A Call to Action via Modular Collaboration

By John T. Stough, Chief Architect and Founder of Exocubic LLC

Practice makes perfect, well, sort of. Unfortunately, very few technical professions take the word “practice” literally. I have always considered it uncomfortably necessary to think of a doctor as having a “practice”, yet am comforted by two things: first that the doctor is constantly learning and second that my situation has the potential to be slightly unique. Taken together, I am grateful the doctor practiced before and will continue to practice after my case. A critical aspect of this way of thinking is a movement away from single point monolithic solutions. We must embrace that architecture of complex systems is a professional practice, one that requires qualified architects that are on a collaborative journey towards the elusive perfection.

Embracing a New Paradigm: Collaborate to Action Rather Than to Ideal Requirements

It takes a dash of creativity to be an architect in any complex system. Consider the smooth lines of the race car, which provide visual appeal beyond the aerodynamics – speed is the purpose of the design, and though form does follow function it must still be enticing to watch fly down the track. The thing is, creativity is particularly hard to write a good requirement against. Creativity is not simply a statement for a non-functional quality attribute, “make the race car sexy” for instance. Nor does that mean that all creativity is visual, or any other individual form such as literature. It can, however, be architecturally captured as an outcome of collaboration- an architectural rationale – because it does mean that stakeholder concerns an architect must consider go beyond the purely performance and functional. There is always a tension between the “perfect requirement” and the “user friendly design”. Skilled architects have studied and understand Attribute Driven Design, Design Patterns, ATAM, and more – and the best will tell you that creativity is still elusive, not captured by these tools. Those are simply the brushes and paint colors, they are not the painting.

This has an impact on business and organizational dynamics and not just the systems those organizations construct. In the realm of defense acquisition, the traditional pursuit of perfection through monolithic contracts stands in stark contrast to the dynamic needs of modern warfare. This essay argues for a paradigm shift towards prioritizing practical action, fostering collaboration through consortia, and adopting modular contracting to enhance flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness in defense acquisition processes.

The Principle of Action: Perfect is the Enemy

This beckons us for a resounding call to action – we are at a critical nexus as the post-industrial world transitions fully into the information era. We must lead that charge as architects of the next generation of complex systems-of-systems, particularly in critical infrastructure and defense, because we need to shift our thinking from exquisite singular systems to rapid and modular collaboration. The system lifecycle may accelerate to the point that individual systems eventually become an evolutionary afterthought of the momentum of collaboration, production lines may give way to single build-to-print custom systems on demand. If we do not take rapid adaptation as an attribute of the architectural process itself, one that embraces the creativity to try, learn, and keep trying, then we will fail entirely on the search for the perfect requirement.

I recently read the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In Chapter 11, he points out a scenario that is excellent for proving my point (also echoed in his article “Why Trying to Be Perfect Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals” at https://jamesclear.com/repetitions). The experiment at the University of Florida, highlighting the superiority of pursuing quantity by repetition over singular perfection, serves as a foundational principle for our argument because, surprisingly, it was the quantity group that produced the highest quality photos. It would seem that creativity was enhanced through practice, whereas pontification tends toward theory only – motion without momentum. This approach, mirroring strategies in literature and military training, emphasizes that progress is often achieved through iterative effort and adaptability rather than the flawless execution of a preconceived plan. In defense acquisition, this translates to a focus on practice and repetition—replacing components, conducting experiments, and issuing small contracts—to cultivate innovation and proficiency. The idea that we are going to achieve open architecture “by design” rather than practicing the art of continuously modifying the system throughout its lifecycle is, emphatically, the exact same scenario as the photography class. If we desire modular and open systems, we must purposefully open them through modular contracting approaches. The pursuit of perfection is anathema- it is practice that makes the idea of perfect a worthy pursuit.

Collaborating through Consortia and Modular Contracting: A Unified Strategy for Agility and Adaptation

The transition towards Modular Open Systems Approaches (MOSA) necessitates a collaborative ecosystem where government entities, industry partners, and academic institutions converge. Consortia embody this spirit of cooperation by pooling resources, knowledge, and expertise to drive shared innovation and standardization. This collective approach not only accelerates the development of interoperable and modular technologies but also fosters a culture of continuous improvement, critical for adapting to the ever-evolving landscape of defense technology.

Modular contracting offers a practical framework for implementing the principles of action and collaboration. By decomposing large projects into smaller efforts, just as we decompose complex systems to manageable components, we achieve an approach that is modular and allows for greater flexibility, risk mitigation, and the inclusion of innovative solutions from a broader range of contributors. Modular contracting supports agile acquisition processes, facilitating rapid iteration, and deployment of new technologies, thereby enhancing the defense sector’s capability to respond to emerging threats and opportunities.

Strategic Recommendations: Charting the Course Forward

To fully realize the benefits of this paradigm shift, for organizations that build complex systems, particularly in oversight-driven environments like defense, I offer several strategic recommendations:

  • Don’t just let standards be an easy button. Instead, promote experimentation with Open Standards focused on Interoperability. Commit to the development and adoption of open standards to ensure seamless integration across modular systems. The Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC) initiated the first ever MOSA Summit for this purpose.
  • Realize MOSA is an integration of Business and Technical modular approaches by using modular contracting. This allows us to actively seek small MVP projects to improve working solutions. Use of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) collaborative contract structures like the Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium (AMTC) provide a model for such.
  • Foster Industry-Government Partnerships: Strengthen collaboration between the government and industry to align strategic objectives and leverage collective expertise. Stop having closed meetings about open architecture. The Army Aviation community developed the Architecture Collaboration Working Group (ACWG) for this purpose and it is a good prototype of such a model.
  • Implement Agile Acquisition Processes: Adopt agile methodologies that support flexible, iterative development and rapid prototyping, ensuring that defense acquisition keeps pace with technological advancements and operational requirements. The government still tends to chase singular large contracts with huge OEMs instead of implementing the “Approach” of MOSA as a modular contract structure.

I have more Strategic Recommendation notes for this section from my notebook to move to the computer… but I will practice what I preach and use that for another article. Perhaps you can join me by providing some feedback and amplifying this one with some collaboration?

A Unified Call to Action

The narrative of defense acquisition is ripe for transformation, inspired by the lessons of repetition over perfection, the power of collaboration, and the strategic advantages of modular contracting. By embracing these principles, the defense sector can navigate the complexities of modern warfare with greater agility, innovation, and effectiveness. The path forward calls for a collective effort—a unified call to action—to ensure that our defense acquisition processes are as dynamic, adaptable, and resilient as the forces they aim to support. These concepts apply beyond defense to critical infrastructure, energy resilience, SmartCities, and manufacturing. It is time for a professional (in the proper sense of the term) Complex Physical Systems Architect board certified practice area. Will you journey with me on this path?