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The Biggest Secret to Building a Successful Enterprise Architecture Team

Aspiring to build a world-class enterprise architecture (EA) organization? Get ahead by mastering the softer side of EA to empower your team to drive IT transformation that accelerates business strategy.

July 15, 2020 10 minute read

There is a secret to building a successful EA team, and unfortunately it tends to be overlooked by most organizations. If you have invested the time and effort to stand up an EA program, it is important to do it right and focus on the softer side of EA. Let’s break down what exactly is the softer side of EA, why it’s painfully neglected, and how we can help you avoid that mistake.

A balanced EA team embraces individuals who excel at both the soft skills and hard skills. The softer side consists of:

  1. Thought leadership
  2. Active collaboration
  3. Exceptional communication

These skills tend to be fuzzier in nature. Conversely, the harder side comprises the ability to build artifacts that capture strategy, roadmap and reference architectures — something far more concrete and easier to pin down. As a result, we often see companies gravitate towards resources who are strong in the skills that are easier to measure, and this typically happens at the expense of the softer side skills — a key mistake in our experience. 

For instance, one client we worked with was struggling to build an EA practice that the organization felt delivered value. They were several years into this journey and had experienced frequent turnover, ironically with their best technical resources often poached for roles within the lines of business focused on delivery — as these were perceived as more prominent positions. 

The organization's impression was that this EA team did not provide any artifacts of value. Upon investigation, we learned of a robust capability maturity mapping solution that was developed by this EA team. It would have been extremely useful, addressing key pain points in several parts of the organization. The issue was that no one else in the organization knew about it.

This is a classic case of perfection being the enemy of good. There was a desire to make the solution excellent (a harder side skill) before making anyone aware of it (a softer side skill). The logic for not raising awareness before it was ready was to avoid setting high expectations. However, by setting none and by limiting collaboration and communication with other stakeholders outside of EA, it only amplified the perception that EA was not providing any value.

Characteristics of the softer side of EA

The ultimate goal of EA is to maximize business value by aligning business strategy to IT decision making. To achieve that outcome, the EA team must perform as internal consultants with a bird’s eye view, along with relevant technical knowledge, to define the long-term business strategy driven by technological advancements. Only with a holistic understanding of business goals and technological capabilities can the EA team apply thought leadership to drive a consistent organizational strategy.

Definition of the Softer Side of EA
Figure 1: Definition of the softer side of EA

1. Thought leadership

The EA team is blessed with a unique information edge. In addition to having a thorough understanding of the organization’s top business goals, it can also pinpoint the dependencies, synergies and conflicts across the program, offering thought leadership to help shape the IT landscape based on the business strategy.

Thought leaders are visionaries, they are at the digital forefront with innovative insights on how to unlock future capabilities that would drive business outcomes in a progressive way with new technologies; they challenge the existing ways of working with a critical lens, while being a mile wide and an inch deep in the program allows them a full picture to speak with authority and persuasion. 

Paired with their knowledge of the organization and the perspectives they absorbed from various stakeholders, thought leaders use their information edge to turn abstract business problems into concrete capability mapping that links IT priorities to business needs.

2. Active collaboration

The EA team is the bridge between business and IT. It thrives on enabling collaboration and connecting the dots between the two functional groups, facilitating conversations to align priorities and building consensus with numerous stakeholders to maximize effectiveness of the business. 

Active collaborators do not shy away from challenging discussions, they approach the difficult conversations head-on by connecting the right group of stakeholders who seldom collaborate, enforcing debates in a constructive manner to address current gaps and reach alignment in priorities. Skillful collaborators are creative in their collaboration forums, customizing the best platform (e.g., interactive workshops) fitted for the respective stakeholders, building strong rapport along the way.

The leader of EA must guarantee that the team structure and staffing allow it to be accessible to the rest of the organization, prompt in responses and welcome any form of discussions and feedback.

3. Exceptional communication

Imagine sitting through dull presentations by the EA team and being unable to locate any artifacts produced by them. Your perception would most likely be that EA is not adding any value to you and the organization.

To gain support and wide adoption, the EA team must have excellent presenters who can speak persuasively and eloquently to pitch the value of EA. To grasp the audience’s attention, the speaker must have the ability to influence in a provocative and refreshing way that intrigues the crowd and stimulates thoughts and follow up conversations.

Interactions and presentations with targeted audience must be customized. For example, the EA team should speak to the business stakeholders’ key challenges by speaking in business language, presenting EA deliverables with those specific stakeholders in mind, illustrating a direct link between business strategic direction and IT changes and expressing value in terms of business outcomes.

The same strategy should be applied to written communications. The EA team must exercise their power of persuasion to pique stakeholders' interest to participate in EA conversations. For example, publishing an enticing pre-E-ARB meeting preview would stimulate ideas and thus, result in fruitful discussions during the E-ARB (Enterprise Architectural Review Board) meeting.

Robust written communication is required to produce accessible, centralized and easily digestible artifacts that reflect the collective mindshare of the enterprise, including the right level of granularity to provide meaningful impact and concrete next steps.

Why is the softer side of EA often neglected?

Figure of the typical EA imbalance
Figure 2: The typical EA imbalance

Given the importance of the softer side in EA, why do EA teams fail to invest the right level of effort in it? We have typically seen three key drivers.

1. The urgency to deliver tangible artifacts 

In the infancy of an EA program, it is tempting to deliver as many tangible artifacts as possible to demonstrate “quick wins.”

The EA team can quickly get into details of solutioning and get hyper-focused on producing technical documentation that support solution development. While these reference architectures and patterns may be useful in the context of a specific initiative, they are often written at the expense of first creating a higher-level domain strategy with buy-in from key stakeholders across the organization. These artifacts are at risk of being replaced by a new approach in the next initiative. 

WWT’s practical approach to EA focuses on delivering strategic, business-relevant capabilities by defining near-term IT activities that progress the organization to its desired state. It emphasizes collaboration from the start, which helps garner buy-in across the organization. This approach not only maximizes the usability of the artifacts for both business and technical owners, but also emphasizes the iterative process which allows domain-specific activities to continue while the overarching and domain-specific EA artifacts are built in an agile manner.

2. Execution of the softer side may be viewed as time-consuming and uncomfortable

Building strong relationships and collaborating regularly with members across the organization may be mistaken as time-consuming with results that do not yield easy-to-quantify benefits (and therefore not useful).

These common misconceptions may lead to a lack of emphasis on the soft skills that are instrumental to its long-term success. Leaders have the responsibility to ensure the importance of the softer side skills are understood and create a culture that properly emphasizes both the harder and softer side of EA.

Additionally, the team can explore options such as collecting survey results and feedback from business and IT stakeholders regarding their experiences interacting with the EA team, attending EA presentations, etc., which will provide insights to the effectiveness of the softer side skillsets in the following areas: collaboration, availability, communication and persuasion.

3. Challenges in attracting and retaining the right talent 

Identifying individuals who embody both soft and hard skills is challenging. A large portion of EAs come from a strong technical background with deep expertise in solution development. Executing the softer side of EA may not be instinctive to those who have not traditionally placed emphasis on these types of skills professionally.

Leaders should not be deterred by these roadblocks. Instead, they must create a defined and promising career path to attract high caliber candidates, which includes opportunities such as: working closely with business executives to drive digital transformation, challenging rotational placements and rigorous training programs to encourage growth and continuous learning in both technical and business management areas.

This approach will not only attract strong EA candidates, but also help retain top EA talent once they are a part of your organization.

Benefits from the softer side of EA

Mastering the softer side of EA is the secret ingredient to building a strong foundation of a successful EA team. When the EA team truly embodies the soft skills, the full effect of EA comes to life.

The bridge between business and IT will be constructed where the right group of individuals are brought in the same room to discuss synergies of relevant business goals. The EA team will take full advantage of their information edge and unique perspectives to challenge existing ways of working, establishing new strategies to map out the organization’s future capabilities that drive prioritized business outcomes. 

Influenced by their persuasive delivery on the vision of EA, accessible and collaborative working style, personable and approachable characteristics, the stakeholders will find themselves fully bought into both the concept and the execution of EA, significantly increasing the likelihood of mass adoption. 

Apart from gaining support from stakeholders, the EA team is responsible for maintaining the momentum of this continuous effort — stakeholders should be consistently engaged and stimulated by the discussion topics, where success stories must be highlighted to the rest of the organization to demonstrate value.

Invest in the success factor

What are the key drivers to achieving the right balance between the soft skills and the hard skills in your EA team?

  1. Leaders in the organization must recognize the importance of soft skills and create an attractive career path for the EA positions to attract highly motivated individuals who embody both soft skills and hard skills.
  2. The leader of EA must build a team culture which recognizes and celebrates the value of soft skills. This can show up anywhere, from formalized EA metrics in business value terms, KPIs related to thought leadership, collaboration, communication and informal feedback, to recognition in performance reviews.
  3. The EA team must execute softer side efforts deliberately, such as actively planning creative collaborative sessions with stakeholders and setting up “office hours” available to the rest of the organization.

If you aspire to build a world-class EA initiative, do not overlook the importance of the softer side of EA. As cutting-edge technologies continue to evolve and revolutionize all industries, attracting and retaining a loyal team of highly motivated and innovative individuals will be game-changing. This high-performance team will drive the future vision of your technological landscape, aligning directly to your organization’s business outcomes, dictating your position as an industry-leading company.

Learn more with our Enterprise Architecture Workshop.
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