Marc Lankhorst

How Enterprise Architects Can Contribute to Innovation

In our ongoing series on high-speed organizations and the Adaptive Enterprise, we have written several times about the need to foster innovation in your organization. So how can enterprise architects contribute to that innovation?

A key contribution of enterprise architecture to an organization is to help everyone involved in change, from leadership to shop floor, deal with the interconnections and dependencies in the enterprise. A future-focused enterprise architecture practice can help with understanding the possibilities and effects of, say, introducing a new business model, using innovative technology (e.g. AI), offering new products or services, improving the customer experience, changing your ecosystem, and much more. But the discipline has some challenges to overcome.

Business Model

Cultural Change

First of all, enterprise architects must take a future-oriented perspective. Innovation requires more exploration and risk-taking than architects are typically used to. In many organizations, their chief responsibility is to keep track of the complexities of the current situation, with the purpose of finding opportunities for local improvements, risk reduction or cost savings. Established architecture methods and practices are often aimed at staying in control.

You also see this in the terminology used. Often, architects want to design a ‘future-proof’ architecture or system that will easily accommodate any potential future requirements. However, in a volatile environment there is no such thing as a future-proof solution. The only thing you can do is to design something for change, ensuring that change itself is, and stays, as easy as possible.

There are trade-offs to consider here. If you want to maximize cost efficiency, sharing resources across your enterprise may be a good idea. However, if every business unit relies on, say, the same IT infrastructure but their business needs differ too much, such a shared solution becomes a straitjacket and will hamper innovation. If speed of change is more important than cost efficiency, it may be better to make each business unit responsible for its own resources. And you need well-managed and architected interconnections between them, to avoid unnecessary complexity.

Speed of change may also clash with a culture of control. As the famous racing driver Mario Andretti once put it: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Game vs. Play

But there is more to innovation than this focus on control vs. speed. As we explained in our blog post on ‘game vs. play’, enterprise architecture tends to take a very structured approach to change. It uses pre-defined design and analysis techniques, like a game that has a well-defined set of rules and a bounded, predictable universe. You know what the aim of the game is (check-mate your opponent, or reduce the cost of your application landscape, for example) and follow the rules to get the best outcome. However, to become more innovative, enterprises and their architects also need to take a ‘play’ approach. They must think outside the box of their structured and bounded world to discover truly innovative ideas and solutions.

Taking an Outside-In and Outside-Out View

We often see that architects have an ‘inside-out’ view of the enterprise and are rarely involved in more strategic conversations on the direction of the enterprise. Such discussions are usually much more focused on the environment of the enterprise and its own position in that.

So, in addition to an inside-out view, architects need to develop an outside-in and an outside-out view. With an outside-in view, you look at your enterprise from the perspective of its ecosystem of customers, partners and other stakeholders and adapt your business outcomes to their changing needs and desires.

Ecosystem

Ecosystem View

With an outside-out view, you go beyond that scope and also look at (possibly unknown) potential customers, partners and competitors, disruptive technologies, and other developments that may drive change and innovation. Moreover, a truly innovative enterprise not only adapts to its environment but also influences that environment for its own purposes. It creates disruptive change itself with blue ocean strategies that result in completely new markets and ecosystems.

With their broad understanding of the interconnections and dependencies inside and outside the enterprise, architects can play an instrumental role in shaping change. Their instruments and techniques are not limited to the boundaries of the enterprise but can help understand and design entire ecosystems. This way, enterprise architecture can serve as a feasibility check on new business ideas. Moreover, it can help structure your enterprise – from business capabilities and processes to IT and other technologies – for maximum business agility, to help it respond rapidly to new opportunities.

Agile Processes and Results

Maximizing business agility is not just a matter of having an agile architecture and development process; that is just par for the course. You must also pay attention to the agility of what is created in that process. All too often, I have seen individual agile teams create locally optimal results that become part of an increasingly complicated web of dependencies. These dependencies make it progressively more difficult to implement larger changes, because too much must change in lock-step. Witness the microservice and API spaghetti that many organizations suffer from.

Enterprise architecture is key in keeping that complexity in check. It helps in planning for future change by fostering autonomous business and IT capabilities with minimal dependencies.

This does not imply a classical, top-down, waterfall, big-upfront-design way of working. Rather, EA provides the guardrails for local innovation by agile teams, resulting in a coherent, adaptable, and resilient result.

Involving Everyone

Innovation is not just something for the business experts, architects, software developers, and others with a designated role in change. As we argued in a recent blog post on the consumerization of enterprise architecture, we see a profound shift happening: enterprise architecture is becoming the connective tissue between different types of change, rather than a high-level, top-down operating discipline. It can provide the entire organization with insights and instruments needed to perform local or global change. This means that anyone can have a role in changing the enterprise in some way, so everyone becomes an architect.

Of course, this does not mean that enterprise architects are no longer necessary. Their role will shift, however. Instead of being ‘über-designers’, they will increasingly become stewards of change. They will help others in improving and innovating the enterprise, while guarding the coherence and quality of the architecture so that it offers optimal support for change, today and in the future.

Moreover, architects need to look differently at innovation and change itself. The idea of a fixed current state (‘baseline’) and a desirable future state (‘target’) no longer applies: the current state is always in flux and the future state is a moving target. Sometimes, architects themselves will be the innovators. More often though, they will create the right conditions for innovation by shaping an environment in which change is easy and everyone can contribute.

Change is day-to-day business. Change is teamwork. Change is here to stay.


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