Shearing layers in Organisational Transformation — half an idea

A few years ago I was introduced by my friend and colleague Chris Morgan to the maxim that you should separate parts of a software system that changed at different rates.

Chris was a big fan of Kevlin Henney’s work (as I am) and I think it was Kevlin that had introduced Chris to this idea. I believe that Kevlin in turn had heard about it from the 1999 ‘Shearing Layers’ paper by Brian Foote and Joseph Yoder.

In the paper, Brian and Joseph reference earlier work from building architecture. The load-bearing elements of the building change over a 30–300 year timescale, but the exterior layer — windows for example, changes every 20 years or so. The paper notes that given this, buildings shouldn’t be constructed as single, permanent structures but rather as a set of layers that can change at different rates.

Properly separating these layers enables the building to function well over long period of time.

This is because:

  • those parts of the building that need to remain stable over time are not perturbed by changes to rapidly-evolving parts of the building
  • those parts of the building that need to evolve rapidly — e.g. to meet emergent needs — are not affected by the need for stability in other parts of the building

This is where Brian and Joseph introduce their maxim

factor your system so that artifacts that change at similar rates are together.

So, what has this got to do with organisational transformation?

My hypothesis — which may not be new — is that organisations are also like buildings. Parts of the organisation need to be like the load-bearing layer of a building — and so change slowly — other parts of the organisation need to be like the exterior layers, and change more rapidly, sometimes really rapidly. Think for example about changing the fixtures, fittings or furniture in a building…

Friction in organisational transformation comes when rapidly-evolving parts of the organisation come into contact with slowly-evolving parts of the organisation. This could be because the organisation has created unnecessary coupling between parts of the organisation that need to change at different rates or because the organisation is treating something which needs to be capable of evolving rapidly as something which only needs to evolve slowly.

So, if you’re seeing friction in your organisational transformation, think about:

  • whether parts of your organisation are built to evolve at the appropriate rate
  • whether you have coupled parts of your organisation together that need to change at different rates

As noted in the title, this is very much half of an idea and I welcome your thoughts on how to improve it.