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5 Characteristics of High Performing Architecture Teams

In much of my work, I am asked by sponsors of architecture functions, or heads of architecture functions, to provide insight as to how they can improve their performance. It seems to me that this isn’t limited just to the architecture function: this is organisation-wide and represents a change in the way organisations view their staff, and visa-versa. Even ten years ago, it seems there was less of a need to constantly justify your performance and value – and not just through hard metric performance, but also through more subtle means and constant influence.

When it comes to performance, architecture teams have a significant challenge to overcome – that of the silent achiever. This means that, when an architecture team has actually done their job well, there are few (zero) serious failures during project delivery or few (zero) critical disruptions to business operations.

Architecture teams should be, by definition, focused on prevention rather than cure; so, when everything goes well, people are accustomed to the attitude of “of course, it went well, we have architecture” whereas when things wrong, the architecture team is often in the thick of it trying to correct the problem… and, in many cases, the time has already passed for the correct fix and the team is operating in disaster recovery mode.

When it comes to performance, architecture teams have a significant challenge to overcome – that of the silent achiever. This means that, when an architecture team has actually done their job well, there are few (zero) serious failures during project delivery or few (zero) critical disruptions to business operations.

The other complicating factor behind architecture performance improvement lies in the composite nature of the people, skills and application of the team. Almost no two teams are comprised of the same skills, and no two teams are focused on the same problems. Some teams are active ‘hunter-gathers’ whereas some are solution-focused. Some spend most of their time on business modeling, whereas others deal more with technology. A shrewd chief architect is both technically competent as an architect, and an effective motivator and manager of people.

That said, pragmatically, the challenge for improving performance might be tackled across three dimensions:

  1. Architecture team brand and reputation;
  2. Individual capability and skill level of team members; and
  3. Team operating model, governance processes and engagement model.

Architecture team brand and reputation is all about how the team is perceived within the organisation. Go and hire a public relations specialist if the team is big enough, or the problem is big enough. An architect is, after all, at best an agent of change, at worst a proactive disrupter who constantly challenges the conventional way of doing things. Most of architecture is sales … once you’ve got the solution (no mean feat) you then have to sell it to a varied list of stakeholders, all of whom have different agendas and perspectives.

Individual capability and skill level of team members is perhaps the most challenging aspect. Every architect is different and requires a different approach to be the most effective architect they can be. Study behavioral science, organisational psychology, personality profiling or similar fields to get a handle on techniques and approaches that can help manage a diverse or distributed team that requires pronounced influencing skills to succeed. Consider professional sport as an analogy – athletes often spend 95 percent of their time training and 5 percent of their time performing… most professional architects spend 95 percent of the time performing and 5 percent of the time training. Try and improve that ratio.

In most cases, without clear strategy or vision, the architecture team becomes a catch all for all the intractable and impossible issues roaming around an organisation, and is doomed to fail before it even begins.

Team operating model, governance processes, and engagement model can help achieve objectives related to the previous two. In most cases, these are neglected or even simply ignored, much to the detriment of the team and individuals therein. Someone much smarter than me once commented “you don’t have a strategy until you say ‘no’” and this is certainly the case when it comes to architecture team strategy and operating model.

In most cases, without clear strategy or vision, the architecture team becomes a catch all for all the intractable and impossible issues roaming around an organisation, and is doomed to fail before it even begins.

Don’t let the team get relegated to this situation: be clear in what the team will and will not do, and when as well as when it won’t engage.

So, to summarise, here are five simple things you can do today to check on the health of the team, and how well you are prepared for performance improvement:

1. The more specific the EA vision, the better

EA teams are deployed in a multitude of different ways and have very different value propositions from organisation to organisation. Work is therefore needed to set the agenda of each team: what it CAN do is not the problem – specifying what it WILL do and enrolling stakeholders is, however, the aim of the game.

2. There is no right or wrong, only more right and more wrong

Because there are always multiple answers to the problem, architects must be skilled at establishing boundaries and ground rules for design, as well as metrics for their own success that are later used to prove the value of the effort. A technically correct solution is only correct if it’s also contextually correct.

3. EA teams must own specific delivery items

Many EA teams withdraw into ivory towers and publish standards that rarely see the light of day. Successful EA teams maintain connectedness by owning specific delivery items or even projects and actively engaging throughout the full project lifecycle.

4. Stakeholder management, stakeholder management, stakeholder management

EA teams cut across business units and geographies and deal with a broad stakeholder base, often in open conflict. Architects must therefore be more than just technically skilled specialists – they must be facilitators of consensus and enrollers of stakeholders.

5. Leverage industry resources

There are many groups (such as The Open Group) working on this problem constantly – successful EA teams leverage this knowledge (especially popular frameworks such as TOGAF) to accelerate their development and drive consistency in their work.

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