wu wei – effortless action for enterprise architecture

How much energy do we spend as Enterprise Architects getting frustrated about strategies and road-maps not being funded and implemented as we envision?  If you find yourself behaving more like a salesmen than a visionary and trusted adviser, then perhaps a famous ancient Chinese philosophical text called the Tao Te Ching written by Lao Tzu 2500 years ago, and something called Wu Wei, can get you back on the path.

We are conditioned in Western culture to believe we ought to force the desired result.  How else do things get done?  As Enterprise Architects we often look at corporate strategies and conclude what logically must be implemented to obtained the desired outcome and then set about trying to get those initiatives funded and executed.  It all seems very logical.  But it does not normally work, and Enterprise Architecture has always be prone to the charge that we are idealistic and out of touch.  More than anything else this disconnect probably contributes to our ivory tower reputation.

Perhaps this is because the strategies are often populist in nature, (“Are those your new clubs? Nice!  Hey have you got the Big Data yet?  We’re doing the Big Data, have to, can’t afford to get left behind!”), and not ultimately what the business has an appetite to really commit to when the cost and implications are made clear.  Maybe our company wants to become customer focused (whose doesn’t?), and therefore logically we need to understand the customer, which could mean executing on CRM and/or customer master data management; expensive, difficult, hard to comprehend, and therefore not something business leaders want to prioritize just now.  This all makes sense.

So then, what is Wu Wei?  Who is Lao Tzu?  And what has this to do with Enterprise Architecture?

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ― Lao Tzu

lao tzu and the tao te ching
The Tao Te Ching, believed to be written by Lao Tzu in China around 600 BC (published 200 years later), is one of the most popular texts in Eastern philosophy.  It is the central text of Taoism, and heavily influences Confucianism and Zen Buddhism.  Goodreads shows over 1400 editions of this very popular text.

The title translates very roughly as “the way of integrity”. In its 81 verses it provides a treatise on how to live in the world with goodness and integrity.  Lao Tzu translates to something like “Old Master”, and there is much debate about this figure.  Even if you have not heard his name before, you have heard much of his wisdom.


Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou – Tom@HK

“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

wu wei
Central to the concepts in the Tao Te Ching is something refereed to as Wu Wei which literally meaning non-action or non-doing.  It is probably easiest to understand in terms of many martial arts where the central theme is to go with the energy and direct it as desired, rather than going against the energy in a toe to toe slug-fest.  In the Tao Te Ching this theme is connected to the natural world, and how the world naturally works to get things done.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Wu Wei is related to flow, or effortless flow, which in sporting terms could be considered to be when we are in the zone, with full conviction and concentration.  Some of the most successful companies do seem to be in the zone, with almost effortless action.  All of this is of course much easier in a purpose lead company providing the direction of flow.  According to Lao Tzu we ought to seek to respond to the true demand of the situation, which can only be done if we are quiet enough to really listen.

The key example cited by Lao Tzu relates to waters ability to, over time, erode and shape solid rock.



“Water is fluid, soft & yielding but water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield … what is soft is strong.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

effortless action in enterprise architecture 
As Enterprise Architects we have to make decisions about what we will pursue for the benefit of the entity we are working for.  We seek to determine the best action, which implies the best action that will actually work and achieve the desired outcome.  Often we will look at various professional resources or industry stories of successful implementations of a strategy or architecture, however we are quite prone to underestimating sample size and context.  Do we understand how often this has not worked? For whatever reason (“it was the right idea, but the stakeholders lacked vision”)?  Perhaps we don’t fully appreciate the unique context which allowed success for others.

Would we be better to adapt to the advice of Lao Tzu around effortless action, which in an Enterprise Architecture context might mean:

  • Allow quality space for thinking about strategies that ought to be pursued when the conditions are right so we are prepared to recognize and take opportunities that arise.  Do not lock on and get caught up in these strategies, or to specific timelines for execution.  The conditions will present themselves if we are prepared.
  • Take time occasionally to listen deeply to the energy and flow of the company and consider what truly is the current condition, including what is just rhetoric and what there is really an appetite and commitment to do.  For example, recent focus on privacy relating to Facebook might provide good conditions for pursuing long stalled data classification strategies.  Pursuing uplift of customer master data may have struggled, yet security concerns leading to IDAM may provide a natural path to gain support.
  • Consider not only the existing conditions, but also what might be able to be done to make it more likely for favorable conditions to arise.  Quite an effective way to do this is to create a repeatable narrative that aligns to the desired direction.  Perhaps we connect business people to stories that resonate with them and naturally lead to the desired path.
  • Some of our desired approaches, like core system replacements, will always be hard sells, and it may be more a matter of considering other less aggressive strategies such as strangler patterns mixed with microservice implementations or whatever else might make sense.
  • Always act with integrity and authenticity for the good of all.  We do not manipulate situation for personal advantage.

Think back to some of your most frustrating situations where you went “toe to toe” but could not gain the clearly logical support you wanted.  Could Lao Tzu’s advice help you see things differently?

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Prateek says:

    Great read Michael and love the quotes you’ve selected to reinforce the concepts.

    Liked by 1 person

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