A manifesto to build an effective enterprise architecture
4 principles to guide successful architects and architecture
September 30, 2020
As an architect at Capital One, one of my major goals is to establish better ways of performing the architect function. To me, the primary value of enterprise architecture is in defining the ‘north star’ or strategic direction for the course of one or more capabilities. An architect’s success in living up to this value can be measured in a number of ways, but based on my 10 years of experience, I propose the following four principles to help guide effective enterprise architecture:
- Contextual understanding over siloed decision making.
- Tangible direction over stale documentation.
- Driving behavior over enforcing standards.
- Evolution over frameworks.
As stated in the Agile Manifesto, “That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.” Similarly, these principles comprise an ‘Architecture Manifesto’ that emphasizes the items on the left as more valuable than the items on the right. Let’s dive a little deeper on each one of these.
1. Contextual Understanding Over Siloed Decision Making
It is rare that a decision can be made without consideration of any trade-offs. Often, the quality of a decision is directly impacted by the experience and knowledge of the person that made it. The caution here is to avoid being an aloof architect. An aloof architect is someone who makes decisions based solely on one’s own experiences and siloed considerations. An aloof architect typically has good intentions but will miss important considerations and that inevitably leads to flawed decision making.
Rather, be an aware architect. An aware architect provides context from many different perspectives, ranging from business to technical, across different disciplines and subject matter domains. An aware architect is always learning and able to bring in their context to inform the decision making process. An aware architect is also self-aware in understanding his or her own limits, and will bring in additional expertise as needed to supplement their own contextual understanding. Decisions made with contextual understanding are likely to be less brittle and more sustainable than otherwise. This is key in architectural decision making since, while architectures do evolve over time, changing certain architectural decisions after implementation can be very painful and very difficult. Enabling flexibility as an outcome is key to evolutionary architecture.
2. Tangible Direction Over Stale Documentation
The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is still true, and having a reference architecture document that multiple parties can use to understand their proposed target state is also useful. The caution here is to avoid being an archaeological architect. An archaeological architect is someone stuck in the cycle of documenting current state and forever updating current state as the delivery teams continue to release. This is a trap of reactive thinking and offers very little value.
Rather, be an ambitious architect. The ambitious architect is someone who upholds the documentation focus to be on the proposed future, and the decisions made to define that future, to sustain consistent thinking for posterity. This allows for the right kind of conversations and deliberations to be proactive and strategic. To point out what is feasible and what is a constraint, and to formulate a tangible plan to overcome challenges to achieve the proposed target. This kind of conversation and partnership is key to the success of the architect.
3. Driving Behavior Over Enforcing Standards
While an important outcome of architecture strategy is standardization and re-use of patterns, technologies, and solutions, that doesn’t mean that architects should strive to only be enforcers of standards. The caution here is to avoid being the administrative architect. An administrative architect is someone who focuses on compliance to the rules and regulations to the detriment of everything else.
Rather, be an ambassador architect. An ambassador architect is someone who understands the rules and regulations, the acceptable proven patterns and solutions, to guide the delivery teams on the expectations of adherence. This position allows for driving the right behaviors with the flexibility for delivery teams to innovate within the guardrails that are laid out in the pursuit of safety and security. An ambassador architect is someone who is also willing to listen to feedback, and able to relay that feedback into improving the standards. Evolving standards and challenging the status-quo based on reality and innovation is necessary to improve the overall architecture guidance.
4. Evolution Over Frameworks
A good framework can provide a re-usable, clear methodology for solving problems and enabling consistency. The caution here is to avoid being an afraid architect. An afraid architect is someone who performs rigidly by the details of expansive frameworks to try to output what is needed. This is problematic in that it does very little to move the needle strategically. A strategy will be produced, yes; but it likely will not offer as many benefits as it could.
Rather, be an audacious architect. An audacious architect understands the framework well enough to focus on its value driven output. An audacious architect can evolve the framework itself if needed and moreover understands that architecture solutions can evolve over time. Embracing change to inform better architectures can be risky, yet it is often a risk well worth taking. An audacious architect is always learning and keeps skills and knowledge of business and technology up to date.
Applying the Four Principles of the Architecture Manifesto
I hope that this architecture manifesto will resonate with you to improve your architect function and guide your ability to output increasingly effective enterprise architecture strategies. An architect that can respect, yet not be bound by, constraints in people, process, or technology is one that can define a ‘north star’ that allows for truly impactful changes. Architects bring value to the teams that they support through their contextual understanding and their achievable vision, by driving the right behaviors and embracing evolution for innovative yet compliant delivery. Such an architect is aware, ambitious, audacious and an ambassador, able to collaborate and output an effective, meaningful enterprise architecture strategy.
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