“It Depends” a response to Ben Holliday
I have a lot of time for the folks at Futuregov, and when I see a Tweet or blog post from them I’m usually smiling, nodding and sharing it to spread the word. Their brand of irreverence, ambition based on technical competence, and deep empathy for the people served by local public services, makes them stand out as one of the new breed of suppliers we need to help transform how problems are addressed for people and communities.
So I was surprised to find myself frowning and shaking my head in disagreement on reading Ben Holliday’s recent post “It Depends”
Now, to be fair, he’s writing from the perspective of a Designer, and talking about his concerns with the phrase within the design context. But I took issue with a couple of fairly fundamental things Ben says in this post:
“‘It depends’ is a passive voice. It feels like a state of inaction.”
For me, that’s a very narrow reading of the intent behind “It depends”. I see the phrase as very much an active state — it’s the start of an inquiry, an active interrogation of what’s happening, what’s the context, and what are we trying to achieve. What’s the purpose of our action — knowing which, we can be so much more effective.
Ben talks about making decisions, saying yes or no, as active, and the essence of design. But doing this without asking the questions that lead from “it depends” mean that we could be acting without purpose, without clarity of intent, and successfully moving towards the goal of meeting needs would be purely random.
I don’t see “it depends” as conflicting with decision making. Far from it. As a Chief Enterprise Architect between 2010 and 2016, I frequently answered a question about what we would do with “it depends”, had a discussion about purpose, understanding of the problem, options and trade-offs within the space of half an hour, and then made a decision and directed a course of action.
Perhaps the problem here is seeing the phrase as an ending — a singular response without further dialogue. I can’t speak for the Design profession, but that’s not how it’s used in Enterprise Architecture — it’s telling that the original Tweet that Ben references https://twitter.com/odannyboy/status/971132045773565952?s=21 includes a reply that says:
Very annoying. While that answer is nearly always true, it’s lazy and certainly doesn’t answer the question being asked by colleagues or clients. It’s a sad excuse for people unwilling to say “I don’t know but let me find out.” https://twitter.com/jeff_werness/status/971733479124799489?s=21
As Tom Grave’s has said, “I don’t know (but I know how to find out)” is another part of the Enterprise Architect’s mantra — along with “It depends” and “Just enough” — these are prescriptions for action, not inaction.