The Red Pill is not enough

09 August

As architects, we can take the blue pill and live in a fantasy world where we are doing a bang-up job. Or we can take the red pill, recognising that there is always room for improvement and wanting to get better at what we do. This is the basis of the practice of retrospectives – look at what we have done and identify how to do it better.

In an earlier post, I described nine anti-patterns of architecture - counter-productive practices that I have seen in the various organisations I have worked in and with, and from the different people I have spoken with. It is not uncommon for me to mention an issue and for others to say, “We’ve got that”.

Taking the red pill may allow us to see these issues, but there is no clear direction on how to avoid them. It’s all very well to regard these as obvious as if by knowing about them we believe that we will be immune to them. Yet we keep seeing the same problems again and again. On its own, the red pill deposits us in a time loop causing us to repeat the same problems over and over despite our desperate attempts to learn from history.

Much of the problem is cultural. We think we know what we should do, but we don’t do it. Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (although I think it should probably be for lunch or dinner rather than breakfast because while strategy may make short term gains, culture wins out in the long term). What appeals to our head and makes sense doesn’t take effect because culture is the ultimate power in any organisation.

Perhaps we need an approach similar to that of the Agile Manifesto, where effective Agile comes from the culture developed within an Agile organisation. For this reason, I propose a world view for IT architects – an architecture manifesto.

It is our values that lie at the heart of our behaviour, so to change the behaviour we need to examine and change the values. See my earlier post for more detail on the following five values that I believe we should hold as architects:

  • As architects, we are here to meet people‘s needs (development teams, users, stakeholders). Do we really value these people? Or do we view them as an inconvenience or even as idiots?
  • As architects, we are not doing the low-level design as that is the role of the development teams. Our job is the big picture in order to support the detail, but do we really take that on-board? (Do we reallygrok that?)
  • As architects, it is too easy to develop an ego, but that can get in the way of us supporting the development teams. Do we really exhibit humility, seeing ourselves as enablers and inspirers? Or do we lord it over everyone else because of our experience and position? The latter leads to dysfunctional relationships and neuters what we are trying to accomplish in architecture.
  • As architects, do we try to do it all alone? None of us knows it all, and the best projects I have worked on have been where we have a group that is free to express their own opinions in a non-judgemental environment, allowing us to evolve the best possible solutions. Do we merely pay lip-service to teamwork? Or do we actively encourage and solicit input from others?
  • Finally, integrity is something that is easy to view as implicit – “we all know that“.  However, we tend to cut corners and cheat when things get difficult or time pressures arise. As architects managing the big picture, we have a greater impact and therefore a greater need to demonstrate integrity in everything that we do if we want our message and architecture to be heard.

While the values drive our behaviour, they are somewhat abstract, making it a challenge to apply to real-world scenarios. I have described eight principles that build on these values and provide practical guidelines for applying them.  They are distilled from various good practices that I have seen yield results.

Some of this is influenced by Agile development, but even without that, a new way of thinking is needed because what we have done in the past has resulted in problems that are all too familiar. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

The red pill may allow us to break out of our fantasy world, but it doesn’t provide any solutions to the problems we then see. We need to recognise, as Lou Gerstner did, “that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game”. What will our culture of architecture be?


Post by Colin Garlick