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Losing a Limpet What happens when we dont have Enterprise Architecture?


Posted on March 8, 2015

Recently, I had a conversation with someone about how to do enterprise architecture. I prepared that
conversation by trying to condense my basic argument for the`enterprise chess approach to the absolute
minimum. I started out with the question: Suppose we dont have enterprise architecture at all. What would
happen? and it led to an interesting train of thought, involving adaptive change (or evolution).

Imagine an organisation without Enterprise Architecture. What happens (except bliss for many)? Well, for one
thing, change still happens. All the time. Al kinds of initiatives take place to change the organisation, from new
versions of existing tools (with slightly different behaviour) to whole new business lines. We might look at this as
constant mutations happening in the organisation. It is a kind of `evolution in action, but without the normal
key role of offspring in expressing new traits that is key in biological evolution. Different, but still a useful
analogy.

Now, evolution has in general a very positive press in our educated circles. Indeed, attempts have even been made
to harness the power of evolution by breeding better software algorithms (evolutionary algorithms). Why design
if the invisible hand can do the job? The over-enthusiasm of the initial period (think Kevin Kellys 1994 book Out
of Control) has long since gone, and for a good reason. Evolution powerful as it is is namely not that ideal as
it first seems: evolution as a `design process is (from our human/ethical perspective) wasteful and thus (for those
evolving) risky. How risky, an example may illustrate:

Losing a Limpet
In biological evolution, multiple independent issues can in their
combination lead to killer problems. In the book Eight Little
Piggies (by the late Stephen Jay Gould) there is a description of a
recent example of Darwinian extinction, titled Losing a Limpet. It is
about the Eelgrass Limpet, a sea snail that exclusively fed on
eelgrass. The Eelgrass Limpet was last seen in 1933 and is
considered extinct. What likely happened was that when a slime
mold decimated (but not entirely killed off) the eelgrass, it led to the end of the limpet even if the eelgrass itself
survived. This happened because the Eelgrass Limpet could only live in sea water of normal salinity, whereas
eelgrass can also live in brackish water, where the slime mold could not go. So, the eelgrass survived the onslaught
of the slime mold and repopulated the saline waters afterwards. Other species that fed on eelgrass also survived,
even if they were decimated for a while, because they were able to switch to other foods (or live in brackish
waters). But the Eelgrass Limpet could only survive on eelgrass and only survive in saline water. The narrowness
of its `ecological niche led to its extinction. Thus the ecological landscape changed and with the extinction of the
Eelgrass Limpet, new opportunities to fill a new niche arise.

The extinction of the Eelgrass Limpet is a good example to drill home the point that biological evolution works
via death and extinction. Death happens to members of a species that are less well adapted to their niche,
extinction happens to species if its members are unable to produce enough offspring (e.g. because they die before

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Losing a Limpet What happens when we dont have Enterprise Archite... https://enterprisechess.com/2015/03/08/losing-a-limpet-what-happens-w...

they get the chance). Niches change, sometimes slowly, sometimes catastrophically. That death is a main agent in
biological-type evolution is something to keep in mind if again someone in earnest starts to suggest (like in Kellys
book) that in the end we will be creating software for airplanes using evolutionary approaches. It will work, that
we might assume, but how many planes will have to crash before the perfect airplane software has been bred?
Kelly writes:

Artificial evolution is the end of engineerings hegemony. Evolution will take us beyond our ability
to plan. Evolution will craft things we cant. Evolution will make them more flawless than we can.
And evolution will maintain them as we cant.

Evolution will maintain them certainly in a way we are not allowed to, given the human sacrifice and something
called `ethics. Kelly does not want to test the software by crashing airplanes. He assumes we can co-breed the
crash agents in a virtual world. How that should work, someone should explain to me (as I think there are
fundamental hurdles here, akin to the ones Hubert Dreyfus wrote about in What Computers (Still) Cant Do), but
I digress.

Evolution in the enterprise


Transferring this to the constantly changing organisations we are part of: if we leave all those changes in an
organisation to their own devices, they might lead to combinations that makes it hard to survive, let alone thrive, a
hair ball architecture of sorts. We might like the Eelgrass Limpet species did in evolutionary terms paint
ourself in a dead-end corner if we let the constant mutation of the firm unchecked.

Death and extinction play a role in the economy as well, as we all know, in the form of the bankruptcy of firms and
the demise of whole industries. The link was already made in Darwins time, at least partly by Darwin himself who
was influenced by Thomas Malthus and also likely by Adam Smith, the founding fathers of modern economic
theory.

When comparing what happens with firms to what happens in biological evolution, we are talking about the level
of an industry. Enterprise architects, of course, work at the level of the individual enterprise, which is of course
different (more `generic evolution without the inherited traits, more mutation than evolution).

Having said that, what an organisation is trying with enterprise architecture can (at least in part) be seen as
fighting some of the nasty side-effects of unchecked evolution. We enterprise architects are in fact fighting to
make the evolution of the firm less wasteful and risky. Were not the only ones to try to do that. Project and
program management (and general management too) are trying to do the same. The important insight here is to
keep in mind that we enterprise architects are not just helping to direct the way the firm evolve as if the firm
would not evolve if we were not there. Were not designers in a greenfield. No, the firm evolves anyway, move by
move in enterprise chess terms, and what we are actually try to do is change the way that evolution happens, so
the firm makes better `moves.

This view of things also explains the fight for agility, in a way. All our attempts at control over autonomous
fragmented change, all our efforts to fight blind evolution (all kinds of management, including enterprise
architecture management), constantly triggers a counter-movement. From the rapid application design of the
80s to agile now, attempts to smother the evolutionary free-for-all naturally lead to resistance by those that are

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being smothered. The natural mutation drivers of the firm (its people) are constantly looking for ways around any
limits set for them. That is not something one should try to prevent completely (as some architects may dream of),
it is a life blood of the organisation. But taking the analogy in another direction too many unchecked
mutations all over the firm may lead to cancerous growths in your Business-IT landscape and even its death.

Its also a bit as if we are watching the battle between the bacteria (undirected) biological evolution) and the
antibacterial drug designers (directed) intelligent design), with enterprise architects playing a pseudo-scientific
god, or at least with the hubris as if they were a god. That gives us a nice definition of the classic `enterprise
architect: `intelligent designer of overwhelming complexity, without the god-like powers to back that up. That
aspect of enterprise architecture has to change, I think: instead of behaving like a god (or a building inspector, see:
Are you an Enterprise Architect? Really?), maybe enterprise architects should just behave as architects. And
they really need better `best practices.

PS. Maybe it is now time for you to report me to the analogy police. Ive been making such a mess of it: mixing
evolution, biological evolution, mutation and so forth, that the fact that most of you will understand me at all is a
nice example of the fact that human intelligence does not need clear logic for understanding. Similarity
(Familienhnlichkeit), is enough. Uncle Ludwig strikes again

[If you want to discuss my views with me: I will be speaking at the Gartner EA Summit 2015 London UK on May
20 and the MBT-Congress in Houten NL (closing keynote) on May 21]

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Agile & Architecture The Great Escape: "EA is not about IT!" Low-hanging Cloud

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6 Responses to Losing a Limpet What happens when we dont have Enterprise Architecture?

RJP says:
March 11, 2015 at 10:14 pm

Metaphors great servants of thought, terrible masters. I wont report you to the analogy police however because I took this
post to be a discussion about where the evolution metaphor breaks down when applied to organisational change.

I have long been an opponent of evolution as a way of thinking about organisational change for reasons akin to your
points. Evolution is, for a start extremely wasteful. It is agile on steroids provided we observe over very long timeframes,
which is another problem with the metaphor.

(I also choke on the idea of the sexual reproduction of organisations and the transmission of traits through some kind of its-
in-our DNA metaphor but I recognise that reaction is a bit literal so generally keep it to myself.)

Mostly however, I resisted the evolution metaphor at every turn because it is a cliche. And like all cliches it ends up
substituting for thought, short circuiting observation and questioning in favour of easy self-evident propositions and
conclusions.

I was nice to see someone else take that lazy metaphor out to the garden for a quiet chat about its behaviour.

Thanks.

Reply

paddybaxter says:
April 15, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Bit heavy on analogies but totally agree with your conclusiona. Also, how many organisations really have effective today EA
really? I guess you end up describing EA V.nezt.

Next trick is how do we redesign the Industrial Age organisations into something more organic and appropriate for the speed
of change that digital enables. Answers on a postcard.

Reply

Chris Tredwin says:


May 20, 2015 at 6:20 pm

The analogy police can rest easy, but maybe not the pedantic police.

It is, of course, impossible to imagine an organization without enterprise architecture, because there can never be any such
thing. All organizations have an enterprise architecture they always had one, way before IT ever came along, and will
continue to do so. Processes, information, organization setup

Now, of course, it by no means follows that the fundamental existence of an enterprise architecture requires the presence of
an EA team to design/manage/govern it, and in fact, companies have managed without for most of modern history-

But, in all seriousness, I think it is useful to distinguish between the architecture itself and the existence (or not) of
framework and teams responsible for managing it. The overall premise in the article: that organizations can use EA to avoid

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leaving it to chance through an evolutionary approach (but only if architecture is performed in the right way) is clearly
unarguable.

(BTW, the keynote today delivered exactly the kind of thought provoking message Id have expected at the Gartner summit.
Very much enjoyed it.)

Reply

gctwnl says:
May 20, 2015 at 9:14 pm

Thanks, Chris.

I agree EA is (almost by definition) not about IT, but I agree with Charles Rosenbury that the need for what we
now consider to be EA has risen from the enormous rise in complexity of organisations, a rise that has only
become possible as a result of IT. See The Great Escape EA is not about IT!. The effect of IT on enterprise has
been huge, so huge that much of enterprise now is IT, not just supported by IT.

Reply

Chris Tredwin says:


May 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Yes, I totally agree with the thrust of that second piece. EA in not about IT cannot be true. EA is not ONLY
about IT might be closer.

Its a small distinction; the problem is that by emphasizing the IT-centric nature of modern EA, we run the
risk of pigeon-holing ourselves as solution architects / techies in the eyes of some business people. And thats
unhelpful for an EA group with ambitions to practice a business-outcome driven style of architecture, and be
recognized as such.

I always advocate positioning EA first and foremost in terms of outcomes, rather than emphasizing any
particular aspect of of the architecture. If those outcomes are successfully delivered, its less important for EA
clients whether it was done predominately by managing IT complexity or via some other approach.

Syed Suhail Ahmad says:


March 19, 2016 at 11:20 am

I like the article and I agree that evolution is happening in the enterprise due to constant mutation (like the analogy). This is
one of the reason why we named our product Enterprise Evolver. Check out a brief video of our digital app.
http://enterpriseevolver.com/demystifying-enterprise-architecture/

Reply

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