13 years, 10 months ago

The Passionate Architect

There is nothing more horrible than to walk to fault line between new and old, seeing what the future holds, screaming about it in your art and writing, and finding only mute incomprehension or dismissal in your audience.” – Joshua Cooper Ramos, The Age of the Unthinkable

When I had read this quote over a year ago; I had felt consoled, but at the same time frustrated.   I think many architects have experienced this feeling many times before.    Ramos in his book describes the parallels of how governments and corporations need to rethink how they approach problems in this new era.   This era makes the inconceivable now conceivable were small ideas and collectives can prosper, and now have the opportunity to have enormous influence over governments and enterprises.      Ramos addresses some key points about how we can survive in this new world where unpredictability is the norm.   It forces us to address problems by understanding the context of the environment and being tolerant of new ideas rather than relying on so-called deep thinkers and subject matter experts.   What impressed me about Ramos was his thinking around international politics is aligned with organizational dynamics and how we need to build more resilient systems.    This requires thinking about complexity theory, psychology, and the science of networks.   I was pleasantly surprised that Ramos recently keynoted a Gartner Enterprise Architecture Summit last October.   The podcast can be found here.

Many of us in the architecture profession can see how the world, business, and technology are changing.   I talked about dynamic systems in my last blog, and I believe that static systems are dead.    An organization is no longer willing to get stuck because of some fancy system that is built on a set of dogmatic patterns that is incapable of change.   I think many of us see this.

There are times where we envision things so clearly in our architect minds, but why do others fail to see it?    We have experienced what Malcom Gladwell calls the “Blink” experience.   This is the about the ability to have “rapid cognition” and able to analyze and synthesize information and draw conclusions rapidly at the blink of an eye.   There are times that we cannot explain why a path is correct or wrong, where it is not necessarily intuitive but rather from something deep inside.    This is the place where ideas and innovation come from, they are unpatterned at first.  You have in idea, but you cannot prove or rationalize it, yet.  Sometimes when you have an idea in your head, it is extremely hard not to inflict it on innocent people.

Robert Pirsig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance describes a concept that he terms gumption, that he aligns with the word enthusiasm. He goes on to state that the word enthusiasm comes from the Greek word enthousiamos which means “filled with theos,” or G-d, or Quality.   He defines the enthusiastic individual in this way:  “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things.   He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track, and meeting it when it comes.  That’s gumption.”

Combining the concepts of Gladwell and Pirsig provides us some interesting insights on the quality charactersitics of an architect.   An architect must be able to make heads or tails of the enterprise environment rapidly, make some recommendations, have the gumption [inspiration, passion] to evangelize and execute on a plan, and witness the results.     Caution should be taken with gumption as there are some “gumption” traps that Pirsig calls out where external circumstances may provide some “setbacks” and then there an individual’s own “hang-ups” that can kill an idea.   

I have recently experienced a low point of my own personal gumption where I had felt that I had not done an assignment in the way that I would have preferred.    Although there were external factors I had little to no control over, there were some personal hang-ups that got the best of me.   I had fallen into “traps” around things that blocked affective and cognitive understanding of the problem.   Pirsig refers to these as “value” and “truth” traps.  Instead of working through the issues, I had tried to force a perspective that others could not see.  They did not value or see the ultimate truth in what I was attempting to articulate.    Although I firmly believed that my perspective was correct, I was too late.  Even when there was acknowledgement from someone that said to me, “I had failed to understand.”   I replied, “I failed to teach.”   I made the mistake of not guiding others to help them see my “gumption” and “enthusiasm” and bring them on the journey.  This was a failure in communication, which is why I feel strongly that architects must use language that everyone can understand.   We must be able to describe our architecture to a diverse constituency.  Even if our positions or perspectives are flawed, clear communication and dialog would promote collaboration and the outcome would have been beneficial.  

Semi-annually, Microsoft holds an internal Enterprise Strategy and Architecture Summit.  For the upcoming summit we were asked to come up with a t-shirt style slogan.   I submitted “It is all about me and my architecture.”  (The one that was selected was:  “Trust Me, I am an Architect.”)   Although this is  tongue-and-cheek, it does reinforce a mindset of an architect.    An architect should be proud of their architecture, and perhaps many other architects can see the beauty of it but others may not trust your “Blink” moment or value your “Gumption”.   The fact of the matter is architecture is not solely for architects, it is for a larger constituency that we also must evangelize to.   We must be able to articulate the durability, beauty, and utility (see previous blog article) of architecture or else our blink moments will not be recognized and our gumption will be depleted.   We cannot just say trust me, I know what I am doing because I have this certification and I have had this experience, it has to be self-evident and obvious.  What can we do to make architecture accessible to non-architects?  I welcome your thoughts.