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Business Architecture as a Complex Problem

The need for a good architecture for a well functioning business is often held beyond doubt, almost as a truism. But it is not that common to find companies who take a disciplined approach to developing architecture and most importantly following through in design and implementation. Often architecture is treated as a ritualistic exercise, conducted with an air of the ivory tower, and eventually cast away as a theoretical dossier of diagrams and reports carrying little practical value. Indeed, during detailed design and construction, the number of overrides and exceptions poses enough burden to the programs that they often jettison the architecture that was developed. When this happens, sadly, it is not just an opportunity lost, but also a huge risk assumed. Without checks and bounds, or the constraints that the architecture imposes, the immediate issue in the development cycle might be addressed quickly, but the overall system can be impaired and compromised with bad and costly consequences. For instances, interfaces may need more modifications, workflows may be inefficient, and data structures too rigid. We all know this, but find it hard to get around. One way to tackle this situation is to adopt a complex problem solving approach to architecture.

Complex problem solving has taken a new life recently. Three books have hit the market - Bulletproof Problem Solving, Cracked It!, and What’ your problem? over the last year or so. We have come to recognize that the world we are living in, best captioned by the term VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and coined most likely by the US military back in the late 1980s, will require more people adept at complex problem solving. Complexity stems from dealing with multiple variables linked to multiple possible threads of causality and interactions at the same time. Economics, geopolitics, supply chains, geopolitics, migrations, health, sustainability among other things can amplify local events to global shocks in no time catching global companies off-guard to respond and defend. These interlocking conditions may resemble the notion of the butterfly flapping its wings in Latin America and causing a storm in the Japanese shore. While this may be described elegantly using chaos theory, in the practical application world of business architecture, a problem solving approach can act as an antidote for three reasons:

1. Architecture has multiple causal threads: Business shifts today usually entail cross-functional involvement and cover a wide range of issues that require subject matter expertise in digital technologies, power system operations, economics, law and policy. Understanding of data and algorithms as well as work processes and user experience are necessary to drive efficiency, and resilience and to meet the growing importance of sustainability and economic growth.

2. Architecture is about decision making: Given the intertwined nature of the issues, ideas and inquiry - decision making at all levels become core to the architecture process. Decisions include tradeoffs and options, which are better served with a grounding in underlying architectural criteria and the high level objectives and targets.

3. Architecture requires alignment: With multiple options and tradeoffs to be made, alignment is a necessity, especially among a set of diverse stakeholders from developers, investors, policy makers, customers, and trade organizations. Disagreements need to overtly discussed and settled. Relying on tacit agreements may prove disastrous especially in large programs given the interlocking of issues and the fact that decisions taken in one area can affect many other areas - often in unknown and unintended ways.

So what are the aspects of complex problem solving that will help:

1. From right and wrong to strong and weak: Decisions and tradeoffs are not always obvious given the nature of issues. When there is an obvious choice between a right and wrong decision, the right decision is relatively easy to derive and stand for. It is usually the decision between two seemingly right options that requires a fact based assessment of strong and weak arguments, requires conviction and clarity and the ability to mobilize and influence concerned parties, all of which form core problem solving skills.

2. From deductive to inductive: Deductive logic is often the dominant approach in engineering and design. We are intuitively disposed to it, as it is the most common approach taught in most disciplines. Deductive logic builds on sequential evidence and logic to arrive at the conclusion. In architecture decision making, however, given that information and evidence may not be all available to arrive at a conclusive decision. As such, an inductive approach relying on hypothesis development and testing is more effective. The idea is getting quickly to a set of few critical issues that matter and then validating solutions that is practical to apply. Outside strategic thinking, and core scientific method, inductive logic is not widely used. Applying it well, requires not only training but also practice to create meaningful hypotheses and systematically discerning the factors that matter.

3. From templates to first principles: Over time many architecture and engineering practices have been codified into templates. This has cultivated a workforce that works out of templates and reduced their ability to exercise their own skills to solve problems from scratch, or first principles thinking. Nothing wrong with that; it adds to the efficiency, minimizes non-conformance and, drives precision. However, when the problems are unique and context-specific, a template based approach is limiting and prone to overlook important factors. Therefore, an approach that is grounded on first principles - meaning solving from the fundamental postulates, assumptions and by challenging and scrutinizing them.

Fronting architecture development with a complex problem solving mindset and discipline, whether it is grid architecture, enterprise system and data architecture, or organization architecture often termed as operating model design - will be a novel way and a more helpful way to achieve the outcomes of business architecture and carry forward the promise of architecture as a pathway to business operations design.

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