VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Principles of Organic Development

Dear Reader,

Although The Oregon Experiment is the best written description so far of the VISTA software lifecycle, it doesn't describe it perfectly.

Why would it? VISTA's lifecycle unfolded according to its own path of development, in response to its own internal and external pressures, many of which emerged after this book was written. This book's such a good way to begin learning that lifecycle because it so clearly describes such a good example of an organic development-process.

Living systems, like VISTA and like physical architecture, can't be adequately managed by mechanical development-processes.

They don't need to be. There's an alternative.

Instead of mechanical development-processes, we can adopt organic development-processes, which mimic the processes living system use to produce new living systems, instead of the processes people use to produce machines. VISTA's history (including its current problems) proves we must replace VA's current mechanical VISTA-planning processes with its original (or improved) organic ones, but doing that will require understanding organic development-processes at least as well as we currently think we understand the mechanical ones.

That's where Alexander's book comes in. Alexander proposes six principles that together create an organic process for architectural planning. If you learn how these six principles guide this architectural lifecycle, which is clearly and cogently explained in The Oregon Experiment, then you're halfway to understanding VISTA's software lifecycle. Discussing this book isn't a diversion; it's a shortcut.

The similarities to the VISTA software lifecycle started by O'Neill and the original hardhats and developed over time within VA and IHS are eerie, but the differences are equally important and illuminating. We'll examine both as we explore Alexander's six principles of organic development.

There are two particular problems with this model I'll highlight throughout the exploration that follows.

First, as Alexander makes very clear, these principles aren't the ideal suite to guide organic development-processes. They're a compromise designed for overly centralized situations in which budgetary authority is and must remain centralized. This wasn't, needn't, and shouldn't be the case in VA, where local hospitals can, did, and must control part of the IT budget so they can share in the decision making. The current totalitarian degree of centralization in VA's management and funding of VISTA is a grotesque organizational illness that new VA CIO Roger Baker needs to cure for the continuing health of the veterans whose care is now his charge. The importance of class-three software in VA (a subject of its own we'll thoroughly explore in the weeks ahead) demands a return to a balance between central office and the hospitals. That healthier balance also represents a shift away from Alexander's compromise in this book back toward the purer model he envisioned but didn't document here.

Second, software and buildings share a surprising amount in common, but their differences are also important. Among other things, software's far more malleable than buildings are, so the pace of software change in a healthy VISTA organization is one or more orders of magnitude faster than the pace of construction change in a neighborhood can ever be. This creates both solutions and problems Alexander didn't have to address in The Oregon Experiment.

We'll explore his six principles of organic development with these and other differences in mind.

Yours truly,

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