IN THIS SECTION, YOU WILL: Understand that architecture practice is all about people and get tips on creating organizational structures that support practical IT architecture practice.
- Developing the architecture function requires having competent, empowered, and motivated architects. Architecture practice must carefully organize, empower, and leverage scarce talent.
- In my work in the past few years, I combined two teams of architects: a small central architecture team and a cross-organizational distributed virtual team.
The People Foundation is an essential element of Grounded Architecture. As noted by Gregor Hohpe, to transform an organization, you do not need to solve mathematical equations. You need to move people. Consequently, having a strong network of people doing architecture across the organization is crucial to ensure that the architecture function has any tangible impact. In other words, Strong Architecture = Strong Architects.
Developing the architecture function requires having competent, empowered, and motivated architects. We should not take architectural talent for granted. Architects, and other people doing architecture work, are bridging local business, product, organizational, and technology issues. Architects are difficult to hire talent as they need not only in-depth technical knowledge but also domain-specific and organizational knowledge. Consequently, any architecture function must carefully organize, empower, and leverage scarce architecture talent (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The structure of Grounded Architecture: The People Foundation.
In my work in the past few years, I was working by combining, in different forms, two teams of architects: a small central architecture team and a cross-organizational distributed virtual team. A central architecture team is an enabler for the rest of the organization, supporting other teams and addressing global strategic topics. A distributed virtual architecture team consists of architects (or other people making architecture decisions in their teams) working in local organizational units but spending some time in a virtual team with peers from other teams. Such a distributed virtual architecture team is a crucial element of an architecture function. It provides the connection (grounding) across all parts and levels of the organization, increasing transparency, building people networks, and making it easier to implement change.
Background: Central vs. Federated Architecture Function
IT architecture practices generally follow one of two fundamental models: central or federated (Figure 2, McKinsey 2022).
Figure 2: Central vs. Federated Architecture Function.
The central model involves a large-scale central architecture team. The central team typically defines the process for approval of new work and assures adherence by development teams. In this model, development teams have few or no qualified solutions architects. This model also holds centralized infrastructure, operations, and security teams apart from the development function. Control and governance are typically the primary concerns of the central architecture team.
The federated model generally relies upon a guild or “community of practice” of solutions architects embedded into individual development teams. A small central architecture team or an architecture center of excellence (CoE) may complement such a guild. The federated model’s architects facilitate high-level planning and act as on-demand service providers for distributed teams.
The federated model is more commonly associated with cross-functional DevOps culture. The roles of solution and enterprise architects are generally broader in scope to integrate infrastructure, operations, and security concerns in product-oriented teams. The architect’s role focuses on facilitation and enablement rather than control.
Today, modern agile organizations mainly adopt the federated model. This approach increases the likelihood that the central architecture team will spend time closely involved with the challenges identified in the teams. The model ensures that the architects will be evaluated against the goals of the individual products they support, thereby focusing on improving performance and reducing complexity.
The Hybrid Model
To operate in a complex context, you must invest effort to ensure you have the right people at the right places. In the end, I usually found it best to adopt a model of a hybrid organization combining elements of central and federated orientation structures:
- A Central Architectural Teams, and
- Architecture Guilds & Virtual Architectural Teams.
This model is similar to the previously described federated model but with extra investment in a central team that should be more than just an on-demand service provider.
The hybrid team structure executing at scale in complex organizations:
- Guilds and virtual architecture teams support execution by increasing the number of people involved in architectural activities and increasing work efficiency through better alignment.
- Members representing various organizational units can have much more impact across the board.
- And having some capacity on the central level serves as a catalyst helping people at local levels to do their job while being aligned and better connected with overall strategic goals and other teams working on related topics.
Central Architecture Team
The roles of people in central teams may differ depending on the organization. In addition to doing typical architecture work, I found it helpful to be able to have dedicated people that can cover the following types of responsibilities:
- Build and maintain the architecture Data Foundation. Building a Data Foundation will not happen by accident. It requires clear ownership, curation, and technical support.
- Promote data-informed decision-making. Identify, collect, and use relevant data. Only some people are used to applying data in their decision-making. Architects should provide support and be a role-model for data-informed organizations.
- Proactively identify, connect, and maintain relationships with all relevant stakeholders. Architects are frequently uniquely positioned to bridge different organizational units and stakeholders.
- Build internal architecture communities and guilds. Organizing rituals and people requires active effort.
While guilds and virtual teams could do many listed activities, the voluntary and typically less formal nature of guilds and virtual groups makes such support more fragile. The central architecture team can take full long-term ownership of some topics and be a backup if community support weakens, ensuring long-term continuity.
Architecture Guilds & Virtual Architecture Teams
“A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. … we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” — Brené Brown, Rising Strong
I always found it essential to connect organization members passionate about architecture in some form, a guild, a community of interest, or a virtual team.
Guild or virtual teams work most of the time as architects or tech leads in specific organizational units but spend part-time collaborating with architects or tech leads from other departments to reach more alignment, share knowledge, and leverage each other’s work. In this peer-to-peer community, architects are collectively responsible for identifying and growing architectural talent, mentoring, and helping each other.
When having many guilds and teams, we typically have organized architects in several sub-areas:
- General or core teams for a broader set of architectural topics.
- Specialist teams focus on the architectures of a particular part of the technology stack. Examples include native mobile apps, web frontends, public cloud, etc.
- Strategic initiatives teams. For instance, data strategy, public cloud strategy, transactions, or verticalization.
Having places and events to connect central and distributed teams is essential. Such events can transform individual experiences into collective knowledge that can benefit the whole organization. In most organizations I worked in, such events followed a similar pattern of rituals:
- Regular (e.g., bi-weekly) forums, with updates, announcements of architectural spikes, and sharing or architectural decisions (similar to Andrew Harmel-Law’s Advice Process)
- Annual or bi-annual summit or architecture days, with several days of intensive knowledge sharing and workshops
- Ad-hoc workshops focusing on some specific topic.
While the central team can provide some essential support, all communities must take the initiative and engage as many people as possible during these events. People should be active participants rather than passive receivers of information to ensure more involvement and commitment.
Embracing Diverse Team Structures
When building architecture guilds and virtual architecture teams, it is essential to acknowledge that organizational units have diverse structures and sizes. In big organizations, embracing diversity is a pre-requirements to have any broad impact.
There is no one-fit-all solution about how departments should assign architecture responsibilities. I generally worked on three types of team-architect systems per Gregor Hohpe’s view of architects and their teams’ relationships:
- Benevolent “dictator”: An architect or architect team tells developers what to do or how to do things. An important nuance is to what extent the line is unidirectional or bi-directional.
- Primus inter pares (first among equals): Architects are embedded into teams where each is just another team member focusing on the system structure and trade-offs, taking a longer-term view than other team members.
- Architecture without architects: Architecture is done within teams. However, the task is a shared responsibility across multiple (or all) team members. This approach is often the preferred model in modern technology organizations.
Building People Foundation
While each organization will need its unique approach, here are some tips I found helpful when forming architecture teams and building a “People Foundation”:
- Before making grandiose plans for reorganizations, connect with the people already doing architectural work in an organization, creating a community of practices or a virtual team. Being inclusive and connecting all key tech leaders, regardless of their actual position and title, is vital. Being well-connected to these people will be crucial in any architecture organization, so you will always benefit from this effort.
- If creating a virtual team is a part of your architecture strategy, move away from making an informal community of practice towards building a team with more accountability and responsibility.
- Connect with non-architecture stakeholders early to gain broader support for building architecture teams and guilds. Again, being well-connected to these stakeholders will be crucial in any architecture organization.
- Avoid hiring a digital hitman. Invest in growing internal talent. Architects need knowledge of technology, domain, and organization. Finding such a person outside the organization is challenging.
- Externalize. Reach out and connect. Participate in external events. Publish. Being strong externally can help you to both grow and attract architectural talent.
Questions to Consider
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of people for architecture practice, yet many organizations take architectural talent for granted. To reflect on the importance of carefully organizing, empowering, and leveraging scarce architecture talent, ask yourself the following questions:
- Reflect on your organization’s current architecture function. Do you have a strong network of architects across the organization?
- How do you ensure architects’ competency, empowerment, and motivation in your organization? What systems do you have in place to develop architectural talent?
- Which central, federated, or hybrid model best represents your current architectural function? Why was this model chosen, and how effective has it been for your organization?
- If you are part of a central architecture team, how would you support the rest of the organization? How would you contribute to the global architecture function if you were part of a distributed virtual team?
- Consider having the roles of central architecture teams and federated architecture teams in your organization. How would they complement each other?
- How effective is the current division of responsibilities among architects in your organization? Are there areas of overlap or gaps in coverage?
- What steps has your organization taken to ensure architects are well-connected across all parts and levels? What impact has this had on transparency and the implementation of changes?
- Reflect on the diversity of team structures within your organization. How does this diversity impact the roles and responsibilities of architects?