Eight to Late

The architect and the apparition – a business fable

with 7 comments

Sean yawned as he powered down his computer and stretched out in his chair. It was nearly 3 am and he had just finished proofreading his presentation for later that day. He didn’t remember ever being this tired; a great deal of effort had been expended over the last three months but it had been worth it. Now, finally, he was done.

He gazed down at the beautifully bound document on his desk with a fondness that lesser mortals might bestow on their progeny.

“That’s a fine looking document you have there,” said an oddly familiar voice from right behind his chair.

“Wha..,” squeaked Sean, shooting out of his chair,  upending his coffee mug in the process.

He grabbed a couple of tissues and dabbed ineffectually at the coffee stain that was spreading rapidly across the front of his brand new chinos.   “Damn,” he cursed as he looked up to find himself face-to-face with someone who looked just like him – right down to the Ralph Lauren shirt and Chinos (minus the unseemly stain).

“Pardon me,” sputtered the apparition, giving in to a fit of laughter. “That’s funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time, a scene worthy of million YouTube hits. You should’ve seen yourself jump out the chair and…”

“Pardon my rudeness, but who the f**k are you?” interrupted Sean, a tad testily. Who did this guy think he was anyway?  (Lest you get the wrong idea, Sean didn’t normally use expletives, but he reckoned the situation merited it.)

“Don’t swear at me,” said the double, “because I am you…well, your conscience actually. But, in the end I’m still you.”

“Bah,” replied Sean. He figured this had to be a prank hatched by one of his workmates. “Tell me which one of my smartarse colleagues put you up to this?” he demanded, “Let me guess; it is either Mal or Liz.”

“You don’t believe me, do you? No one put me up to this. Well actually, if anyone did, it was you!”

“That’s nonsense,” spat Sean, his blood pressure rising a notch, “I have no idea who you are.”

“Ah, now we get to the nub of the matter,” said the apparition, “You have no idea who I am, and that is precisely why I’m here:  to remind you that I exist and that you should listen to me from time to time. I usually start to bother you when you’re are about to do something stupid or unethical.”

“Me? Stupid? Unethical?  I have no idea what you’re on about,” contested Sean.

“It appears I need to spell out for you. Well here’s the executive summary:  I think you need to revise that document you’ve been working on. I’m your conscience, and I think I can help.”

“I… don’t… need… your… help,” said Sean enunciating each word exaggeratedly for emphasis, “you probably do not know this, but I have completed the biggest and most ambitious design I’ve ever done:  a comprehensive systems architecture for Big Enterprise. I’m confident of what I have proposed because it is backed by solid research and industry best practice.”

“I know what you have done,” said the doppelganger, “I’m your conscience, after all.” He paused to clear his throat. “And I’m sure you believe what you have written, “he continued, “but that doesn’t make it right.”

“It is impeccably researched! You know, I’ve cited over 800 references, yeah eight hundred,” said Sean with pride. “That’s over two references per page, and most of these are to works written by acknowledged experts  in the field.”

“I do not doubt your knowledge or diligence, my friend,” said the doppelganger with a smile, “what I worry about is your judgement.”

Sean was ready to blow a fuse, but was also confused (intrigued?) by the double’s choice of words. “Judgement?” he blurted, “WTF do you mean by ‘judgement?”  He picked up the tome and waved it in front of the doppelganger imperiously…but then spoilt the effect by almost spraining his wrist in the process. He put the book down hurriedly saying, “this is an objective evaluation; the facts speak for themselves.”

“Do they?” queried the apparition. Sure, you’ve collected all this information and have fashioned into a coherent report.  However, your recommendations, which appear to be based on facts, are in truth based on unverifiable assumptions, even opinions.”

“That’s nonsense,” dismissed Sean. “You haven’t even read the report, so you’re in no position to judge.”

“I have. I’m your conscience, remember?”

“Pah!”

“OK, so tell me what you did and how you did it,” said the apparition evenly.

Sean held forth for a few minutes, describing how he researched various frameworks, read case studies about them and then performed an evaluation based on criteria recommended by experts.

“I concede you that you truly believe you are right, but the sad fact is that you probably aren’t,” said the double, “and worse, you refuse to entertain that possibility.”

“That’s hogwash! If you’re so sure then prove it,” countered Sean.

“Hmmm, you are thicker than I thought, let me see if I can get my point across in a different way,” said the double.  “You’re doing something that will influence the future of technology in your organisation for a long time to come. That is an immense responsibility…”

“I’m aware of that, thank you,” interrupted Sean, raising his voice. He’d had enough of this presumptuous, insulting clown.

“If you say so,” said the doppelganger, “but, to be honest, I sense no doubts and see no caveats in your report.”

“That’s because I have none! I believe in and stand by what I have done,” shouted Sean.

“I have no doubt that you believe in what you have done. The question is, do others, will others?”

“I’m not stupid,” said Sean, “I’ve kept my managers and other key stakeholders in the loop throughout. They know what my recommendations are, and they are good with them.”

“How many stakeholders, and where are they located?”

“Over ten important stakeholders, senior managers, all of them, and all seated right here in the corporate head office,” said Sean. He made to pick up the tome again, but a twinge in his wrist reminded him that it might not be wise to do so. “Let me tell you that the feedback I have from them is that this is a fantastic piece of work,” he continued, emphasizing his point by rapping on the wrist-spraining tome with his knuckles. “So please go away and leave me to finish up my work.”

“Yeah, I’ll go, it seems you have no need of me,” said the double, “but allow me a couple of questions before I go. I am your conscience after all!”

“Ok, what is it?” said Sean impatiently. He couldn’t wait to see the back of the guy.

“You’re working in a multinational right? But you’ve spoken to a few stakeholders all of whom are sitting right here, in this very building. Have you travelled around and spoken with staff in other countries – say in Asia and Europe – and gotten to know their problems before proposing your all-embracing architecture?”

“Look,” said Sean, “it is impossible to talk to everyone, so, I have done the best I can: I have proposed a design that adheres to best practices, and that means my design is fundamentally sound,” asserted Sean. “Moreover, the steering committee has reviewed it, and has indicated that it will be approved.”

“I have no doubt that it will be approved,” said the apparition patiently, “the question is: what then?  Think about it, you have proposed an architecture for your enterprise without consulting the most important stakeholders – the people who will actually live it and work with it. Would you have an architect build your house that way? And how would you react to one who insisted on doing things his or her way because it is “best practice” to do so?”

“That’s a completely inappropriate comparison,” said Sean.

“No it isn’t, and you know it too” said the doppelganger. “But look, I’ve nothing more to add. I’ve said what I wanted to say.  Besides, I’m sure you’re keen to see the back of me…most people are.”

…and pfft…just like that, the apparition vanished, leaving a bemused architect and a rapidly drying coffee stain in its wake.

Written by K

March 6, 2014 at 7:30 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Very beautiful fable. I’ve been reading your works on “best practices” and it sounds music to my “consultant’s ears”. In my explorations about best practices, stimulated by your works and others,I had an epiphany moment recently. Having read through and written such “beautifully bound” reports which are backed by methodologies and best practices, I realized that “best practices” are actually **narratives** which are dressed up by data.I think the main reason why we fall for “best practices” is because we humans are wired to think in narratives. What makes “best practices” narrative powerful is that it wrongly implies causal effect between application of these ideas and “business transformation” benefits it purportedly claims.Given the hype around “Big Data”, i am even more scared by “best practices”. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Via Negativa principle” gave me a valuable heuristic when it comes to evaluating best practices in the age of Big Data. In the traditional sense, we’ve always looked at best practices as proven until debunked. Given the richer measurement possibilities offered by Big Data, I think we could relook at best ( or appropriate ) practices as *debunked until proven*.
    I recently made a presentation at a Big Data conference which looked at best practices through the lens of narratives. http://www.venkinesis.in/2014/01/my-recent-presentation-at-big-data_30.html Would love to hear your thoughts/comments!

    Venky

    March 7, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    • Hi Venky,

      Thanks for reading and for your very interesting comment. I like your point that best practices should be treated as suspect until proven. Your point about best practices as narratives “dressed up in data” is an interesting one too. I would only add that if they are narratives, they are somewhat impoverished ones for they lack the rich detail one expects in stories. To my mind they are more like summaries or abstracts – they give the big picture, but necessarily leave out the details and context that makes each story unique. Indeed, that is a big part of the problem with best or standardised practices.

      Loved your presentation, especially the references to Ciborra and “context over content”. Keep up the great work!

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment; I look forward to our continuing conversations.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      March 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      • Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and feedback. I really appreciate it. I couldn’t agree more with you that “Best Practices” are impoverished narratives. I think what they leave out -details and context – are indeed deliberate as it provides them necessary space for the sponsoring firm/individual to enter the door now ( for a consulting or a business engagement) now that those “best practices” have indeed conferred some sort of authority on the relevant subject in the minds of the client. I think this trend is common in most of the info articles floating in tech firm’s blogs where the malaise of decontextualized knowledge runs amok. Few days back, an old colleague of mine had posted proudly the link of his book which has been published under a leading publication house. The book was titled, “Merger & Acquisitions IT Best Practices” :) As I think of “best practices” through the psychological lens, I see that its critical utility is towards conferring this authority ( a false one in my personal opinion) on the subject. Let’s say, If my friend had written a book saying, ” Merger & Acquisitions IT Worst Practices” ( via negativa principle) it wouldn’t have served its intended purpose because we create a sense of authority only when we say something in affirmative. (I must say I inferred this from my reading of wise enlightened souls who often pointed out the futility of saying something in affirmative about living as they abhorred authority of every kind) Given the explosion of spaces for information to flow everywhere, this trend is not just limited to business subjects. Few months back, I found it funny and wryly amusing while I was reading Gates’ notes on Jared Diamond’s latest book. Gates said, “He[Jared Diamond] doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the **best practices** and share them”. Questioning the citadel of best practices is to question the authority of knowledge. At the risk of grabbing a lot of your digital space in your blog, I think Ivan Illich was spot on when he said, “there is no knowledge in the world; the world is as
        it is. Knowledge is a process in the minds of living people. It is what we do as we try to
        find out who and where we are, and what is going on about us”.

        venky

        April 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm

        • Hi Venky,

          Thanks for your comment and my apologies for the delay in responding, Indeed the term “best practice” has become a platitude in that it is used as a means to short-circuit the whole process of questioning and critiquing a practice. Calling something a best practice seems to place it beyond criticism.

          You’ve drawn attention to another, deeper, problem which is that once a best practice is defined for a particular area, it seems to stops us from looking at that area with fresh eyes. I see a lot of that in project management wherein best practices – e.g. PRINCE2 or Agile – have somehow stopped us from seeing projects as they really are. Jon Whitty alludes to this in many of his papers (see this post for a review of one of Jon’s papers. Here’s a link to the original paper).

          Thanks again for the comment; I look forward to our continuing conversations,

          Regards,

          Kailash.

          K

          April 20, 2014 at 8:30 pm

  2. […] Kailash Awati tells the fable of an architect and the conscience he argues with, to tell why you can’t just gather your requirements at headquarters. […]

  3. Kailash, this would never happen…not in REAL life, right?!? Nah.

    Kevin Brunk

    March 12, 2014 at 5:22 am

    • Hi Kevin,

      One would hope not…

      Regards,

      K.

      K

      March 12, 2014 at 7:07 pm


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