19 October 2009

Simplicity: Art or Architecture?

Is it useful to think of simplicity as an instinct and Enterprise Architecture as an art form?

The "Wisdom" of Crowds
There seems to be a popular "wisdom" that systems (business and/or technical) develop through a process of evolution, and evolution inevitably leads to complexity. Proponents of this wisdom use nature as an example in all its glorious variety. This in turn leads to a fatalism that accepts complexity as a necessary evil, and attempts to manage it and cater for its existence.

Well, in my opinion, wisdom is rarely common, and never more so than in this case.

Natural Selection
Evolution involves two key processes. The first is change, and the second is selection. In nature, the selection process acts purely on survivability, and takes no account of cost or complexity (why should it?). In nature there is no dominant competitive advantage that encourages simplicity. In business we have the power to create the model, and the selection criteria are under our control.

So when is the best time to remove complexity? At the point of creation, of course. We need to create a force of natural selection that weeds out complexity at source.

Architecture is the first point at which visionary statements start to be converted into realisable decisions, and so architecture should be that force of natural selection. Certainly complexity cannot always be avoided. It will always be lurking in the background waiting to sneak in as soon as we take our eye off the ball, and any complexity within the architecture will only breed increasing complexity in its delivery.

If the “to-be” architecture lays out a simple future and we ensure that delivery efforts are always directed towards that destination then it will be simplicity that will evolve instead of complexity. Essentially prime responsibility lies with the Enterprise Architect to ensure that simplicity is achieved in everything the Business does.

Simplicity should therefore be one of the key quality criteria for enterprise architects to focus on, but how should we measure this simplicity?

It’s all in the Mind
Most human beings are driven by an innate sense of aesthetics. They are drawn to that which they find pleasing to the eye. Most architects are no different, and try as they might to claim a logical basis for each of their decisions; this aesthetic drive underpins much that they do.

Do not fight this.

Aesthetics is an important factor in any architecture as it allows you to use your innate skills to produce answers far more rapidly than might otherwise be possible.

Consider as an analogy the act of catching a ball. If you relied on trajectory calculations, and information relating to the launch velocity and angle of the ball, the task would be impossible within the timescales. Instead, through practice, the human brain manages this task in a far more reflexive and responsive manner.

The Eye of the Beholder
Unfortunately beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. Just as one persons Turner prize winner is another’s childish scribblings, some find beauty in simplicity and will strive for it whilst others are attracted to complexity, and will revel in it. If you fall into the latter category you probably will not make a very good architect, until you can curb this tendency.

Another form of beauty arises from symmetry, but the case for or against this is not as clear cut. I have experienced situations in which questionable elements of an architecture or design come into being simply to balance the diagram. I have also discovered gaps in an architecture as a result of the asymmetry that their omission creates.

However, assuming that you can tune our aesthetic sense to simplicity, and use symmetry constructively, it should provide you with a powerful tool for accelerating the development of your architecture.

Architecture as an Art Form
So, am I suggesting that Architecture is an art form driven more by creative urges than by raw logic?

Yes, I am.

There are, of course, numerous metrics and processes out there that claim to provide a scientific basis for measuring and controlling complexity, and I am not denying that some of them do actually achieve that goal in theory. In practice, however, such a method driven approach is too laborious to deliver results in the short timescales typically necessary for the resulting architecture to be of value.

We need a more pragmatic, and dare I say it agile approach. It is for this reason that I would encourage all architects to develop and trust in their innate aesthetic ability in order to ensure that their architectures are elegantly simple.

It is only through this development that they will be able to deliver effective architectures within sensible timescales.

Regards
The Enterprising Architect

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