A few times recently I have come across discussions where complex systems have been described as self-organising. Whilst being strictly true within the limits of logical possibility, I believe such descriptions to be significantly misrepresentative. I hope you’ll forgive the frivolity, but I find it useful to think about this in relation to the infinite monkey theorem (if you give a bunch of monkeys a typewriter and wait long enough then eventually one of them will produce the works of Shakespeare). I think describing complex systems as self-organising is a bit like describing monkeys as great authors of English literature. Perhaps the underlying issue here is that evolutionary timeframes are of a scale that is essentially meaningless relative to human concepts of time. Natural selection’s great conjuring trick has been to hide the countless millenia and uncountably large numbers of now-dead failures it has taken to stumble upon every evolutionary step forwards. In monkey terms, it is a bit like a mean man with a shotgun hiding out in the zoo and shooting every primate without a freshly typed copy of Twelfth Night under its arm, and then us visiting the zoo millions of years later and thinking that a core attribute of monkeys is that they write great plays!

So, are complex systems self-organising? For the one-in-trillions freak exceptions that have managed to survive until today the answer is yes, but in a deeply degenerative and entropy-saturated way. For everything else – which is basically everything – then the answer is no. An example of this is being played out around us right now in the financial crisis. The laissez-faire economic ideologies of recent decades were primarily an expression of faith in the abilities of complex financial markets to self-organise, as enshrined in the efficient market hypothesis championed by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. The recent return to more Keynesian ideas of external government intervention via lower taxation and increased public spending together with the obvious need for stronger regulation are indicative of a clear failure in self-organisational capability.  

When people in technology talk about self-organisation, what they are normally referring to are the highly desirable personal qualities of professional pride, initiative, courage and a refusal to compromise against one’s better judgement. A couple of years back Jim Highsmith argued that “self-organisation” has outlived its usefulness. I would agree, and for the sake of clarity perhaps we might do better now to talk about such attributes in specific terms?

In the previous post we started an examination of software delivery from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In that context we saw that business cases can be viewed as memes and software projects as a certain class of phenotype (or way in which that business case gets expressed). Following on from that, an organisation’s slate of new commercial development proposals can be seen as its meme-equivalent DNA, where at any given moment a subset of those replicators will be activated/ratified and then express an extended range of intra- and extra-organisational phenotypes including marketing campaigns, IT projects, industry bodies, etc. The success of these phenotypes will in turn determine the degree to which those memes/business cases are then perpetuated via further iterations of investment and development. To understand more about how this happens, we now need to look at the nature of selective environments.

An examination of most companies today will reveal multiple concurrent levels of collaboration and competition: individuals compete and collaborate within the environment of their team, with their peers in separate teams and business divisions, and very often with other people in the industry within which they work (IT news groups being an obvious collaborative example). Teams compete and collaborate within the enviroment of their business division, across business divisions, and quite often across company boundaries with similar teams in competitor organisations. Similarly organisations compete and collaborate within industry sectors, and again sectors quite often compete within the wider economy (e.g. online music sharing services competing with the traditional record industry).

The first point of great interest about this is its symmetry with the scale-invariance of power law systems. Whether we are looking at the level of individual team members or the global economy, we can see the same thing happening: namely different environmental factors applying selective pressure in favour of certain key characteristics. Secondly, when we more closely examine those environmental factors within a business context we can see they are nothing other than what micro-economists refer to as incentives. Incentives are the features of economic environments that determine adaptive advantage: they create the selective pressure. (It is worth highlighting at this point that we are not making any claims about human nature: incentives can promote altruistic, enlightened behaviour as much as greed/self-interest). Along the scale described above from individuals to the global economy, different incentives will create different selective pressures. Those pressures may act in the same direction or else they may act in conflict. For example, the impending credit crunch clearly suggests that recent city trader incentive/bonus structures were in conflict with the interests of the wider economy. 

Incentives can be specified either explicitly or implicitly. Explicit incentivisation takes the form of sales targets, call centre response times, unit test coverage targets or any other published quality metrics. Implicit incentivisation fills in the remaining gaps, and is normally adopted as a result of unreflective organisational behaviour (for example, inexperienced IT management rewarding anti-collaborative “rock star coder” behaviour with more kudos or the most interesting project work). It is frequently the underlying cause of unexpected or undesirable behaviour, and the first step towards effectively addressing such situations is normally the identification of those rogue incentives so they can be removed or else explicitly overridden.

In this way, we can see that the health of a business environment or any other complex system depends on the alignment of its incentives (i.e. success criteria) across the different tiers of selective pressure (something Jim Shore has recently aluded to in slightly different terms as the multiple aspects of project success). This in turn reflects the interdependencies characteristic of such power law systems. Where incentives get out of alignment, those interdependencies are no longer accommodated and malignancy is the result (quite literally in the biological world: cancerous cells compete and replicate very successfully at the cellular level, but at the overall expensive of other levels i.e. the organism).

When we consider the project-centric world view currently prevalent across the IT industry from this perspective, a few things come to light. We begin to understand that a programme management culture of on-time/on-budget project incentivisation has created selective pressure in favour of IT projects simply because they are an easy vehicle for meeting that target. Part of this is related to the misguided insistence by so many IT divisions today of referring to the other parts of their organisation as “the business” (frequently this is in turn symptomatic of an over-the-wall software release mentality and ultimately a basic lack of care about the real value of what is being delivered: “the project shipped on time and on budget, beyond that it’s not my problem”). A project does not just deliver within the IT division environment: we are part of “the business” too and we need continual reminding of that fact. As we’ve seen previously, on-time/on-budget has no direct correlation with organisation-level pressures to deliver added value. When we align selective pressures across the delivery environment and incentivise software delivery more meaningfully in terms of generating business value, IT projects are demoted to their rightful position as incidental artefacts – artefacts that frequently just get in the way.

A final key point to note about the scale-invariance of selective pressure is that it also emphasises the holistic nature of organisational health. It’s not just about the organisation: unless the needs of every interdependent adaptive tier are being met – from job satisfaction of team members up to healthy competition across your industry sector – then your organisation is ultimately going to end up in trouble.

In previous posts we saw that the generation of business value via IT projects essentially follows a power law distribution. By examining the nature of power law systems, we went on to conclude that adaptive strategies offer the most effective way of managing risk in such environments. We will now begin to explore what a fully adaptive risk management strategy might look like, using as our starting point an overview of the key principles underlying nature’s great adaptive risk management engine: Natural Selection..

Evolutionary ideas have recently been gaining prominence in studies of organisational behaviour and efficiency from two directions:

  • Evolutionary Micro-economics (top down), in response to the limitations of traditional rationalist supply/demand models based on Game Theory.
  • Adaptive Project Methodologies (bottom up), focussing on evolutionary design and iterative delivery to mitigate the inherent unpredictability of requirements and market conditions.

The most fundamental principle on which these ideas are based is the notion of a replicator. A replicator can be defined as any entity of which copies are made, where that entity has some causal influence on its own probability of being propagated. The classic biological example is a gene, which is copied during cell division and which influences its probability of being propagated via the environmental effects of the proteins it encodes (and in turn, the effects of the composite structures out of which those proteins are built). The specific DNA sequence of a gene is known as its genotype, and the corresponding expression of that genotype is its phenotype.

In the Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins switched the primary focus of evolutionary studies away from the organism. He showed that “organism” is ultimately just an arbitrary point along the scale of phenotypes: from specific proteins at one end, up through more complex protein structures to organs, organisms and social groups at the other. The fundamental unit driving natural selection forwards across the generations is the replicator or Selfish Gene – everything else from protein to social group is just artefactual byproduct (that impacts the probability of further replicator propagation).

Other instances of replicators include memes. A meme is “any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices..” When we consider the field of IT project delivery within this context, we can spot obvious correlations. Business cases are memes which, when ratified, result in the generation of a suite of phenotypic artefacts ranging from marketing strategies to IT delivery teams to unit tests, SCM repositories and deployed production systems to new revenue streams. These artefacts end up shaping their business division, organisation and industry sector, and in doing so determine the probability of the business case propagating and spawning further system releases, new marketing campaigns, etc.

There is a key lesson for us as IT practioners to take from this, one that evolutionary biologists have already learnt. It is that artefacts (be they organisms, social groups, IT projects or marketing campaigns) don’t ultimately matter. The thing that matters is the replicator: the business case or gene. We need to follow evolutionary biology’s re-orientation towards the gene, and shift our focus away from IT projects and create practices centred solely on the business case. I now believe that “projects” can actually be an impediment to the efficient generation of real business value from IT. They act as an inflexible body of emotional and financial investment that creates resistance to both a.) change and b.) termination where such change makes the business case no longer viable in real terms (which is when real damage is then inflicted). We will discuss more on this topic in subsequent posts. Before that however, we need to examine the nature of selective environments – which will be the subject of the next post. In doing so we will hopefully shed some light on the factors that have led to our current project-orientated IT world view.