A short note on the interpretation of Christopher Alexander's fifteen fundamental properties as applied to organizations.

J. C. Thomas

1. Levels of scale.  This seems fairly straightforward.  A large organization
must have sub-organizations and various levels of scale.  Just as a huge modern
building that has only an overall shape and small details 'fails'
architecturally (both visually and behaviorally), an organization that misses
too many levels of intervening complexity can fail.

2. Strong centers.  This too seems straightforward.  The parts of an
organization must support the whole.  The strong 'center' can be achieved in
numerous ways: a strong vision; a strong individual's leadership (T. J. Watson);
a strong set of procedures and processes to encourage behavior (3M and its
innovation practices); or a strong tradition and hierarchy (Catholic Church).

3. Boundaries.  Just as interesting buildings that 'work' will have strong
boundaries, an organization that works will have instantiate this same concept
in terms of its buildings but also in terms of its culture and people.  We do
things 'the Nordstroms Way.'  Think of the initiation and rejection rituals of
the U. S. Marines or The Catholic Church.

4.  Alternating repetition.  I interpret this in the context of organizations to
refer to activity patterns.  Input, process, output.  Pick up the phone, answer
a person's question, put down the phone.  Contact a client, discover their
needs, make the sale.  Research, develop, deploy.  Set the nail, tap, pound,
pound, pound.  There are many patterns and if one were to see these patterns
laid out a symptom of a well-working organization would be that these activity
patterns had a rough periodicity to them.  If they show so much variability that
no pattern can be perceived, the organization is too disorganized.

5. Positive space.  I interpret this to mean that organizations that are ?full
of life? have many parts that are each trying to expand to fill all the
'available space.'  This might manifest itself physically in having buildings
that are actually somewhat over-crowded (as opposed to long empty corridors),
but it could also be manifested in that every 'niche' within a defined market
has someone working that market; that the individuals working these markets are
internally competing with one another and 'pushing the limits' of their own
niche outwards.  Similarly, the product teams and divisions will be competing
with each other; trying to add features to their products to spill out into the
neighboring produccts.  Notice that such an interpretation is certainly not
without controversy!  An 'efficiency expert' might claim that internal
competition of this sort should be eliminated.

6. Good shape.  It is a bit abstract or metaphorical to see how this applies to
organizational design.  My best guess is this.  The suborganizations themselves
all have a distinct 'shape' -- meaning a distinct purpose and function and
character that 'holds together' conceptually in an elegant rather than an
arbitrary way.  At the same time, looked at from a larger perspective, these
suborganizations participate in forming a coherency at the next level.  An
example of trying to do this (whatever the underlying reality) is the map that
Nicholas Negroponte draws of the Media Lab and its parts and constituencies.  An
organization that has 'good shape' has a balance and splits that are based on
something more fundamental that accidents of history, friendship, or politics.

7. Local symmetries.  As I interpret this, it means that in a living, working,
organization, there is both the freedom and the desire at local levels to make
symmetries that are appropriate to that level.  Many of these symmetries have to
do with the abstract qualities of work that must be done.  For instance, in
attempting to have a conversation between a customer and a customer service rep,
there is a certain symmetry of ignorance and knowledge.  Each knows something
that the other doesn't.  In a good conversation, there is a symmetry of
knowledge exchange leading to a resolution.  In a larger context, in developing
a system to serve users, there should be a symmetry of value and power that
mirrors the symmetry of knowledge and ignorance.  In good management practice,
there should be a symmetry between the employee contributing to the higher level
team and the rewards that the larger team gives the employee.  In a team of
fishermen rowing a catamaran, there is a symmetry of stroking.  In the stock
market there is a buyer for every seller; prices fluctuate to make this so.  All
these local symmetries make up something that works, that is, in a sense quite
beautiful; but it is not something that can be dictated by a detailed master
plan; it is something that, however, can be fostered and encouraged by the
overall climate and ?rules? of an organization.

8. Deep interlock and ambiguity.  Ambiguity?  Surely, this is something that an
organization cannot want.  But is that true?

Is IBM Research supposed to be doing long term research or helping the company
solve today's problems?  Both is the answer.  And, in fact, to the extent that
one can achieve a deep interlock between these apparently contradictory goals,
the better.  Is a sales person's job to maximize sales revenue or satisfy the
customer?  Both.  And, again, to the extent that conditions are created that
make for a deep interlock and ambiguity so that the salesperson themselves feels
that they are doing both; that these are parts of one whole, we have a
well-functioning sales organization.

9. Contrast.  I take this to mean that an organization must create within it
dynamic tensions of opposites.  In animals, there are pre-existing,
well-defined, and opposite tendencies of behavior.  The contrasts can be shaded
by events but it is much better to have an animal that sometimes sleeps and
sometimes is awake than one that is always half-awake.  It is better to
sometimes fight and sometimes flee than to always fight half-heartedly.

Similarly, an organization needs contrasts of people and of function and of
activity.  A healthy organization should have people who are complete optimists
and believe anything is possible -- and complete pessimists who question
everything.  An organization should have an organization (or process) whose
purpose is to expand the company in every possible direction and an organization
(or process) whose purpose is to contract the company as much as possible.  When
brainstorming, to be as effective as possible, no real-world constraints should
be allowed.  When choosing which brainstorming ideas to pursue, every real-world
constraint should be applied.

10. Gradients.  Taken together, Contrast and Interlock, as well as Gradients and
Boundaries, would seem to push design in opposite directions.  Yet, there are
architectural examples that seem to provide both of each property pair
simultaneously.  Living organisms also simultaneously exhibit both properties.
An unresolved issue is when, how, where, and in what degree do we push Gradient
more versus Boundary more.  When should Contrast be emphasized and when Deep
Interlock and Ambiguity?

It would seem off-hand that traditional command and control organizations have
tended to emphasize Contrast and Boundaries to the detriment of Interlock and
Gradients.  One would hope that in an adaptive organization, people would pitch
in more and help each other out 'across' organizational boundaries.

Some examples of where gradients might be effective might include the following.
One could imagine a gradient funding system wherein projects would not be either
'in' or 'out' of a plan, but gradually get (or lose) more funding as the
benefits and costs became clearer.  Organizations already use a gradient market
introduction system where successive 'trials' allow for increasing commitment to
a product with favorable results.  One can also conceptualize summer employment
as a chance for company and individual to examine the suitability of longer term
employment. Often cross-organizational activities that result in mergers and
acquisitions begin as much more limited partnering arrangements.  A natural
example of gradient might be that very large customers get very large account
teams while progressively smaller customers get smaller account teams.

11. Roughness. Basically, anything that tries to function in a complex living
world must make adjustments from any over-arching plan.  In organizational
terms, this quality refers to exceptions, localization, and personalization.
Software should be customizable to some degree.  The interpretation of policy
must vary depending on circumstances.  Indeed, one of the main functions of
management personnel is to provide the judgement that allows roughness to occur.

12. Echoes.  This seems most naturally construed as the organization pulling
toward an overall vision so that many different aspects of the activities have
the same 'flavor.'  If Customer Service is paramount, that should manifest
itself in a thousand small ways.  Each of the individual acts that provide
excellent customer service is different, but each is an echo of each other and
an echo of the larger whole -- the vision.

13. The Void.  Chrisopher Alexander writes (The Nature of Order, Part I, p. 80)
"In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness there is at the heart
a void, which is like water, in infinite depth -- surrounded by, and contrasted
with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it....Is there a way that
the presence of the void arises mathematically, as part of a stable unified
structure, or is it merely a psychological requirement?  It is the latter.  A
living structure can?t be all detail.  The buzz finally diffuses itself, and
destroys its own structure.  The calm is needed to alleviate the buzz."

One obvious interpretation of how this might apply to organizations is simply to
emphasize the danger of over-optimizing and re-engineering to the point where
there is zero rest, zero inactivity, and every second is filled with
predetermined activity.  Living organisms are certainly not like that.  They
rest, they store food, they can sustain injury and survive.  In each overall
pattern of activity, there needs to be some time for reflection, for quiet, for
nothing.  Otherwise, how can the organization possibly learn and improve over
time let alone recover from some unforseen catastrophe?

14. Simplicity and Inner Calm. Christopher Alexander (Ibid., p. 85) writes
"Everything essential has been left; nothing extraneous is left.  But the result
is simple in a profound sense, but not in the superficial geometric sense.  So
it is not true that outward simplicity creates inner calm; it is only inner
simplicity, true simplicity of heart, which creates it."

Applied to an organizational context, I believe it means that an organization
with an elegant business model -- a unique and coherent vision of what it is
about -- gives rise to true simplicity.  It does not necessarily arise because
of a superficially simple org chart.  The organization must ask itself
constantly: "Why are we doing this?  Why do we have this organization?  Does it
forward the essence of our organization or detract from it?"

15.  Not-separateness.  "What 'Not-separateness' means, quite simply, is that we
experience a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from
it -- according to its degree of wholeness."  So too, an organization that is
'out of touch' with the competitive landscape, with technological trends and
breakthroughs, with social changes, with legislative and legislative changes, or
with the needs of its customers will not long survive.

On a small scale, we can think of a corner pawn shop that gives nothing to the
community and ends up being the first place destroyed in a riot.  On a larger
scale, we can imagine a large company that does nothing about falling
educational standards until it suddenly finds such a shortage of competent labor
that it can no longer vie effectively with its foreign competitors.

There are a thousand ways an organization can fail to adapt to its surroundings
if it is cut off from them.


A position paper prepared for the Usability Pattern Language Workshop at Interact '99