how to categorise their proposals and make better decisions.

Conclusion

To survive in this digital age, architecture must change. The old monsters of heavyweight governance, centralised authority, and long wait times are impediments in this new arena. Public self-governance breaks up decision hierarchies and speeds up technology decisions in the organisation. It encourages a business to move faster. This will have an enormous impact, allowing companies to adjust quickly to customer needs, changes in technology, and emerging business models. Public self-governance is a necessary step in setting a business up for success in this new era.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with three people who would appreciate it. Thank you so much.

This article originally appeared in Vol. 32, No. 9 of Cutter Business Technology Journal


To maximise or to satisfice, that is the question: the 3 lies beneath rational decision making

“Still a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest”

Paul Simon — The Boxer

I’ve yet to meet a person who claims to be irrational. Everyone is convinced that they make rational decisions — this idea is at the core of theories in economics, organisations, and technology. When faced with a decision, a rational decision maker:

  1. Defines the opportunity/problem
  2. Lists all the constraints (time, budget, resources etc)
  3. Searches for all solutions
  4. Chooses the solution that gives the maximum benefit

According to Stanford Professor James G. March’s A Primer on Decision Making, this model of decision making is called a maximisation

The idea of maximisation, the concept of a rational decision maker is based on 3 lies.

The first lie is that we can predict the future, that we can know every possible solution in advance. This is absurd — no-one can see into the future.

The second lie — we can predict how we will feel in the future about a benefit or consequence. The feeling we get after an event is rarely the feeling we had expected beforehand. To quote tennis great Andre Agassi from his autobiography.

‘Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last long as the bad. Not even close.’

The last lie is the biggest one of all — that we have the time and brainpower to search for every potential solution that exists. The first problem here is a lack of time. If we fully worked out each decision we had to make in our lives, we would have no time for anything else. The courses of action are infinite. A minor change at one level can unleash a butterfly effect of consequences for every level below. The second problem concerns our brainpower. We are incapable of comparing complex outcomes because we suffer from problems of:

  1. attention — too much noise
  2. memory — our limited capacity to store information
  3. comprehension — difficulties in organising, summarising and using information
  4. communication — different people (cultures/generations/professions) communicate information in different ways.

Because of these limitations, we simplify decisions by:

  1. replacing the problem we face with a simpler one
  2. decomposing problems to their component parts and solve these, hoping to solve the full problem by doing so.
  3. seeking patterns and then following rules we have previously established instead of looking for new possibilities
  4. narrowing the problem to a ‘frame’ — narrowing the decision choices available for selection. Frames come from early individual experience, recent frames used come from friends, consultants, and writers.

The legendary Herbert Simon tells us that instead of using a rational strategy, most decision makers ‘satisfice’. This means we compare alternatives until a ‘good enough’ solution is found, then we choose that option. If there is a better alternative, we rarely chose it because we stop thinking about that decision and move on with life. We often fool ourselves into thinking we are maximisers — finding the best solution after an exhaustive search. In reality, we are more likely to satisfice, and move onto the next item on our agenda.

In organisations, situations become more complex. A decision may involve a group of people. The process may continue for a predetermined time, rather than stop when a satisfactory outcome is reached. There may be situations (usually simpler decisions) where the organisation maximise.

To quote March:

“Decision makers look for information, but they see what they expect to see and overlook unexpected things. Their memories are less recollections of history than constructions based on what they thought might happen and reconstructions based on what they now think must have happened, given their present beliefs.”

We think we make sound decisions, but in reality our ability to be rational is bounded by the constraints of time and cognition. We are not rational creatures.


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with three people who would appreciate it. Thank you so much.

This piece has also been published by the Cutter Journal here under the title ‘The 3 Lies of Maximization’


Are you foolish enough to innovate?

“Stay hungry, stay foolish” — Steve Jobs

How can you make a great breakthrough? How can you start the next era-defining business, write the next great song, create the next political movement? To do any of these, you must be more innovative. So where do you start?

Legendary Finnish architect Eero Saarinen sat one morning staring at a broken grapefruit peel, the remains of his breakfast. He was in the middle of an enormous project, designing a new airport for one of the world’s great cities — New York. Staring at the fruit peel, a vision suddenly grabbed him. He would design the airport shaped like a split grapefruit peel. One of the most groundbreaking pieces of architecture — the TWA terminal at JFK airport — was the result.

By Roland Arhelger — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46423333

So, how did Saarinen do it? He took on an idea that would have seemed ludicrous to most — something outside the ordinary. How do we follow Saarinen’s lead?

In the seminal book ‘A Primer on Decision Making‘ — Stanford Professor James G. March tells us that there are the three ingredients in a company needed for innovation: slack, luck and foolishness.

Slack is the difference between the outcome chosen, and the best possible outcome (say a successful product sold 1 million, but could have sold 10 million with a different decision). In an organisation, more slack means more innovation. How do you know if there is slack in your company? If you continually exceed targets, you are in the right place. Beware, slack can change. When performance in an organisation exceeds aspirations, slack accumulates, and when performance decreases, slack decreases. 

Luck is necessary for successful innovation. Luck can come in many guises, the right timing, a breakthrough in a related industry, new staff creating the ‘right’ chemistry in a team. Because innovations which provide breakthroughs are difficult to identify in advance — a very promising idea can fail miserably — some level of luck is necessary for an innovation to take hold.

Foolishness produces major innovations. It is the most important ingredient. Ordinary ideas don’t make great breakthroughs, an ordinary idea preserves the existing state of affairs. Organisations need to support foolish ideas even if they have a high probability of failure. This requires a high tolerance for risk and a culture that promotes innovation over conformity.

As someone in an organisation, what can you do to be more innovative? There are three things — you must:

  1. favour high-quality information over social validity
  2. understand your risk tolerance
  3. be foolish.

People in an organisation seek social validity over high-quality knowledge, according to March. Organisations are social systems, all social systems require a shared understanding of the world. In any organisation, there are ambiguities in meaning exists between people. Different people have different interpretations of reality. These ambiguities and interpretations threaten the social system. To combat this threat, mechanisms emerge to create a shared understanding among all participants. We

  • edit our experience to remove contradictions. 
  • seek information to confirm decisions.
  • forget disconfirming data.
  • remember previous experience as more consistent with present beliefs than was the case.
  • change beliefs to become consistent with actions.

A preference for vivid stories emerges, with lots of detail (which is often irrelevant). This allows people to process lots of extra information. The amount of information processed increases confidence, it does not increase accuracy. Beware of detailed stories — these stories give the decision makers what they want — to see the world with more confidence rather than more accuracy.

Every innovator takes risks. To get more innovative results, you must take some level of risk. It’s important to understand your risk appetite when making any decision — it is driven by:

  1. Personality — your natural trait towards risk taking
  2. Reaction — your ability to take variable levels of risk depending on the situation. Decision makers are more risk averse when the outcome involves gains, and more open to risk when it involves losses.
  3. Reasoned choices — you may make a reasoned choice depending on the situation. For example, if you need to finish first in a contest it requires a very different approach than creating an internal partnership with another department.
  4. Reliability — risks taken are affected unconsciously because of unreliability. The situation may suffer from a lack of knowledge, breakdown in communication, trust, or structure. The greater the ignorance, the greater the variability of outcome, the greater the risk.

Finally, for innovation to occur, you need to be foolish. So, what does foolish mean in this context? Innovative ideas take a concept that flies in the face of ‘common knowledge’ and transforms everything around it. However, there is great social pressure in organisations to create a feeling of safety for all and proceed with ideas that give a ‘comfort level’ across the whole group. Anything outside this is considered foolish. A simple check on your idea is — if it doesn’t seem foolish to others, chances are that it’s not likely to be a bold enough vision. A true innovator is treated as a fool when they propose a breakthrough — as the following famous examples show:

  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” — workers whom Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist in his project to drill for oil in 1859
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates response to his urgings for investment in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

It is easy to be a cynic and costs nothing to criticise. It is hard to be an innovator. First off — you need to be conscious of how you make decisions. You must be in a supportive organisation. You must take risks and appear foolish to some people. Pray for some luck.

But what is life for, if not to try? Life is to be lived, and every brilliant innovation comes from a person just like you. How many innovations have we lost because it was easier not to rock the boat, because it was easier to listen to the crowd, easier to do what we have always done before. We must grasp the nettle and fight the urge to be safe.

As Irish playwright Samuel Beckett famously said — “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with three people who would appreciate it. Thank you so much.


How Technology Architects make decisions

Or why you might spend a fortune on a red car

Chinese translation available here

The remarkable Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 and the Turing Medal in 1975. Reading about his life gives me a panic attack when I consider how little I have achieved in comparison. He published ‘Administrative Behaviour’ in 1947, and I started reading it in 2021. I started by treating it as a relic of World War II era business, a history book. I was quickly filled with horror as Simon explained business, thinking and decision making in ways which seemed obvious after reading them, but I had never even thought of. I immediately felt weak. I felt like a total imposter. How had I never read Herbert Simon before? Why had nobody told me? It panicked me for days. I managed to drop a reference to the book into every meeting for weeks. That practice soon calmed me down, it turns out almost no-one I know had read it either.  

Early in the book, Simon talks about how each department in an organisation has one job. They take in information and turn it into decisions which are executed (either by them or another department). He introduces the concept of Bounded Rationality – how it is impossible to evaluate an almost infinite set of possibilities when making a decision. Instead we must chose a smaller ‘bounded’ set of assumptions to work within. 

Back in the actual world of architecture, I have always boiled the job down to either a) making decisions or b) provide information to help others make decisions. I’ve only ever had a vague sense of how architects make decisions, even though its been my job for the majority of my career.

In a fantastic paper published in 2014, “EA Anamnesis: An Approach for Decision Making Analysis in Enterprise Architecture”, Georgios Plataniotis, Sybren de Kinderen and Henderik Proper explain the importance of capturing decisions made about architecture. They go further, arguing that capturing the reasons for a decision and alternatives considered is just as important. Documenting the rationale when a decision is made gives it context, explains the environment at the time, and helps inform future decisions. 

The paper describes four strategies used to make Enterprise Architecture decisions. Each decision is an attempt to decide on the best alternative among competing choices. They split decision types into the following buckets :

  • Compensatory. This type of decision considers every alternative, analysing all criteria in low-level detail. Criteria with different scores can compensate for each other, hence the name. There are two types here:
    • Compensatory Equal Weight – criteria are scored and totalled for each potential option, the option with the highest total signifies the best decision. 
    • Compensatory Weighted Additive (WADD) – here a weighting is given for a criterion to reflect significance (the higher the weighting, the higher the significance). The weighting is multiplied by the score for each criterion, then each alternative is summed, the highest total winning. 
  • Non-Compensatory. This method uses fewer criteria. The two types are:
    • Non-Compensatory Conjunctive – alternatives that cannot meet a criterion are immediately dismissed, the winner is chosen among the survivors. 
    • Non-Compensatory Disjunctive – an alternative is chosen if it complies with a criterion, irrespective of other criteria. 

Say you were buying a car, and you had the following criteria: fuel efficiency, colour, cost, and ease of parking (as scored below). 

CarFuelColourCostParkingTotalFuel x2 Weighted Total 
Car A9Black64191828
Car B6White105211227
Car C4Grey41018822
Car D1Red1810211

The four strategies might look like this: 

  1. Compensatory Equal Weight – in this case you pick the highest unweighted total – Car B
  2. Compensatory Weighted Additive – because you drive long distances, you apply a double weighting for fuel mileage and pick the highest weighted total – Car A 
  3. Non-Compensatory Conjunctive – because you live in a city, you discard any car that isn’t easy to park (at least 7/10). This leaves a choice between C and D you chose the highest score between them – Car C 
  4. Non-Compensatory Disjunctive – you fall in love with a red car – ignore everything else – Car D

Compensatory decisions are suitable when time and resources are available to   

  • gather the right set of alternatives, 
  • evaluate each alternative in detail
  • score each with consistency and precision. 

Non-Compensatory decisions are necessary when

  • there is time stress
  • the problem is not well structured  
  • the information surrounding the problem is incomplete
  • criteria cant be expressed numerically
  • there are competing goals
  • the stakes are high
  • there are multiple parties negotiating in the decision. 

A level of pragmatism is important when choosing a decision strategy. Using Simon’s concept of bounded rationality, compensatory decisions can never be fully worked out. Some level of assumptions are necessary, otherwise the work needed to make every business decision is almost infinite. However, within a set of ‘givens’ (given we need to decide by Friday, and given budget is x, and given resources available are y, and given etc) the weighted additive method (WADD above) has proven effective in my experience. The framework forces decision makers to consider each alternative clearly, as opposed to a clump of criteria mashed together. It also forces all parties to agree a set of weights, helping the group agree on the hierarchy of importance. These processes improve communication between parties, even when they disagree on the choices of criteria and weights. 

A strange magic happens during negotiation of the scoring, as parties try to force their choice. The mental mathematics going on inside heads is a dizzying. I have witnessed all types of behaviour, from people determined there be no change, to an exec wanting an inflight magazine article to form the basis for all future strategy, to a head of a business unit wanting us to use his nephews school project as part of the solution, all the way to one mid 40s executive, who got so annoyed with the debate, that he started jumping up and down and stamping his feet because he wanted his decision, and “that’s what I’ll get”. 

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Since first posted, this article has been subsequently published by Architecture and Governance magazine here


What we Can Do during this uncertain time

This is an unprecedented time in life. It feels like the usual world has paused. I was working in Florida last week when the seriousness of Covid19 hit me. Texts, email, media posts from everywhere came flooding in. Somebody told me that the US were stopping all flights to Europe. I froze when I heard this. My family were 5,000 miles away. Flights to Ireland didn’t stop, but I worried every second about the possibility not seeing my two little boys until I landed back in Dublin. They didn’t seem to be so concerned about me; they were aggressively interested in how long they would have to wait to get their presents. My wife was happy enough to see me until she got her gift. “Is this all you got me, a book? They sell these in Ireland, you know”. I was thrilled to be back home.

Even after I came home I spent days worrying, trying to figure out what was happening with the Coronavirus. Had I bumped into an infected person? Was the restaurant table at the airport laboratory clean as I would expect? Was I already infected? Would the kids be ok? What about my parents? Would we have enough food if the shops closed? I felt totally overwhelmed.

I had a sharp realisation. The situation with Covid19 is happening and I can’t change it. I can try to help those around me, but I’m powerless to change the global situation.

I can choose how to react. I am choosing to find the opportunity in it.

Soon the virus will be under control, and the world will be back to normal. A slightly new normal perhaps, but normal all the same.

I won’t spend the time over the next few months gossiping, trying to predict what happens. I won’t spend it scrolling through endless social media posts. I won’t spend it passive aggressively arguing about pseudo science with my wife (“ok so you’re an epidemiologist now Mark“). Instead, I’m determined to put in place a routine where I can learn so I become better at something every day.

For the next 2 months I will spend 60 minutes every day on something which improves my life for the better.

I will research and write an academic paper on decision making in Technology Architecture. As I am working from home for the next few weeks, I will use the time I’d have spent commuting. This new knowledge will help me improve the work-lives of every customer we have at Workhuman. It will also make me a better technologist for the rest of my career.

Please find one thing for you to do.

Pick one thing that would alter your life. Is it a new skill, a skill that will help others, a passion that you’ve not had time for?

You can learn to program, begin an exploration of Jazz or Classical Music. You can write a blog, an article, a book. You can read a self-improvement book, take a course in Coursera, or indulge a passion almost forgotten for years. Maybe you’d like to learn how to ride a unicycle.

Find something to do and tweet at me. I will tweet every morning. Lets give each other support in this time to improve the world. @markgreville #ChooseOpportunity

Lets take care of each other and stay positive where possible. Together we are stronger.