Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.This is the third in a series of articles on design thinking in business (see links below). In the previous installment we noted that design is relevant to problems that have more than one solution. Equally important, design is always about doing something new.

An engineer designing a bridge to use new materials or to span a gap in a way never before tried does not start from nothing. She has knowledge of how others have approached the task, of their successes and of their failures, and has at her disposal the results of the accumulated efforts of thousands of academic and commercial researchers in physics and engineering. Out of all of this an engineer has a rich set of design principles that transcend the details of any specific problem.

For example, there are the principles of basic engineering physics that tell a designer of the need to balance forces, both the static ones of the structure itself, and all the dynamic ones that arise in its daily use. She knows to avoid single points of failure by constructing alternate load paths to handle the loss of a single component without catastrophic failure of the entire structure. And she knows to put in safety margins to account for uncertainties in material properties and the general unpredictability of the real world.

It is no different in business. We learn the principles of business from accumulated experience, our own and that of others promulgated through business news, books and teaching. We learn from observing the business that takes place around us on a constant basis. And we learn from non-business sources, from the way the natural world works and from our observations of social patterns.

Principles vs. rules

What are principles? They are not rules. Rules are useful, but restricted. Rules are tied to specific circumstances and hence can become obsolete, while principles are patterns that transcend details to achieve universal validity.

Take one of the most fundamental principles of business, that of profitability: Revenues should exceed expenses. This is simply a translation into business terms of the principle that any sustainable system must be fed enough energy to offset the losses incurred in its running — there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.

Most principles differ from rules in another important way. A rule tends to lack flexibility — we can only obey or break it, while principles are neither obeyed nor broken, but are rather balanced, one against another, violated for a time in order to leverage some other principle. The designer of a tire takes advantage of its rotation in normal use to economize. Viewed statically, the tire is a design failure — indeed, most tires do a poor job of supporting the weight of a stationary car for long periods of time. Under the actual likely conditions of use, however, the design succeeds. Similarly, businesses frequently take short-term losses as investments in future growth. Principles take us out of the realm of black and white and that is, in fact, their power. They guide our decisions at the same time that they free us to correct and react and innovate.

So, concretely, what principles are we talking about? I can’t presume to offer an exhaustive list, but I will offer a few of my own favorites.

Principles are —

There is the principle of simplicity, which says that if there are two ways to do something, the simpler is likely to be superior, not only because it is more economical, for example, but because it is likely to be more robust, more flexible, more maintainable, and more economical.

Related to simplicity, the principle of underspecification states that you should only specify what you absolutely must, and nothing more since this is likely to make the system far easier to adapt to change in the future.

There is the vital principle of alignment, which reminds us that when different elements of our business are pulling in different directions, our progress in our desired direction will be less than optimal.

Principles sometimes clash with one another. For example, the principle of diversity says that a greater variety (of people, operating systems, whatever) creates an overall system that is more flexible and adaptable and less prone to failure. On the other hand, greater uniformity (e.g., standards and best practices) can reduce costs, ease integration, and aid in transferring experience from one unit to another. Centralization can also reduce costs and enhance control, while autonomy promotes the ability to adapt to localized circumstances and capture the diversity that a business already has.

These are just a few examples that leap to mind; there are probably quite a few more. In fact, every new failure or success, and every new system encountered potentially offers the chance to learn a new principle or to gain a deeper understanding of an already-familiar one.

Next time we’ll finish up by digging a little deeper into some of these examples and considering the two ways that principle-based thinking can be applied in an organization.

Previous stories:

Part 1: www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=8601

Part 2: localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=8674

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.