17 days ago

EA as a Cultural Navigation Practice

Link: https://actionable.wordpress.com/2024/02/07/ea-as-a-cultural-navigation-practice/

Holding the balanced view and perspective

I keep trying to teach the business about enterprise architecture but they just don’t get it!

A former colleague from a nearby university would periodically invite me to coffee for a lengthy discussion about the frustrations of working as an enterprise architect in higher education. Each time, she’d end up feeling recharged with optimism and reset sufficiently to go another round, promising to stop trying to “teach the business about enterprise architecture”… until the next time.

At the heart of this experience is the unique place where enterprise architecture stands, occupying the interstitial space bounded by the strategy and execution dimension and the technology and business dimension. The balanced view and perspective that enterprise architecture provides must flex in response to the different situations it encounters. In TOGAF terminology, we must have the ability to construct narratives and views that are consumable by and address the concerns of our stakeholders, acknowledging the viewpoints they occupy1.

Although the stories we tell and the artefacts we use will flex situationally, there is still a need for consistency that pervades the work of an enterprise architect — there are things that must be so. A large part of what we do is curation, preservation, and gentle governance. We work to protect and sustain the vision and truths, outcomes and goals, patterns and ways of working. Just like the role of travellers in a world café, enterprise architects serve as “ambassadors of meaning”2, carrying, caring for, and storytelling the strategic goals and aspirations, the guardrails and guidelines, and the core values of the institution as they move across situations and into new conversations.

What we talk about when we talk about enterprise architecture

To earn and retain its seat at the table, enterprise architecture must be an identifiable practice offering service, guidance, and consultancy not provided by other contributors in the wider organisation,  Understanding and communicating what enterprise architecture is and does (and, crucially, what enterprise architecture is not and does not do) acknowledges and reduces the potential for confusion and for operational friction with teams and functions such as infrastructure engineers, application builders, solutions architects, cybersecurity experts, project managers, and business analysts.

Holding a sense of self and place, caretaking with purpose the balanced view and perspective necessary for enterprise architecture to build alignment and foster desirable business-outcome value, requires sustained effort.  Curiosity and humanism are central to that effort, consistently storytelling the “why”, creating connections between disparate people, teams, and activities, and curating linkages between change initiatives, architecture decision-making, and the institution’s North Star.

When enterprise architects stray from holding the recognisable and useful balanced view and wide perspective, instead giving technical-practice specialists the impression they are not so different from them, that they could perform their roles or be their boss, and invariably fall into the “uncanny valley”3 where trust evaporates, relationships are awkward, and the seat at the table is lost.  Specialised people and teams should feel that “my enterprise architecture listens to us, knows what we do, understands the challenges we face, and represents us faithfully at the other tables”, rather than “my enterprise architect pretends to know better than us what we do, gives us weird instructions, doesn’t understand what we do, and is getting in the way”.

Exactly what consistency looks like for your enterprise architecture practice will necessarily vary from one institution to another, from one engagement to the next, and over time as the maturity and agency of the practice waxes and wanes.  Throughout all these changes remains the need to be clear about and to communicate what it is that enterprise architecture brings to the table.  What is your role at this particular table, at this particular time?  How will fulfilling the goals and expectations of your role, as an enterprise architect, contribute to achieving desired business outcomes?

Honouring protocol and procedures at the table

jeff is passionate and knows what he is talking about and demonstrates
university citizenship, but I wish he would stop and listen sometimes!

This gift of feedback came from one of our senior executives, second-hand, through my boss.  After my initial reactions of shock and embarrassment subsided, the message became clear: slow down, check in, engage in active listening, seek feedback, confirm alignment, assume less, retest often, wrap all of this in mutual respect… and not just with this one stakeholder, but everywhere!  My approach started cautiously and experimentally and was, frankly, clumsy, stopping frequently and making eye contact and saying something like “I am listening to you, and want to play back what you have shared just now to check my understanding”.

That it was clumsy was immaterial: the effects were positive and instantaneous.  Suddenly there was much more space to have the necessary conversations, and much-faster iteration to locate key points of agreement and key points of difference, leading straightaway to better conversations and more-productive engagements and stronger outcomes.  Without purposeful listening it becomes very difficult to hear and harvest other views and opinions, rendering one of the crucial ingredients of effective leadership completely unattainable… and enterprise architecture is all about effective leadership.

While at the table, pay attention to your colleagues and the positions they occupy, noting that these positions will change frequently over the course of a discussion.  Keep track of who is for and who is against the decision to be made.  Keep track of who is observing or abstaining, and ensure that everybody has the opportunity to declare their position.  Keep track also of where you stand yourself, and of what the desirable outcome is from the enterprise architecture perspective. Kantor’s four-player model4 is a valuable framework for this purpose: who is moving, who is following, who is opposing, and who is bystanding?

All of those roles are active, and any person can switch modes at any time.  As an enterprise architect sitting at the table you will have to be confident and capable at being able to move, follow, oppose, and bystand purposefully and at the right time.  Sometimes it is necessary to defer aspects of the conversation that don’t affect the direction of travel and that won’t cause later relitigation of any decisions made.  If you’re tempted but unsure about making a statement, ask yourself these key questions: does it have to be said at all?; does it have to be said right now?; does it have to be said by me?

There exists a dazzling array of tables

Beyond holding design-authority privileges for usually-quite-specific matters related to implementation, enterprise architecture has no power of mandate and no ability to veto organisational decisions about investment, direction, or approach.  This situation shapes the practice of enterprise architecture into an endeavour that is long-run in nature, requires significant trust and influence to be earned and sustained, and provides recommendations, advice, and guidance in the form of consultancy.

Having earned a seat at the table, look around!  At which table are you seated?  Who else is there with you, and what is each of their roles as stakeholders: how interested do they need to be, and how supportive (alternatively, how disruptive) are they able to be?  Holding awareness of your enterprise context, the maturity and aspirations of your organisation5, and the type of practice you have, what defines the success of your involvement?  Why are you sitting at this table at this time: what value will you and your enterprise architecture practice work purposefully to contribute?  What difference will be made by you being there at the table?  What difference would it make if you were not there at the table?

Of course, “the table” is not only a physical meeting with chairs and a table!  A discussion thread happening by email or messaging, a virtual meeting, a distributed collaboration, a passing engagement at the water cooler, a daily stand-up or any of the Agile ceremonies, all of these situations are tables in their own right, and our messaging and behavior at any of them contributes to the trust and influence and ability to do work and create value that our practices can earn and hold.

Navigating the dazzling array of tables adds another dimension to situational awareness and personal leadership.  The practice of enterprise architecture continues to evolve from being the  back-office creator of detailed technical specifications through business-outcome-driven approaches and decision-making about technology through serving as internal business consultants6.  Imagine the necessary differences between the storytelling, conversations, and engagement styles at each of those waystations.  Imagine the different positions, concerns, and alliances that exist between the people sitting at the tables alongside you.  Fail to navigate and honor these styles and expectations at your peril!

To create desirable outcomes and better serve their institutions, enterprise architects must hold a firmly-grounded sense of place and navigate respectfully the myriad of contexts in which they work.  That’s a challenging set of responsibilities, requiring expertise and craftwork to weave the essential threads of what enterprise architecture is all about, and to do that in a way that fosters effective and meaningful contributions while bringing people together in warm and constructive alliances.


  1.  The Open Group (2022) _The TOGAF® Standard, 10th Edition_, available at https://pubs.opengroup.org/togaf-standard/architecture-content/chap03.html#tag_03_04 ↩
  2. The World Café Community Foundation (2015) _A Quick Reference Guide to Hosting World Cafés_, available at  https://theworldcafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Cafe-To-Go-Revised.pdf ↩
  3. Caballar, I.D. (2022) _What Is the Uncanny Valley?_, IEEE Spectrum, available at https://spectrum.ieee.org/what-is-the-uncanny-valleyCreepy robots and the strange phenomenon of the uncanny valley: definition, history, examples, and how to avoid. With acknowledgement to the work of Graeme Dunlop, formerly at The University of Melbourne. ↩
  4. PeopleTalking (2022) _Structural Dynamics_, available at https://peopletalking.com.au/project/structural-dynamics/ ↩
  5. Phelps, J. (2020) _Architecting the Architecture: Necessary Steps for Setting Up an EA Practice_, EDUCAUSE Review, available at https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/10/architecting-the-architecture-necessary-steps-for-setting-up-an-ea-practiceColleges and universities that identify and understand the drivers, goals, and environmental factors of an enterprise architecture practice can create the structure needed for EA to be successful. ↩
  6. Brand, S. & Blosch, M. (2022) _13 Best Enterprise Architecture Practices to Ensure Program Success_, Gartner Research, Article ID #G00767656, available at https://www.gartner.com/document/4014142Many EA practitioners follow “worst practices” rather than best practices. Enterprise architecture and technology innovation leaders should follow our 13 best practices to ensure EA program success. ↩