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Should Architects Make House Calls?

By Mark Pinder, Senior Enterprise Architect, Infosys

Architects around the world have been struggling with their role in an agile environment. No longer do organisations invest significant amounts of time and money in large up front design activities. Instead those organisations prefer to rely on a bias for delivery and accept the architecture that emerges as a result of that delivery.

This change has left architects in a quandary; the tools and techniques that they have used in past no longer seem to be applicable. In this context a colleague recently wrote an article on the demise of the enterprise architecture framework. In that well-reasoned piece, he compared the role of the architect to that of a physician helping a patient with the management of a chronic condition.

His analogy around diabetes, a chronic condition, was a powerful one. It led me to think about other actors in chronic care and how their activities can be compared to the role of an architect in an agile enterprise organisation. Before I discuss the observations and implications of that way of looking at the role of an architect, it is important to have a shared understanding of what a chronic condition is.

A chronic condition is a human health condition that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects... A chronic condition usually affects multiple areas of the body, is not fully responsive to treatment, and persists for an extended period of time. (Source: Wikipedia)

Enterprise organisations have a problem with chronic complexity. This complexity effects multiple areas of the organisations and entropy that it brings about is very resistant to remediation. One of the main approaches that organisations have adopted to try and remedy their complexity is to implement agile ways of working.

It is in this agile context that architects are continuously being challenged to adapt their own ways of working so that they can help not just the teams that they directly work with but also their organisations to deal with the chronic conditions that threaten the organisations long term viability. Just like patients in a community, empowered agile teams are autonomous actors who can act for or against their own long term benefit and also that of the wider organisation.

Whilst it is appealing to the ego for architects to compare themselves to doctors, a far more important actor in the care of chronic patients is the community nurse. A community nurse is a trusted health professional who visits chronic patients in their homes and through a combination of physiological and psychological treatments seeks to deliver both short and long term outcomes to the patients in their care.

Aside from being appropriately trained, to be effective a community nurse must:

  • Understand the underlying state of the patient - both physiological and psychological.
  • Understand the constraints that effect the treatments that are available for the patient
  • Develop a trusted relationship with the patient where the patient trusts the nurse to provide unbiased advice and be working in their best interests
  • Work with the patient and the other members of the patient's care team to develop a set of long and short term goals for the patient
  • Visit the patient frequently to monitor their current state and adapt the treatment plan as required
  • Deliver hands on treatment where required
  • Provide the appropriate feedback to the patient on their progress; be that praise for progress towards their goals or appropriate admonishment if that is required to get the patient back on track.
  • In the longer term, work with other teams to develop joined up strategies for patients with the same condition in the same area
  • In the longer term, work with the patient's immediate community to develop support mechanisms that support long term change

If we consider the architect as acting in a role equivalent of the nurse and the agile teams to be analogous to patients under the nurse's care, then to be effective in the new world an architect needs to:

  • Understand the underlying state of the technology environment within the organisation that the agile team is working in
  • Understand the underlying market dynamics that the agile team is delivering into
  • Understand the constraints that effect the solutions that an agile team can deliver. These constraints include the organisation's long term technology goals as well as the resources (funds and time) that are available to the team to deliver
  • Understand the dynamics and personalities of the agile team
  • Develop a trusted relationship with the agile team
  • Work with the agile team to develop a set of long and short term goals for the delivery of joined up capability. This may require liaison with other agile teams.
  • Visit the agile team frequently in their home location to monitor the current state of their technology delivery and provide advice as to how best the team can utilise technology to deliver to both the team's short term goals and also to the long term benefit of the organisation.
  • Be hands on within the team where required. This will not only advance the team's goals but will also build up empathy between the team and the architect.
  • Provide the appropriate feedback to the team on their progress towards the short and long term technology goals
  • In the longer term, work with other agile teams to develop joined up strategies to implement more complex technologies that will benefit multiple teams in the same area. Where necessary the architect will then have to promote these strategies to other parts of the organisation to ensure that appropriate resources are provided to enable the delivery of the technology
  • In the longer term, work with the business community outside of the agile teams to develop longer term go to market plans
  • Ensure that they are meeting up with architects who are supporting other teams to share observations and best practice so that the organisations overall technological environment is developing appropriately over time.

For many architects the above best practices are already part of the way that they work. For others this role as a servant enabler who makes meaningful visits (house calls) to agile teams in their location of work may represent a significant change. However, it is a change that will benefit not just the architect but also the organisation that they work within and will ensure that the role of an architect remains relevant into the future.

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