Software Engineering and the 4 Causes of Aristotle

I stumbled on the principle of the 4 causes of Aristotle some years ago when I did some reading about cause and effect, leadership and management. The question is: How do we get things done? When do we get things done? And also very important: How do we get things done in the right way?

The Four Causes of Aristotle

Everything what happens has four causes. There are no more and no less. Exactly four. Only if all four causes are present, something can come into existence. That is what Aristotle formulated in one of his most famous books: Physica. (Have also a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes)

In the next sections I describe the four causes. These causes appear in the order I present them. To give an accessible example, I use the picture of building a house. You will see how the four causes apply there.

Causa Finalis: The final cause

The causa finalis or final cause is the basic reason for anything to happen. You can also translate it as need, requirement or wish. Only with something like that a trigger is present to start some development.

For our house building example, we can think of it like the need to move into a new place because of a lack of space. For instance, a couple lives in a small flat and they are happy, but a child is to be born. They found out, that with a small child the place is too small, there is not a good chance to have a children room, the bath room is to narrow… They find that the current situation is changing and a need for more space is coming up.

This is the causa finalis. A need or requirement which is not detailed, yet. There is just an issue to be solved, but there is not a detailed plan, yet. But, the final result is formulated. In our case: More space.

Causa Formalis: The form

After the causa finalis is met, the second cause happens: The causa formalis or form. The final cause showed an issue and its final abstract solution and now it is thought about it and a plan or form is formulated. The causa formalis brings the vision for how the cause finalis can be solved.

In the house building example, our couple may have thought about renting the flat next to them and re-modelling a wall (what is maybe not allowed by the owner), moving into a bigger flat (which might be too expensive), or to build a house. Maybe, after deciding to build a house, they go to an architect and plan how large the house will be, what it will look like, and so forth. At the end of this process a clear vision exists how the situation is to be solved. After the abstract final result, more space, the plan has now a real, detailed form, but is still not physical, yet.

Causa Materialis: The material

After a clear vision exists due to the causa formalis, this vision needs to come to the final solution somehow. For that the last two causes are needed. The very next is the causa materialis or the material. For anything to happen, the material needs to be present or in other words: The bondary conditions need to be met.

In the house building example, the material is the material to build the house likes stones, concrete, wood and so forth, but also the knowledge on how to build it. The physical material is needed, what is obvious, but also the knowledge. Without these, there is no chance that a house can be build.

As boundary conditions other stuff is needed as well like some ground to put the house onto, time to build it and so forth. This is also part of the causa materialis.

Causa Efficiense: The execution

After the needs started the process, the vision was formed and the material was organized, the last cause is the execution or causa efficiense. A trainer of mine told me once: A vision without execution is just hallucination. He is right. One can dream of the best stuff, to have everything in place and so forth, but without execution nothing happens. That’s what the last cause is about. In this meaning, it also links to the block post I wrote some years before about The Trinity of Action.

In the house building example, this is the actual building of the house. We have everything in place now to perform the actual solution. We have the need to give as drive and energy, we have a vision and plan, we have the material and knowledge, and the last step is to put the material together with the knowledge we have to get the actual house build.

The Dependencies of the Four Causes

The four causes are sorted in another order in most cases, but in my opinion this is not optimal. There is a strict order of appearance in the order I described it above.

The first cause in my opinion is the causa finalis. It is a natures principle that without energy nothing takes place. Without the need, requirement or issue, there is no energy to change a current status quo. There is always a causa finalis needed as a seed for any change. I cannot think of a situation where it is different.

The second cause after the seeding by the causa finalis is always a kind of plan. A lot of actions in our world seem to be performed without plan, but the closer look reveals, that even there is a plan, but maybe not a well thought through one or just based on a pattern or experience, but there is one.

The cause materialis may be also the second reason, because the material might be already there for the solution, but it is not seen as such without a kind of plan. On the other side a plan also reveals what material might be missing which is needed to be organized or waited for.

At the very end the action, the causa efficiense can take place, but without a plan or material nothing can be done.

The principle of the Four Causes helps me a lot during my daily private and professional life, because it helps me to understand what happens on one site, but it also provides me a guideline on how to work in certain situation, because it gives me an order for what to work on.

The 4 Causes in Software Engineering

There is not so much to write anymore. In Software Engineering, this principles are at work as well.

At first a customer has a need to be solved which lead into some requirements which are the causa finalis. It is formulated what the final outcome has to be. After that architectural and design papers are written and planning done which are the causa formalis. With the organization of hardware, software, developers, office space and everything else, the boundary conditions for the actual development are met. The final development is the causa efficiense.

The trick is to reflect the current status of a software project from time to time and think about the four principles to find out, whether all causae are there. If something is missing, the project cannot be finished successfully:

1. Is the causa finalis not met, no customer will pay due to a lack of need.
2. Is the cause formalis not met, no customer will pay, because it is not useful.
3. Is the cause materialis not met, the product cannot be developed, shipped or run. Again, nobody will pay.
4. At least, if the causa efficiense is missing, the actual product is not build and cannot be sold either.

That’s all the secret in here…

Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

My impression is that over the last years the two words effectiveness  and efficiency are used more and more interchangeable. This is very misleading due to the totally different original meaning. To explain this, we can take both words and use it in a business context.

Effectiveness means that my business generates the wanted effect. My business idea is implemented and working. If I am a baker, it would mean I am able to bake bread and rolls and I am able to sell it. The more customers I have or the more rolls and breads I am able to bake, to bigger is my effectiveness in the production of rolls and breads.

Efficiency comes in, when I try to do find out how much effort I put into the production. Do I need one work hour for baking one roll? That’s not very efficient and is not very profitable either. Do it cost me 2EUR for the baking of this one roll? It’s not very efficient, too. The question is with much effort is the effectiveness correlated?

Therefore, the effectiveness is just a measure of my business impact or the impact of everything else I do. But the efficiency is the ratio of the effectiveness to the effort I put into creating the effect.

In most situations the efficiency is more important than the effectiveness. The efficiency helps to be profitable. If a small business, which is not very effective (does not have a big market penetration), but is profitable enough to pay its bills and to invest enough, is healthy. But, the opposite is a company have a tremendous impact on the market (or maybe I am a market leader ;-)), but it does not make profit, then it’s just a question of time until it gets bankrupt.

Therefore: It’s better to have a small but profitable business than having a big business which struggles to make profit.