EA and political neutrality


A general complaint from people who focus on content instead of form is that “we could do it, if only we didn’t have to waste all our energy on political issues”.

True. Maybe.

Point is, political context is a part of any group of people larger than one. And not a part we should regret. On the contrary: being aware of it, and learning political agility makes realising enterprise architecture goals much more viable. Recognise that you, as an enterprise architect, are (probably) genetically wired to focus on content. You have learned frameworks, modelling techniques, optimising processes and so on. You are a mechanic. You are not a manager or even a CIO (let alone a CEO or a business entrepreneur). Nor should you be, at least not in the way you are operating within an enterprise as an enterprise architect. But you should also not focus too much on content. A successful enterprise architect moves in the undulating waves of politics with agility. Not with regret. Or resistance. As I have learned to my regret (at the time) resistance is futile.

So, lesson one: accept that politics is there. Let it be. Do not frown down on it.

Now, on to lesson two: politics can actually help you in realising enterprise architectures! Now that comes as a surprise! And I am not talking about accidental providence, such as a CEO who happens to embrace your style (or person). What I mean is that positioning enterprise architecture smartly in the political ecosystem of an enterprise will make some things possible you never imagined. The trick is to manage to stay politically neutral.

Easy peasy.

But how do I that? Before I know it I am dragged into the maelstrom of politics, having to choose sides in pointless debates, justifying stupid decisions just because my sponsor’s position is depending on it. Enterprise architects are  not immune to politics. No-one is.

I just said resistance is futile. But that is only in your attitude towards politics. I did not say avoid it. As you know, there are three ways of dealing with danger: fight, flight, freeze. As long as you see politics as the enemy, your primate brain will respond with either of these strategies. So work on seeing politics as a reality, and one that can work for you. The way to realise that is by carefully positioning enterprise architecture as a politically neutral discipline. It takes a bit of work, a lot of work actually, especially if you are already part of an unfolding enterprise architecture that has been wrestling with acquiring credibility for a while. But you will succeed if you remember that you have some aces up your sleeve.

An important ace is actually what I earlier labeled your weakness. Turn your weakness into your strength. What was your weakness? Your focus on content. You can make that into an asset by emphasising your role as an enterprise architect as a neutral one. As I have written in other articles on this site The Responsible Architect) and The Architecture Process for Agile Organisations) architecture should be positioned in an enterprise as a “second discipline”, implemented as a shadow hierarchy next to the executive hierarchy of managers with the CEO on the top. Exactly by advocating that your work is outside the managerial context, that you are there to help everybody, that your expertise will contribute to any process and make the benefits of any process explicit and optimisable, you will by-and-by find that you are moving out of the dangerous currents.

But it won’t work if you let yourself or the discipline of enterprise architecture drawn into politics. This can happen in many ways, but the most obvious one is because you let yourself being led astray by your own ego and attempt to get some kind of executive power. You are the manager of a team of architects for example. Don’t do it. The architecture process should have an internal governance based on content, that is, peer reviews and external audits, and explicit escalation routes towards executive management. Not on “I am your boss and therefore it will be done this way.” In fact you should encourage doubt and criticisms from your fellow architects, because the only way an architectural decision should be implemented is by challenging its quality constantly.

As I said, this is not easy. But it can be done, and enterprises who have, in one way or another, implemented an architectural shadow hierarchy, find that they can move forward , unhindered by the morass of politics.

Another ace is perhaps even more important. I was mostly focusing in the past on the first one, but I find that listening is a very powerful strategy.

Listening is an art. You, within your architecture process, will turn listening into artifacts, but towards the business that comes later. It all begins with listening. What does the person you are talking with (and if you are an enterprise architect, you must be talking a lot, right?) actually say? What does she actually mean? Did you really make an effort into understanding? Did you actually verify your understanding? And did she confirm that understanding?

We tend to think we need only half a word to understand something (‘cause we think we are a lot more intelligent than the business people we work with, don’t you deny it!) and then run away to implement something. Wrong. What you are best in, is understanding yourself. Understanding someone else is a different thing, and your training as an enterprise architect probably hasn’t focused too much on understanding. And models and documents may help in that understanding, but they are not the goals. The goal is the actual confirmation from the business, whole-heartedly saying: “that is right, you understood me completely!”. And that takes listening, investing time in it. And not running off to implement solutions. Solutions are easy. Understanding is not.

In this article I attempted to explain my understanding of the two main weapons of the enterprise architect:

  1. Focus on politically neutral content
  2. Listen well

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