Thursday, October 25, 2012

IT Architects in bonus-driven organisations

Over years I observed people being excited and disappointed when approaching IT architecture efforts in mid-size (under 500-600 people) bonus-driven organizations. I can not recall one instance, where a forethought architecture allowed a continuous effort to survive - and continue to extract value from past efforts - for more than three years. Even when business environment was relatively stable, individuals' need to justify bonus drove unnecessary changes in to the system. With bonus periods ranging from 3 month to 1 year, there seem to be a mis-alignment with the time line of benefits from a thoughtful architecture realizing over 1 to 5 years.

I have put together some thoughts on risks IT Architects may encounter in mid-size bonus-driven environments. From this unscientific elaboration it seems to boil down to power balance.

There are organizations, which set architects on business and technology sidelines, with no organizational and financial authority over development process. The common rhetoric in this case is: "If your architecture suggestions are so good, the people will take them to better their own future." There are few problems with that:

  • Like almost anyone else architects are too busy to address improvement of a working system and mostly address broken stuff. Which means that in 99% cases they are trouble messengers.
  • More often than not, teams and individuals have vested interests in maintaining a status quo - pride, complacency, inertia, misplaced priorities, lack of resources all contribute to it. That makes first point really negative in their eyes, instead of "let's improve" positive twist.
  • No matter what "leadership" BS floats around about pervasive communication skills, no sweet or pervasive talk will override people's financial and career incentives in the long run. As architectural changes are most about long run, mis-aligned incentives either require an architect to possess organizational power or make architect's job impossible.
  • No organization I know of can achieve reasonable alignment of individual's incentives and long-term organization incentives in a context of a bonus system, so prominent in financial companies. That enhances adverse effects of previous points.

So, which environments seem to be receptive and able to extract long-term value of architect's skills?

Obviously there are environments, which explicitly delegate power to architects. Usually those are larger organizations. The upside is that architectural effort and continuity is possible. The downside is that those organizations are often perceived as too bureaucratic and mind-numbing environments.

Secondly, there are situations, when technology managers are architects by nature, experience, or training. That is where architects by role get the necessary powers implicitly. The upside is that that leader's specific group will benefit from architectural effort. The downside is that it will not necessarily be aligned with organization as a whole, but rather with that manager's incentives.

Another scenario, is when individual technologists possess talents of an architect. There are tangible benefits for an organization at that. Those developers usually worth their weight in gold every quarter - you get the idea. They are, however, subject to the same downsides as a manager-architect - that is their incentives impact architecture too much.

Next scenario is an executive in a mid-size organization has a strong conviction of the necessity of architectural work and heavy-handily enforces the power of an architect's word. The downside it that the architect's position is very politically unstable. It is also hard to fulfill with an external architect (vs home-grown). The problem is that an experienced architect will have a hard time taking a promise of organizational support. Only a few mid-size organizations are willing to build architect's powers into an org chart with real executive weight behind it - exactly because they are so bureaucracy-avert and that seems to them as a bureaucratic thing to do.

There is one other scenario which I can speculate about. Consider an architect is an agent of business operations, paid by business operations, who interfaces with technologists and, as a customer representative, can demand a certain architecture. That may only work if technologists are not defensive about someone telling them what to do in such a detail. There are two other problems with this scenario. I have never seen it done (or talked to a witness). This scenario also risks to transform into the "throw-over-the-fence" development model - the one I do not like.

In a flat-compensation organization where bonuses play below-noticeable role some of these concerns are minimal or not applicable.

If I missed a scenario - let me know. I am not saying that an architect's position is a no-go in a bonus-driven organization. I am merely raising awareness of the risks present. Understanding how (and if) an organizational architecture supports a role of architect.

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