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Architecture Council: An Idea for Advancing Organizational Strategic Orientation

Impact
Productivity
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28 August, 2020

Brad Henrickson, CTO at Scoop, shares how by establishing the Architecture Council he advanced strategic thinking of the engineering team and overall strategic orientation of his organization.

Problem

When I joined my previous organization, I noticed the lack of strategic thinking within technical leadership. Focus had largely been streamlined on the project level while the strategic thinking across the organizations was fairly rudimentary. By the time I joined, a great number of projects had been worked on, but the lack of progress was fairly evident. For example, we tried to rewrite one system three times and each time we would fail. Our technology was more liability than an asset and that was a result of the absence of long-term, strategic thinking about how technology supports the business.
 

Actions taken

I decided to establish the Architecture Council, an advisory body that should give strategic orientation to day-to-day engineering decisions. Rather than making it a top-down and centralized body, I wanted to drive ownership of the technology perspective(s) to the teams and be able to use it as a place to generate value. If you create any group, that group should be able to provide value for stakeholders.
 

The way I made it relevant was to bring in my most technical director and have them help with facilitation. We identified key technology people across various teams and brought them to the Council. They already did key technology projects on the ground level and were well-versed in discussing technology on a project-level basis.
 

We ran two types of meetings:

  • Regular, bi-weekly strategic discussions where we would deliberate about our strategic direction from a technology perspective evaluating different objectives and approaches;
  • On-demand technology or product reviews that were important for the wider organization. If someone would consider doing a project, an engineer could seek to consult with and get feedback from the Council. In effect, the Council became a forum to discuss projects and receive feedback from the entire engineering organization and it became a great learning opportunity for people who were bringing their projects to the table.
     

The Council was set up as an advisory body, and their opinions were not obligatory or binding, but nevertheless, had the power of expert authorities. However, not only engineers benefited from the Council; people on the Council had an opportunity to learn more about what teams were doing and integrate their projects in a long-term strategy.
 

After a while, teams started to present their own strategic perspectives on what they wanted to do over the next six months. They would initially discuss their projects within the team and then take it to the Architecture Council on their own volition, receive feedback and only then would they present their projects to me.
 

Soon, our strategy became better articulated and coherent. It was well socialized and publicized and everyone has access to it. That allowed us to move from the very localized, fragmented and short-term level to the strategic, long-term level which was a massive shift in strategic thinking and understanding of our technology and organization.
 

Lessons learned

  • I was considering for a while an idea of a chief architect reporting to me, but I was afraid that he may become a single point of failure and I felt that it was an approach that would generally work better for larger organizations. I didn’t like the idea of someone sitting somewhere and doling out the answers and I was more inclined to come up with a collective body resembling a forum where different people would take their fair share of responsibility.
  • Being advisory in nature was helpful for this particular setting. It put the onus on the group to have to provide the value to the organization as opposed to having a decision coming from the position of authority
  • Being on the Architecture Council and getting exposure was very rewarding for a number of people. It increased their engagement but also influenced the quality of their work.
  • When deciding on members, don’t make the group too big because it will affect the quality of conversation. If you have more than 10 people that would be too many representations in the room. If you have 10 people, for example, around a half to two thirds would be active because the topics won’t always be relevant to the whole group. Six or seven people being deeply engaged in conversation is the right size for stimulating and thought-provoking discussion.
  • Be clear what the Council does -- write the charter, get it out circulated, remind people what the group does, solicit feedback, etc. The councils can be an immensely impactful body but it can also give rise to all kinds of speculations; writing down its role will help demystify its purpose and functioning.

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