6 years, 9 months ago

Socially Developed Architecture

One of the most challenging aspects in our role as architects is that we often have to influence without direct authority.   We often wrestle with this fact as we may not have the managerial clout and there may be lack of clarity on what precisely we are accountable for.    Perhaps simply stated, we have to be THE accountable party for defining the process and the narrative for the future to order to achieve the outcome, and bring clarity and process where all stakeholders feel jointly responsible for outcome.

Architects and architecture define the means to the outcome.    The constituencies of architecture have the desire that those outcomes be consistent, are timely, and are systematic as it relates to the course of action.  The philosophies of ethics and architecture are highly intertwined.    The process of architecture involves the purposeful systemization of “something”, getting consensus on the correctness and validity of the solution in question, and how trade-offs decisions are made.   Ethics involves the systemization of what conceptually is appropriate and inappropriate conduct based on an agreed upon set of values, and the definition of mechanisms to resolve disputes.   Axiology, a branch of philosophy, point out how ethics and aesthetics come together, where “correctness / goodness” are combined with “harmony/ beauty.”    If one where to accept the premise that architecture exists to serve others, one can clearly see the linkage here around “creating the collective good” and “creating meaningful experiences.”  

So why are ethics important to socially develop architecture?    What I will address here is not the ethics of the architecture or solution in question, rather to highlight the fact we as architects have create and mold the right social environment in order to perform architecture.   The discipline of architecture is now far more team oriented, consensus driven, and making sure the “right” people are involved in decision making.   Having one architect know everything about the “ins and outs” of a particular problem or solution domain is certainly next to impossible given the complexity.    I believe many of us have been or are currently in the role of “the decider or all things related to architecture and governance.”   I personally have had to go through my own transformation which my actions and behavior have changed given the complexity of the world and the multidisciplinary nature of the work.   I could not longer do all of the architectural work on my own in a timely manner.

A significant amount of my time is squarely in negotiation mode.  No surprise that this is incredibly people intensive, personal, and sometimes very intimate.    Many individuals often do not want to completely disclose information, are unwilling to cooperate because of some fear that they be exploited, want to retain a feeling of power and control, or all of the above.   Solving hard problems is what we architects enjoy doing, because if anyone can do it, then it is not as rewarding.    Also solving hard problems is highly profitable and can bring prosperity to groups of societies to reach new potential.    But solving multiple context problems requires bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders, all with their own mental models of how to address the problem/opportunity.    

Scott Atran, a noteworthy anthropologist, recently wrote a piece in the book This Explains Everything where he says “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth.”    This sure complicates architecture.  The question for us:  How do we create the right environment for mutually agreed upon outcomes with a very diverse set of stakeholders each with their own definition of victory?   How can we make a salient point or negotiate effectively given that philosophical, scientific, or empirical evidence is not enough?    I have to come to the conclusion that the discipline of architecture is becoming more social which will require us architects to negotiate agreements and building more collaborative partnerships.   

So how do we build those partnerships?   At the start of an architectural partnership, or any partnership for that matter, is that there is some fundamental understanding of ethics, or specifically cultural values and norms between the all the parties involved.    All of these social groups with various, perhaps conflicting, motivations will have to play fairly in order to bring all vested constituencies to consistency cooperate effectively.      During a recent meeting with one of our clients, a fellow Microsoft colleague made the artful comment that, “We may cause some noses to get out of joint.”   This laid the foundation of understanding that a deeper partnership will cause more friction, and we will have to be mindful of that when perhaps certain cultural norms, values or intentions may be questioned.   The architectural partnership must be focused that all parties are executing in trustworthy a manner.   If there are incompatibilities that are related to people, process, or technology; there must be resolution mechanisms in place.   All who have “skin in the game” use these resolution mechanisms to establish the conduct and expectations to appropriately, respectfully, and timely “call the parties out” when there is matter requiring attention.   Timeliness is critical, as allowing issues to fester will have cancerous effect.  This will erode any goodwill that has been previously established, challenges the health of the relationship and undermines trust.  Establishing the foundation for how parties work together, where trust and transparency must be at the heart of architectural work.    It is important to address conflict, make critical decisions around trade-offs in a manner were parties can move quickly more forward.

Once this foundation of trust and ethics are established, then the next step is to test it through getting the parties together to construct a shared vision.    This is very hard, and many people avoid this because it is hard.    But this simple step pays huge dividends for future work.    There are numerous publications and studies on how to achieve a shared vision.  One of my favorites is the classic book from Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline and the corresponding The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook The key takeaway here for architects is that these visions must be developed jointly so that all parties can get buy in.   This includes brining clarity, understanding, and foresight on who will take ownership for their contribution to the outcomes.    Also remember the groups that will often necessarily bring friction to the outcome, including legal, security, HR, operations, etc.    Getting these parties involved early on will make them part of the solution rather than bringing them late to the party where they will be frustrated.  This will require significant political capital, social currency and real investment to “fix” what in their minds is necessary.    It is also important to note that problems, opportunities, perceptions and intensions are clearly documented and communicated on how the new vision for future will deliver the anticipated results.   Building a shared vision is to get everyone’s mental models aligned that can be clearly understood by everyone.     This should not be a UML diagram, nor the classic architectural stack picture, but rather in clear verbiage, notation, and pictures that all parties can understand and can act upon. 

So we have agreement on establishing the social foundation for building architecture, we have a vision in which we have amalgamated everyone mental models (at minimum at a contextual level) for how we move forward.   The next step is determine a set of principles to guide activity.   As architects, we love architectural principles.   They are the axioms where certain aspects around architectural behavior which are obvious or self-evident easy, at least in principle.   (Please forgive the pun.)    But what are those social relationship-oriented principles?  I have recently come across a body of knowledge called Vested.  The authors suggest a mindset around “Getting to We” that define six guiding principles for defining a partnership relationship.   I have applied their concepts to the discipline of architecture.

  • Reciprocity.   How do we as architects make fair and balanced exchanges?  How do we get the various constituencies to understand trade-offs around security and user experience, solution flexibility and precision, business freedom and operational discipline?
  • Autonomy.   How can we promote that fact that certain decisions may be made not the interests of one group and not necessarily at the expense of another?   The goal is do what is good for the whole, and not just one individual constituency.
  • Honesty.    All parties have to be clear about their intensions and experiences.    Dishonesty erodes the quality of the outcome in which all parties will be disenchanted with the results.
  • Loyalty.   All parties have to be loyal to the relationship and the design of the outcome.    Change and innovation will take people out of their comfort zones, but is important to remain loyal to the outcome, the solution, and the relationship.
  • Equity.     How can architects make equitable decisions?   If certain parties are willing to accept more risk around the quality of the solution, how do equitably distribute the risk and potential rewards?   Who is going to be on the hook?   The two important components of proportionality and remedies insure that parties of appropriate skin in the game, and where parties do not have skin in the game, their equity in the solution may not be distributed equally.
  • Integrity.   How do we make architecture decisions consistently and how we behave with respect to the architectural processes.    This is about being predictable and setting expectations.   Minimizing randomness allows for more “reputational glue” around the discipline of architecture.

Enterprise architecture and other IT oriented architecture must go through this next step in order to build “people oriented” solutions or “people oriented” business/organizations.    If it is about creating experiences, shouldn’t we be the exemplars of how we behave in the conduct of our own work and practice?     We must continue to strive to incorporate the people dimension as part of the necessary dynamics of architecture.    Unfortunately today, very few of the current  methodologies and frameworks have any focus on how to accomplish some of the basic people things that absolutely essential to bring successful architecture to bear fruit.    No longer can we say, “do not take it personally, it just business.”   That is frankly just bulls—t, it is always personal.   The sooner we come to grips that we have to get out of our offices, cubicles, architectural methods, tools, and actually start talking to people then we will start producing architecture that has been sociallyl developed, oriented around value and ethics.


As always, I am interested in your thoughts….