Dorn’s Dogma

Norman Dorn, a physicist, has been a systems-freak contributor to the Plan B quest for decades. He offered the following essay on goal-seeking for inclusion in the website.


The tools of task analysis allow focus on roles for individuals. I call your focus onto any one role. (As an important limiting aside, I do not mean by the use of the word role that any one individual cannot perform in more than one role; indeed, it is important for the establishing an effective focus on a role that each individual have possibly many more than one role.) Each of us has had need to identify information needed, for particular roles, that enables individuals in those roles to take effective action.  In each role there is a set of concepts that, if understood by an individual in that role, enables that individual to take effective actions.  Understanding, and using, a role-specific set of concepts is driven by needs expressed as concerns.  Teaching a role requires communication in concise and simple terms.

To be effective, each individual in a particular role must have the contents of the relevant architecture ready to hand.  Some architect has had to effect that transmittal of the relevant architecture.  For each transmittal, a judgment as to success or failure in meeting that goal must be possible.  An individual acting in any one of these roles has a set of concerns that is nearly disjoint from the set of concerns that any individual acting in any other role has.  Nearly, but not quite, disjoint!  Producing, harmonizing, and transmitting the full set of concepts in a way that is effective in covering the diverse concerns is the responsibility of the architect.  The architect needs guidance, too.  This guidance is necessarily the content of a set of concepts, an architecture.  The nature of systems engineering is the consideration of two problems: analysis and design.  The architect needs to know when the objectives of the effort to create the target architecture have been accomplished. There must be a clear separation of concerns between the project objectives and the product objectives. The idea of an architecture (for the architect) must therefore:

  • Have a single specified role as its focus (a mission).
  • Identify the end user as an individual who must take effective actions in this role (analysis).
  • Identify the role-world perceived by this end user (design).
  • Direct effort toward completing the specification of this role-world (analysis).
  • Allow the detailing of the specification to be measured (design).
  • Direct effort toward detailing the specification (evaluation).

It seems then a plausible statement that: An architecture for a specified role is a set of concepts, which, if understood by an individual, enables that individual to take effective actions in that role.

This formulation is descriptive in character. It meets the quality criteria above in that it forces the role to be specified to use it, provides a focus on needs that are independent of means, provides workable bounds on the scope of each transmittal of the needed set of concepts, requires each action to be explained, provides needed direction for efforts to complete the architecture, responds to the inventory of needs, leaves no need uncovered, and is itself usable by the individuals in the specified role.  In each assignment as a consultant, the architect fleshes out the extended set of concepts of which the set appropriate to this role is but a part.

The understanding that the architect gains and develops must be captured as a role specific set of concepts. The captured set of concepts must be transmitted, to the individuals who may need them, in a form that can be used effectively and appropriately by these individuals.  The transmittal is the vehicle for communication between the architect and the user. The contents of this transmittal must be clear, precise, self-consistent, and unambiguous. Transmitting an architecture is intended to be a means to effect a change in the effectiveness of individuals. In each role, an individual assumes an architecture; this architecture is a theory-of-action. A theory-of-action that an individual uses can be different from the theory-of-action that that individual espouses. The actions of an architect are therefore an instance of the process of double loop learning. The challenge of effectiveness in the transmission of an architecture is to make the transitions from presentation to espousal to use quickly in each individual who needs the architecture.

For each role it is necessary to develop and refine an architecture that will allow each individual in that role to take effective actions in that role.  It appears that there is a need to write a “paper” transmittal, for each role, that conveys the concepts needed in that role.

The test of any transmittal lies in its effectiveness when the words it presents are used by people to communicate about a topic in that role.  This set of concepts is itself an Architecture.

Effective Communication

Language is the only means we have to communicate concepts between one another.  The basis of language is experience shared by the users of language.  Logic requires that every single concept have its expression in this language of experience, natural language.  Each new concept must similarly be expressed in this same language of experience.  Because each new concept is expressed in natural language, some new concepts can become very cumbersome to express and use in their full form.  These latter concepts must be given names that carry the full form meaning, but are shorter and easier to use.  Thus begins a process of construction of named concepts, creating a formal language for the topic.  In consequence, there is a tension between construction and experience.

Natural language, while it is based on experience, is ambiguous, and its use interferes with precise communication.  As examples, consider the many meanings of the written word “bow” in the English language, and consider the several different English words that are pronounced “bough”.  Formal language, while it is based on experience, can lack an evident sense of reality, and its use can therefore interfere with effective communication.  As examples, consider the meanings of energy and momentum as commonly used in conversation and their meanings as used in the study of physics.  The structure of plane geometry is a simple example.

We all use many words that have multiple meanings regularly in written and spoken communication.  While each writer and speaker knows what he or she intends, the reader or listener all too often understands something different or nothing at all.  Similar difficulties result from the multiple disciplines among these audiences.  Each discipline brings its own interpretation for some words, those of one discipline frequently differing from those of another.  The fact that more than one interpretation is associated with some words detracts significantly from the effectiveness of each of those words in communication.

Reconciling these diverse understandings for particular words is necessary to achieve a shared understanding, which is to say, to have effective communication.


The consistency of each transmittal must be maintained.  Each defined term must be treated as a mathematical symbol would be treated, i.e., when any defined term is used, the articulation of that defined term must be correct in that use.  Whenever roles are closely related, the consistency of each transmittal of the Architecture for each role must be maintained with the transmittal of each related Architecture.

Guidelines for Building an Effective Transmittal for an Architecture

In keeping with guideline 5 (below), a cluster is defined to be one specific word or phrase.  Writers on formal grammars for natural languages use the phrase “fancy noun” in the same way as I use “cluster” here.  The following list presents action guidelines for building an effective transmittal of clusters that are defined terms in a needed Architecture.

  1. Articulate a concept.

Do this to give a sharp and unambiguous focus to a particular concept.  Use the active voice wherever possible.  Use the singular form of each noun wherever possible.  Use subject-verb-object word order wherever possible.

  1. Give each such articulated concept (from guideline 1) a name.

Do this only if the concept will be frequently used.  One pitfall in building a transmittal is to begin with a list of terms, often a long list of terms, and then attempt to define each one.  The result is a plethora of definitions, some of which are redundant, some of which are inconsistent, and many of which are much more wordy than necessary.  Another result of starting with terms rather than concepts is that, while building a transmittal, people frequently argue about the terms to be defined, based on their preconceived notions associated with those terms.  It is far more productive, not to mention pleasant, to establish a coherent and distinct concept, and then to chose a name for that concept.

  1. Make each name (from guideline 2) unique.

Each unique name is called a defined term.  It is confusing when a single cluster is the name of more than one concept.  If it is possible when resolving such a situation, avoid using that cluster.

  1. Make each use of each defined term (from guideline 3) in the transmittal consistent.

The transmittal contains a formal system of defined terms.  Using any cluster from outside of this formal system in the transmittal will reduce the clarity of the transmittal when that cluster is also one of the defined terms.

  1. Minimize the number of undefined clusters that are used frequently.

A cluster that is frequently used names a specific concept that is important to a common understanding of the Architecture.  If a cluster names a concept for which no articulation is to be given in the Architecture, the user of the Architecture is free to provide this concept.  Keeping the number of such clusters small can require significant effort, but the payoff is an even more significant reduction of ambiguity in the transmittal.

  1. Keep the articulation of each concept brief.

The articulation of the concept named by each defined term should contain just enough information to distinguish that defined term from every other defined term.  Present elaboration, such as attributes and details, separately, perhaps in separate documents.

  1. Use alternative typography when one cluster must be the name of more than one concept.

It is sometimes impossible to avoid naming more than one concept with one cluster, particularly in multidisciplinary contexts.  Use distinctive fonts or a distinctive prefix or suffix to distinguish among the uses of a cluster that otherwise names more than one concept.


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