Six secrets of top enterprise architects

Over the past 20 years I've worked with some hugely talented enterprise architects, and I've noticed there are some skills common to the very best of them

1) They know what 'just enough architecture' looks like

Enterprise architecture models are a question-answering device. When you're aiming for a quick time-to value, building a model that contains as much detail as needed to answer questions for the business, but nothing more, is a powerful skill.

The alternative approach, which is to build an enormous and "comprehensive" data repository from the bottom up and then decide which questions it can answer is unhelpful -- and a potentially career-limiting move.

2) They access and use data quickly

The best enterprise architects are also the most responsive: They can join a business and be offering value, insights and guidance on digital transformation within weeks. And they can do this with confidence by stitching together company data in one place and then modeling and referencing relevant data.

If that sounds like a pipe dream, here's a tip: Look at your current enterprise architecture tool or your upcoming selection process. It should be easy to get data into the tool. It shouldn't take a small army of consultants, and it shouldn't take months.

Repositories should be easily configurable and adapt to existing data not the other way round. Most businesses already have enormous pools of information in Excel, Visio, SharePoint and other CMDBs. The best enterprise architects leverage this to their benefit.

3) They're comfortable with uncertainty

Great enterprise architects have learned to manage their engineer tendencies and to present findings from models that are good, but not perfect or precise.

It's easy to confuse precision with accuracy -- I can give you the wrong answer to five decimal places!

If your enterprise architecture team is aiming for 99 percent confidence levels, warning bells should be ringing. They're unlikely to be effective. A team that provides information at around 85 percent certainty consistently and quickly, with details about assumptions and the data needed to add certainty if the decision is extremely business-critical, is much more likely to be valuable.

4) They meet the organization's objectives -- both short and long term

Enterprise architects with the ear of the C-suite know how to be both tactical and strategic. They advise on short term questions and also provide a long term road map for IT and business systems and processes.

There is a lot of value to be had tactically with a Type 1 Road map. This is a straightforward heat map of business capabilities or technology landscapes to show WHAT is changing or needs to be done. It's something you can produce in under a week. It answers question and provides a guide. Your colleagues will thank you for it.

More sophisticated road maps are valuable for long range multi-year strategies. The most informative of these set out multiple architectures, mapping current states, transition states and "sandbox" future states as discrete options.

These allow enterprise architects to compare the KPIs attached to different architectures and undertake trade-off analysis to inform high-level strategy.

5) They find solutions to impossible problems

Amazon started out selling books, then everything else. Now they're the largest cloud IaaS provider in the world. Amazon Web Services generates over $7B a year in sales, more than it makes selling books.

Imagine it is 2005 and you're in the IT strategy team at Amazon, Jeff Bezos walks into your office and says, "We should become the number one cloud IaaS provider." How would you react? OK, it's not exactly how it happened but you get the idea!

For enterprise architects, no idea should be a bad idea. Finding sensible ways to make those moonshots possible are the career high points of a star enterprise architect.

Say yes, do the analysis, build the road map, present the case.

6)  They quantify risks

Of course some business strategies are truly inadvisable, or at least extremely risky. Showing the difference between these according to the businesses chosen KPIs is what differentiates the best enterprise architects.

I've written in detail before about roadmapping and using multiple architecture analysis as the key to doing this well.

Create a decision tree which allows you to compare architectures against KPIs set by the business. Identify the gaps between the current architecture and future state options, and quantify the risks. This tree-based approach will be familiar to anyone who has managed software development.

Top enterprise architects provide quick time-to-value, business-responsive advice. But the very best also have the rare ability to navigate alternative futures with confidence. An unbeatable combination.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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