Book Review: Changes – a business novel by Tom Graves

By September 24, 2017 Articles

From the Editor:

As part of our ongoing series of book reviews related to Enterprise Architecture, today we bring you the latest publication from well-known author, blogger and practitioner, Tom Graves.

The book was released earlier in 2017, and is entitled Changes – a business novel. It takes a very different approach to most other books on the topic of EA, where Tom sets about painting a picture of a fictional, but all-too-familiar enterprise environment as it goes through a period of change. With some rich and thoughtful character development, a twisting and turning plot to capture the reader’s attention, and some great explanations of his work on understanding and architecting enterprises, it provides a compelling way to see EA in action.

Rather than give away the plot of the book, we at EAPJ thought it would be good to get some thoughts and perspectives from the author. Below is an interview conducted recently with Tom, looking at his motivations for writing the book, the key lessons for EA’s, and his thoughts on continued learning. We hope you enjoy it.

If you would like to find out more about the book, or any of Tom’s other publications, you can visit his Leanpub site here: https://leanpub.com/u/tetradian


Interview – Tom Graves

EAPJ: This is one of the most creative and relatable books on Enterprise Architecture that I’ve read due to its realistic fictional setting. What was your motivation for writing the book, and in using this type of story-based approach?

TG: The motivation was that although I write a lot on theory, theory doesn’t really go anywhere useful on its own – it needs real-world practice to make it real. It’s a bit like the relationship between capabilities and services: capability on its own literally has no function, it needs a real-world interface (the function) to connect it to the real-world so as to deliver a usable service.

So how can we describe the real-world practice? In principle we should be able to get that from case-studies and the like: but the reality is that case-studies tend to be too context-specific to provide the support for the more general learnings that we need. And – somewhat in keeping with the story itself – most of real-world EA work is in dealing with embarassing blunders (which won’t be published) or such real success that it becomes part of the organisation’s ‘secret-sauce’ (which likewise won’t be published). In practice, almost the only way we can get to something that looks like real-world practice is by describing it via fiction. (Chris Potts has also done this very well in his ‘fruITion’ trilogy – http://www.dominicbarrow.com/chris-potts-books.html – strongly recommended for enterprise-architects!)

EAPJ: The characters are very familiar to me, as they would be for many readers. Were they based on real people, or amalgamations of individuals you’ve worked with in the past?

TG: I need to be careful how I answer this one! The short answer is that they’re all based on real people, but all of them are amalgamations in some way, each of them usually of many different people that I’ve either known, or seen in person, or read about, over the past sixty years or so.

Overall, though, my method for building the characters was more one of personal exploration: I’d build up a picture of the relationships, the backstories, the personal pressures and fears and so on, and place myself in that person’s situation. That gave me their language, their choices, their interactions and more.

This gives me characters who are pretty real – certainly real enough for the needs of the book. They’re usually real enough that I can ask people to check them for me: I wrote much of the book in a local cafe, and one of the staff there said that the portrayal of Amber (aka ‘the Mouse’ – Marco’s young daughter) was an almost exact picture of her own daughter, who I’d not yet met. (Unfortunately making characters real in that way can also push some people’s buttons. For example, you’ll notice that the female characters are all strong women, each in their own way, yet also always real. One male reviewer angrily dismissed my portrayal of Alicia, the HR lead, as somehow ‘sexist’ or worse – to which I can only assume he’s never worked in Latin America, because my description of her is actually quite toned-down by comparison with what I saw there every day. Oh well…)

EAPJ: Without giving too much away, there are points in the book where the actions of some characters become quite sinister. What are your experiences with these circumstances, and how do you recommend readers handle those situations?

TG: Other than the kind of ‘thriller-plot’ towards the end of the story, I’ve personally seen some variant of every one of the incidents described in the book. (I’ve had to change some details of those real-world incidents, of course – let’s just say that the descriptions are accurate but deliberately not identifiable?) And I’ve been careful to show it’s not a simplistic ‘good versus evil’: if you look more closely, every one of those characters has their own flaws, their own dubious motivations at times.

I’ll admit I haven’t yet had first-hand experience of the ‘thriller-plot’ scenarios – and I don’t want to, either! But I do know people who have; and much of it is all too easy to see ‘between the lines’ in the dry descriptions in the financial/economics trade-press.

What to do about it? For the more everyday office-politics, I’d strongly recommend Bob Sutton’s work, such as his books ‘The No-Asshole Rule’ and the new ‘The Asshole Survival Guide’ – see his blogposts at http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/the_no_asshole_rule/ . For the larger-scale issues that underlie the ‘thriller-plot’, well, all I can suggest is to start opening our eyes to what’s really going on at the global level of socioeconomics and geopolitics… – there are good reasons why I describe our current global culture as a ‘paediarchy’, ‘rule by, for and on behalf of the childish’. There are ways to resolve even a mess on that scale, but it’s fair to say that doing so will challenge just about everyone to their very core – though if we don’t face that task collectively, Real Soon Now, we’re dead. Kind of high stakes, you might say? – ones that make even the ‘thriller-plot’ in this story seem quite trivial by comparison?

EAPJ: You make a number of references to traditional business management, and related education, with suggestions that they were designed for a world that is rapidly disappearing. Can you elaborate on this, and talk about how you see organisations and educational institutions operating in the future?

TG: I’ll be blunt, and say that most current business-management and business-education is completely unfit for purpose – which should be no surprise, though, because most of our current overall education-system is completely unfit for purpose too.

In my own home-countries (UK and Australia) we’re still using a nineteenth-century ‘education’-system designed primarily for churning out compliant, robotic workers – which, even in practical terms (let alone ethical or social ones), only makes sense for the kind of robotic work that was already fading fast a full half-century ago and more. We’re dealing now with a much more complex context, with much higher needs for skills-based knowledge-work and a much stronger focus on social-responsibility and ethics – the latter of which are both notoriously absent from most current business-education.

The skills that are needed now are cooperative, continually learning, able to work with all aspects of inherent-uncertainty and the unknown, and fully aware of the dynamics of complex, fractal, multi-layered systems. In other words, almost the exact antithesis of what most schools and ‘business-training’ still teach, which is solo tests of true-false repetition of predefined ‘answers’ of rote-learning about over-simplified assumptions about real-world contexts – much of which is just plain wrong in the first place. To again be blunt, we need to scrap almost the whole darn lot, and start again almost from scratch. It really is that bad – in almost every aspect of so-called ‘education’ and ‘management’.

EAPJ: As part of my role in the EA community, I talk to a lot of people about the coming wave of technological displacement through automation. I noticed in the book that you talk about the need to recognise when to automate, and when not to. This aligns somewhat to my own view of intelligent augmentation of the workforce, and the recognition of the value (and potential for competitive differentiation) of people within a process. Can you expand on your views on this topic for our readers?

TG: Much of this comes back to the same issues around skills and ‘education’: we need to have clear understanding of what automation can do well, and what it can’t. And what it can’t do well is a lot more than most business-folk seem to realise.

I’m a keen advocate of ‘technology applied well’, yet I sometimes also describe myself as a Luddite. And I’m not joking, because the original Luddites were not ‘machine-smashers’, afraid of technology, but skilled-workers who were more concerned about the social impacts of ill-thought-through introduction of machines and automation – especially when it was solely for the benefit of the ‘owners’, making everyone else worse off. The same dynamics as in the ‘thriller-plot’ of the story, in fact.

EAPJ: Do you think this will be a series? Can we look forward to hearing about Marco’s experience in the years ahead, or perhaps a separate set of characters going through a different type of transformation?

TG: Chris Potts did this, and very well, in his ‘fruITion’ trilogy; I’m not sure that I can. Part of it is the time factor: the book took about four years of elapsed-time to write, and I simply don’t have that amount of time any more. Another is that, for my fiction at least, I’m moving up to a much larger scope and scale: in the novel-series that I’m working on right now (‘The Viner Codex’), in effect it’s still the same challenges that Marco faces in this story, but spans right across the globe over a period of centuries rather than a few short years.

EAPJ: How do you recommend readers make use of the knowledge available in the book?

TG: Probably the easiest way is to read the book once just as a story in its own right, to get a sense of the real-world context. Then go back through it again, focussing on the middle third of the book where most of the ‘learning-moments’ take place, and cross-reference it with the respective notes at the end of the book. (Yes, this is a novel with notes!) And then apply it, in practice, in their own context. That’s the way that would work best.

In effect, the novel is a thinly-disguised introduction to Five Elements and the rest of the Tetradian toolkit – ‘tools for change’ and all that. Which means that all of the stuff I’ve described on the weblog and in my other books can help fill in more of the detail that will be needed for real-world practice. But that extra detail shouldn’t be essential: most people should get enough just from the novel to find useful ideas that they can apply directly within their own context.

EAPJ: Do you have any suggestions for additional reading after people have finished with Changes?

TG: Lots! (he says with a grin…) As above, there’s a chapter-by-chapter set of notes at the end of the book, which often includes suggestions for further reading on the respective topics. There’s a lot more on the weblog too, of course ( http://weblog.tetradian.com/ ), in my various books, such as on Leanpub ( https://leanpub.com/u/tetradian ) and in more visual form in my published slidedecks ( https://www.slideshare.net/tetradian ). For enterprise-architects, other books I’d recommend would be Milan Guenther’s ‘Intersection’ ( http://intersectionbook.com/ ), Alex Osterwalder’s work on business-models ( https://strategyzer.com/ ), Andrew Campbell’s work on operating-models ( https://operatingmodelcanvas.com/ ) and, again, Chris Potts’ ‘fruITion’ trilogy, as earlier above.

Perhaps the key point, though, is not just read, but read-practice-learn, read-practice-learn, together, continually. Read not just books, but also people, contexts, situations, feelings and more. Enterprise-architecture is always about the enterprise as a whole, not just the enterprise-IT – when we read, we need to read that whole-as-whole, not just the broken fragments!

EAPJ: What’s next for Tom Graves? I see online that you’ve spoken about creating practical material and tools for EA’s to apply in the real world. What can you share about those ideas, and where can people go for more information?

TG: I have two tasks on the go right now that should keep me busy (very busy!) for the next five years or so.

The first is that I need to do a full rework of all of the Tetradian toolset – see the post ‘An inventory of sorts’, http://weblog.tetradian.com/2016/10/10/an-inventory-of-sorts/ . All of those tools are in use right now, in some cases right around the world. But I’ll admit that in their present state they’re often not particularly accessible or easy to use. I need to change that – I need to make them all as accessible as, say, Alex Osterwalder’s ‘Business Model Canvas’ https://strategyzer.com/canvas . I’ve launched a Patreon project for people to join and help fund those developments: it would be great if more enterprise-architects would get involved with that. More details at https://www.patreon.com/tetradian , anyway.

The other is a trilogy called ‘The Viner Codex’. In a way, it’s a bit like ‘Changes’, in that it’s again using fiction to explore how to think about and tackle difficult issues, but all of it at a much larger scope and scale. Its starting-point is a real-world event that took place just under four hundred years ago (1647, to be precise); the main period for the stories is the mid- to late-nineteenth-century; but it’s very much about what’s happening in our own present day and possible futures. The style or genre is sort-of alternative-history, sort-of science-fiction, sort-of steampunk – the tag-line, to give you some idea, is ‘Weird politics. Weird plant-things. Weird battles in which nobody dies.’ The first book in the trilogy, ‘The Viner Journey’, should be ready for publication late this year, but there’s some information already available on the project website, http://vinercodex.com/ . Watch this space, perhaps?

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