A little while ago, I was presented with a “solution” that started with an over-complex block diagram of a set of inter-related applications with a brief description of each below. This was followed by a description of the technical implementation of the “presentation layer” followed by “business logic layer”, etc. The problem statement was along the lines of “we need to be more agile in redeploying our sales force to address changes in the market”.
My response was to state that we need to explain the story of business change. Within that overarching story there will be an IT story. Both stories must show that we understand where we are today, where we want to get to, the imperative for change, the key decisions that we need to take and the major steps on the way.
At this point I am uneasy because I’m not sure whether I have made myself clear. Do they “get it”? Do they understand what an architectural story is. Yes, everyone is TOGAF certified. But I’m not sure if they have the hard won experience of a grey haired enterprise architect to recognise what is needed to get through the approvals boards and funding committees that will turn their hard work into reality.
My role involves creating, reviewing and often guiding the development of solutions. A question that I often ask to gauge whether they are on top of the solution is “what story are you trying to tell?”. My idea was to explain how to tell a story…
Ruth Mallan quotes number 11 from Pixar’s “22 rules of storytelling”. “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
Why tell a story?
I found Kelsey Ruger’s site “Kenzie Creative”. Take a look at his articles on storytelling. Story telling helps people cope with change, it removes fear, it makes the complex simple, it persuades, and it creates a vivid picture of the future.
A defining aspect of a good story is that there is tension, there is conflict, there is a level of discomfort that keeps the audience engaged. This is a defining aspect of architecture, there is typically a stress between long term and short term goals, between local agendas and the corporate direction, between the strategic and tactical.
In the first act we find out what the problem is, who the main characters are and what conflict there is. This is where we paint the picture of the As-Is, we recognise there is a better way — the To-Be, this is where we recognise there is an imperative to change.
In the second act, the complexity of the problem is presented, near impossibility of resolution, we need to make critical decisions to move forward or accept defeat. This is where we get to the root causes of the problems and start to identify possible solutions, but we discover there is no easy way out.
In the final act, we make key decisions to reach our goal, we make a plan and follow it to a successful conclusion. We make the difficult decisions, we make the compromises or stick to principles, we develop a roadmap, we develop a delivery plan and we govern it through to achieve the To-Be.
But this isn’t enough, is it?
We need something with a bit more depth. This is where Nigel Watts’ Eight-Point Story Arc comes in, it adds enough details to the story structure so that we can construct a story arc for architecture. This structure can be used as a checklist to ensure that a story is complete.
The 8 points, with an architecture interpretation, are:
Stasis — The As-Is state.
Trigger — Why now? What is the trigger event that means that we should act now? What is the imperative to change at this point?
The quest — These are the problems with the current state that need to be addressed. What is our motivation to change?
Surprise — This is where we determine the goals to be met by the change. We may wish to solve the problems or we may wish to go further.
Critical choice — The key decisions that need to be made to achieve the goals, or to compromise on the goals. This is where we define our options for change, the change impacts and the decision principles that we will apply in making a decision.
Climax — This is the big decision where we commit to a way forward with the resources necessary to get there and a change owner to drive the change through.
Reversal — We reverse the problems and create an improved future state through a roadmap of coherent actions.
Resolution — The To-Be state.
When I presented a diagram to a boss of mine some years ago, he said “I know that they say a picture is worth a 1000 words, but if you can’t summarise message in the picture in a few words then the picture is worth nothing.”
When you want to present your architecture you should try to fill in each box with a few bullet points. If you can then you know that your architectural story is complete. If you cannot then you still have some work to do — you can still present it but you should be asking for guidance, help or time rather than approval.
Early in my career, I was in a meeting where we were talking about a project. The lead architect drew a picture consisting of blobs and lines. The diagram was presented with certainty throughout and positioned the speaker as a key expert. Each blob and line was explained clearly except one…
I pointed at a part of the diagram and asked, “I think missed the explanation of one of the relationships, what does this line mean?” There was a disapproving glare and a sharp answer “there is a relationship!” The tone made it clear to me that the real answer was, “I was glossing over the fact that I don’t know and now you have embarrassed me!”
Perhaps I could have asked the question in a less challenging way. However, that aside, presenting certainty when there is none can cause serious issues as a project progresses and create and build on unacknowledged assumptions.
Sometimes, however experienced you are as an architect and however “strategic” you are in your work, sometimes it pays to get right back to basics. The issue often is how effective is our communication? In the communication of ideas through pictures and words are we being clear? If not then we fail, so it is right, sometimes, to go back and ask yourself whether you are getting the basics of communication right.
I read a book called “101 Things I Learned at Architecture School” by Matthew Frederick. It is about the basics of “traditional” architecture rather than enterprise architecture but I was surprised how much I could get of the book and find relevant to what we do.
The first of the 101 “Things” is “How to draw a line”. Just as in traditional architecture, pictures at various levels of formality are critical for communication.
You need to buy the book to get the specific advice however this page prompts a number of questions:
what does each line on your diagram mean?
do the differences between lines – thick, thin, colours, dashes, dots, arrowheads, etc. all have clear unambiguous meanings?
is the labelling meaningful and informative?
are you routing lines so they are easy to follow?
are they crossing?
are there too many blobs and lines?
do they take the audience from the “beginning” of the diagram to the “end”?
does the diagram tell a story?
when you sketch on a whiteboard, are your lines strong and bold showing certainty in your ideas?
are the lines weak indicating your lack of clarity?
do your diagrams leaving people nodding in confusion?
could your audience use your diagram and explain it to someone else accurately?
The most fundamental tool for an enterprise architect is the simple line. Are you using it right?
There is a guy that I have known for about 12 years. He is going to retire shortly. I have admired him since I met him. Those who know him will recognise this description, if he reads it I hope he takes as it is meant – it is a compliment, and those who don’t, well, just think on this description.
He has never been number one, but as long as I have known him, number two. He has been number two to many number ones. He has survived the passing of many number ones.
I joined him once when he was briefing another number one. At the end of the meeting, I knew who was in charge. I knew that the puppet was the star but my friend was pulling the strings.
He has several amazing abilities – he is universally liked but many don’t know why they like him. He listens very well, and keeps a confidence given. He takes care of those who put their trust in him. He advises with clarity and honesty. He can read people, their intentions, their emotions, their motivations, he can anticipate their actions, and very often shape them. He has a huge network of friends, many of them with influence.
He is a patient man. If he wants something, he will get it. He will plan a simple plan and “softly, softly catchy monkey” he will execute and deliver that plan.
But don’t cross him, because you will only cross him once. That network of friends that he has will turn into a monster and devour his enemies.
An enterprise architect is a true hybrid. You must be able to help business people of all disciplines work in problem spaces that cover the external eco-system, business models, operating models, processes, organisation, technology and information. The down side is that you almost certainly will not be an expert in any one area.
You will be a jack of all trades, master of none. This leaves you open to accusations, particularly from IT architects, of being a lightweight, of lacking depth, of being technically weak and out of date. This can be painful for an enterprise architect with a background and reputation as a technology guru.
Business people tend to be kinder. They appreciate someone who has come over to their side. They need IT people who understand and view their problems as business issues. They want an honest broker. But you are not one of them and you will be in deep trouble if you start to think that you are, but you are trying.
Being a hybrid that has moved from IT, being a true enterprise architect, puts you in the middle. You are no longer in IT, but you can’t transition to the business. You can add huge value by bridging the gap, you can also get lonely because you just don’t fit.
To remain valuable, you must be learning all the time. When a new technology arrives, you need to understand the key features. What business value can it add? What is just hype? Can you anticipate the gotchas? How does it supersede old solutions and address issues in older technologies? What is the new language that goes with it, how does this relate to the old language?
Growing business capability is equally important. This happens at several levels – what are industry trends, what is the latest thinking for improving business operations, who are the new entrants in the market, where are the threats, where are the opportunities, what is happening on the shop floor, how is technology changing the business?
You won’t have time to be an expert technologist but you will be able to engage in strategic decision making and set a technical direction that delivers business goals – and that is where an IT oriented enterprise architect can add value, not by indulging in technical mastery.
Enterprise architects are often accused of “living in ivory towers”. They complain that their work is ignored. Architecture teams have their numbers cut, they are abolished, their staff are scattered around the IT function to “where their skills can be applied usefully”, and architects can be seen as an expensive luxury that adds little value. A good concept that fails to deliver!
A good enterprise architect invariably has significant practical experience at the sharp end of systems development, service delivery, or in the business. Good architects maintain contact with their roots and they develop new ones. This is critical to the execution of architecture work – and we must always remember “architecture is pointless without impact”.
An enterprise architect must have a range of practical skills covering data, applications, infrastructure and the business that they deliver to. The key here is practical. An architect achieves delivery through others. Those others must understand and respect the architectural insight. This means that architects must have credibility when they advise on decisions and implementation.
The foundations for achieving this are experience, sound understanding of the principles, up to date knowledge, well worked through advice and good communication skills.
However, there are other key activities that we have to work at continually:
Get out there in the business – I am out at the sharp end of the business at least once a month and I encourage my team to do the same. We need to see the reality of the people who make the money or deliver the service. We need to talk to them and understand their day to day problems. We need to understand the opportunities for improving performance where it counts. We need to observe the impact that our architect work has on real people. We need to see how we have succeeded or failed. Our conversations with business managers and in IT will then have more credibility.
Get out there in IT – What is good for the business is good for IT. But here the opportunities to get involved and help are much greater. As architects, we have information, skills, knowledge and tools that can help in development and service delivery. We can take complex problems away and let development and service delivery team focus on their core tasks. If we offer to take a problem away then we must deliver, we must deliver on time, we must deliver a solution that is easy to take on. If we fail then we lose credibility. If succeed then we have people willing to follow our guidance. We also have advocates.
Get out there amongst the managers – I want my architects talking to the Head of Internal Audit about business continuity. I want my architects talking to board directors about new operating models. I want my architects talking to the Strategy Director about new lines of business. I could take the credit; I could be in the meetings. But it is my team that deliver; it is my team that need the day to day relationships to be more effective. My team has a lot more bandwidth and capability than I have. My role is to facilitate their involvement, build their business and interpersonal skills, back them strongly when the going gets tough, help them to understand the politics, make sure that the whole team is coordinated, and to support and mentor them so they are effective.
Follow through to delivery – Don’t walk away when the concept, the options or the high level design has been communicated. If you do it will be misunderstood, corrupted, its integrity will be violated, or it will be discarded. However well you communicate, no one understands your ideas better than you do, and no one is more committed than you are. When you walk away and your advice falls apart, it is not because it was bad advice. It is usually because it lacked interpretation in the light of reality; it lacked a nuance that you could not have foretold. You needed to be there to make a small adjustment. You needed to be there to say “not in this situation”. You needed to be there to make sure that the job was completed properly. When your advice has been delivered to the business and is achieving benefits then you can move on.
Be available – You can schedule yourself into meetings, and take a formal part in projects to get you out there. But you also need to be available when other people want you. There needs to be slack in the schedules to allow informal contact, there needs to be a service culture amongst the architects. We don’t mind if you drop by any time, we are not too busy to build relationships. We have 30 minute “surgeries” every morning for anyone who wants to turn up and talk.
Be flexible – In order to get out there, we need to be flexible. Architects needs to cover for each other, architects need to shuffle the workload amongst themselves as a natural way of working. It is critical for me that the team is a self managing team. I set priorities, the team organise the workload to meet the needs without heavy planning.
No silos – I got rid of job titles such as “project architect”, “data architect”, “infrastructure architect”, we only have enterprise architects. Everyone has a focus and I try to align this with aptitudes, interests and capabilities. But I expect everyone in my team to be credible cover for everyone else, my role is to grow the skills to accomplish this.
Some years ago I was appointed as an interim manager to be Head of Architecture for a FTSE 100 company. The scope of my role was applications and infrastructure – business and data architecture was under another manager.
I had a team of 16 architects who had over the last nine months produced numerous architectural artifacts. They were very clever documents explaining all the options that had been evaluated, the evaluation process, the decisions made, and the reasons for each decision.
The team had lost its direction; it had done a lot of abstract architecting but nothing (zero, ziltch, nada, nix, diddly, zip) had been delivered. There was no plan to achieve delivery. Now was the time to get active and use this stuff to shape the IT service delivered to the business. We needed to get the application and infrastructure implementation teams to deliver the architectural vision that had been so painstakingly developed.
How did we get there?
Get the right people
Understand your customer
Get a process
Get some architectural artifacts to support the process
The Right People I wanted architects who had the following traits:
Understanding of the business
Rapport with managers, users, developers and infrastructure staff
Verbal and written communications skills
Ability to operate with minimal supervision
I interviewed the team and I moved 12 out of 16 out of the team. Yes, that’s right I was left with 4 team members. I now had a strong core team capable of being a high performance self managing team.
Who is the customer? As enterprise architects we have a complex customer base. Our aim, like all people working for the organization, is to help achieve the aims of the board of directors. An effective architecture team is visible at this level and has to be mindful of the impressions created at this level. For example, expensive resource that cause delay to business change will not last very long.
The business middle management implement change, applications are just a part of the change they are delivering. Sometimes they are parochial, narrowly focused, and often highly political. They have the ear of the directors and can make or break architecture and architects. You have to play the long game, sometimes compromising on minor details to ensure that the major gains from architecture are not lost.
The users experience the results of architecture. They have the ear of their management, they too can make or break architecture. It is absolutely essential that solutions are usable when they get into the hands of users. You cannot blame the developers for poor implementation, you cannot blame managers for cutting the budget. If the solution doesn’t deliver for the users then the architect is to blame.
Architects don’t implement, other IT staff or contractors or consultants or outsource partners do that. They consume architecture and deliver applications and infrastructure solutions that should meet the needs of the business. Get architecture right and delivery is quicker, cheaper and higher quality.
Get a process The keys to the process are:
Put the most effort where there is the most risk to the business – you need a triage procedure.
Get in at the beginning (or before that if you can) of a project
Understand project requirements
Ensure that the project is aligned to business goals (if you don’t do this then you are not an enterprise architect)
Guide the design so that it fits as best it can with the enterprise IT direction – make rational compromises, make sure that IT and business management understand the compromises (this also builds credibility as business aware pragmatists)
Keep tabs on delivery in a non intrusive, non obstructive, non policing way e.g. be available to give advice throughout delivery, be a “free” additional project resource
Be present at the post implementation review and benefits review (if your organisation doesn’t have them then organise them!)
Get some artefacts In this case, we had more artefacts than we needed. We had to make them digestible, intelligible and interesting to our customers who were not architects. A three inch thick document making technical recommendations can be reduced to a single page with the decisions. Our work was finding the relevant facts for each of our customers at each stage of the process.
In other organizations, I have started with no artifacts. That didn’t stop us working with projects, we just delivered the key artifacts that we needed as we went along. You may have to work long hours but you don’t waste your time producing superfluous documents.
However many architectural artefacts you have there will always be a job to identify what is appropriate for your audience and to create or customise a deliverable to meet their needs.
How did we do? We moved from academia to providing value to projects and securing service delivery inside 2 months. Five of the right architects were delivering more value than a team of 17 had previously. It’s not about numbers; it’s about the right people doing the right thing.