The Politically Savvy Business Architect: Lessons from the Field

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When people ask me what I do for a living I often joke that I manage chaos and keep people aligned.  In other words, I deal with the politics that plague every organization.  It feels like I spend the majority of my time clarifying what was actually said, convincing people that they agree with each other, and just trying to keep things moving forward.  Some refer to this as herding cats.  A key skill for a business architect is political savviness, meaning the ability to successfully get things done in a maze of egos, competing priorities, and organizational bedlam.  So how do you develop political savviness?  Let's look at this from two different perspectives. 


As a starting point, let's look at a scientific view of working in organizations.  (Two sources for this material can be found at the end of this article.)  Many people were exposed to the concept of Chaos Theory in the Jurassic Park films.  The mathematician, played by Jeff Goldblum, warned that the park was an accident waiting to happen and accurately predicted that unanticipated events would cause the park to spiral out of control and into chaos.  Somewhere between the laws of chaos and the laws of order lies Complexity Theory, which is a more scientifically accurate term for describing an organization.  This theory proposes that systems are unpredictable, but are constrained by rules that maintain a degree of order.  An organization is a special type of system that is complex and adaptive, where the individuals and the overall organization (i.e. structure, culture, behaviors, etc.) evolve together.  Individual behavior is lightly constrained by rules (e.g. human resource policies), but everything changes as individuals interact.  The behaviors of individuals change and groups adapt and self-organize due to events and changes, making it extremely complex to predict how organizations as a whole will react to change.  This is why large-scale organizational change management initiatives are so difficult.  It is challenging enough to accurately predict the reactions of individuals, let alone how the interactions of those individuals will impact the overall organizational change goals. 

So why should business architects care about this? Here's why: 

The BIZBOK® states: The value of business architecture is to provide an abstract representation of an enterprise and the business ecosystem in which it operates.  By doing so, business architecture delivers value as an effective communication and analytical framework for translating strategy into actionable initiatives.  The framework also enhances the enterprises capacity to enact transformational change, navigate complexity, reduce risk, make more informed decisions, align diverse stakeholders to a shared vision of the future, and leverage technology more effectively. 

Sound familiar?  Sounds like business architects should be complexity theorists!  So how can we use Complexity Theory to help us be more politically savvy and to be better business architects? 

  • Expect the unexpected when working with your organization.  Recognize that even if you know all of the parts of a complex system that there is no way to accurately predict outcomes as the parts begin to interact.
  • David Berreby, an award winning independent science writer and researcher, recommends to stop trying to control a complex system such as a business or an organization from above.  Instead, watch for the "emergent properties" that arise as a system organizes itself and devote yourself to preserving the conditions in which the best solutions evolve.  In other words, be less the director and more of the guide.
  • Be ready.  Watch as strategy execution initiatives unfold and be ready to adapt.
  • Be comfortable living at the edge of chaos.  Know when to loosen the constraints and stand back and watch problems work themselves out versus when to jump in before things spiral out of control. 


Beyond understanding and accepting that organizations are complex, there are competencies that are important to build upon to be more politically savvy.  Here are a few: 

  • Being seen as someone of high integrity who can be trusted is key to your ability to influence and persuade.  Without this one, you will not be successful.
  • If you do not have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to get along with others while getting the job done, you are in the wrong profession.
  • Be open to other's ideas.  Give them the opportunity to speak their mind.  Avoid exaggerating and using absolute terms like "always" and "never".
  • Know your audience.  Work on your ability to read people and situations accurately and adjust your style.  Myers-Briggs and DISC are two assessment tools to help with this.
  • Patience 

In summary, recognize that organizations are complex and expect the unexpected. Always have a contingency plan. Use tools like a stakeholder analysis to help identify who is most likely to be impacted and how to best keep them engaged and informed. Don't be too prescriptive and over-assume you know what people need.  Let things play out, adjust as you go.

And overall: appreciate the chaos, it is part of what makes business architecture so valuable. 



This article was prepared by Dean Heltemes in his personal capacity. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not represent the view of his employer.


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