If you’ve been architecting solutions for any period of time you have experienced certain adverse events that have resulted in an unenthusiastic start to a project, the necessity to rework your solution, a tepid reception after implementation or, shudder to think, project failure. Luckily, being an architect in an Agile framework provides the ideal tools and processes to manage those situations, but mitigating the risk is always the preference. So how do we avoid these problems in the first place? This will be the first in a series of posts addressing the process of engaging your organization to drive a digital transformation. My specialty is data and analytics so that will be the focus of this series, but the tools and information provided are easily adapted to any technical project.
Let’s imagine that we are at the beginning of a new project and, while nobody is calling it a digital transformation, the strategic goals depend on some fairly major changes to infrastructure and workflow. Often, upon joining a new team in the role of consultant, there can be an overall apathy towards you that can be summed up as “So, we’ve decided that we need talent from outside to run this project. I guess the abject failure of our recent vendors encouraged the boss to go down that road?” The individuals executing the project can’t be blamed for this perception, but the architect/consultant can and should be blamed for letting it persist. In fact, in my experience, the difference between a good architect and a great one is not in technical knowledge but instead lies in the great architect’s ability to gain the trust of the team and create excitement around the product.
Oddly, it’s not the trust itself that makes the difference – it’s the process of gaining that trust where we get the big payoff. Trust is simply another flavor of success but to be successful we need to engage certain types of team members in specific ways.
Let’s begin by identifying the three different types of partners that need to be managed starting in the design phase. (Notice that I use the word partners. That is not an accident – these people ARE your partners in every relevant sense of the word. You succeed and fail as a team!) Your partners can be classified as follows:
Stakeholder: The individuals populating this group may be called something other than stakeholders, but they generally include executive-level sponsors who are tasked with strategic planning, are accountable for the results of your project, and have a heavy influence on budgeting.
Subject matter expert (SME): Your SME knows the existing systems and workflows better than anybody in the company. They will be an expert on the unique aspects of the data, the decision tree surrounding workflows and will have a very good idea of what factors can lead to success or failure in their realm. Often you can find a SME that has been a part of the organization since the “long long ago” and that person should be your best friend. He or she can tell you exactly how the systems integrate, where the manual processes reside, and which VP from 23 years ago is responsible for this mess.
User: This is the group of people who will be interacting with your system throughout the day and for whom you are designing the product. A user can also be a SME or a stakeholder (especially with an analytics product) but for our purposes, the only relevant fact is that they interface with the existing system often and the new implementation will result in major changes to how they work.
This is in no way a comprehensive list of everybody with whom you will interact. In fact, there will be developers, project managers, product owners, scrum masters, and a myriad other individuals involved in the process. They, however, share your task – to provide a product to the users that enables efficient execution of their workflow in pursuit of the strategic goals as outlined by leadership. While volumes could be written regarding interacting with these members of the team, let us imagine a beautiful world in which those dynamics are miraculously perfect, and everybody is solely focused on the user experience.
To begin your project, you are in ‘politician mode”. In effect, this means that you are making your rounds through the organization. You are speaking with anybody who will give you the time. You are asking questions; you are kissing babies and you are listening.
(NOTE: Please do not actually kiss anybody’s baby unless provided parental consent to indulge in those perfect little chubby cheeks for a moment.) The key word there is LISTENING and let me tell you something: people love talking about what they do! This should be easy but in trying to build confidence with a new team, architects will often try to showcase how good they are at their job. Trust me when I say that you will gain far more credibility from your new team by actively listening, sincerely caring about what they care about and by making it crystal clear that they will determine whether your project succeeds.
After those meetings, I recommend a follow-up with each group to put together some short, medium, and long-term goals. For an example as to what that could look like, I created the template below to display the progression of benefits the user should expect to see as a data-related product matures.
The stages are defined loosely as:
Illuminate: This is the process of bringing visibility to the data and related structures. This could include a data dictionary, data lineage information, or anything else that you or the user think may be helpful to increasing the transparency of your data assets.
Empower: This is the stage when the user is given the ability to create their own reports, has a relevant role defined in new development processes and is otherwise empowered to have a visible impact on the development and execution of their standard workflow.
Innovate: Given that new processes are generally put in place to make things more efficient, this stage acknowledges those gains and reinvests a portion of those time/effort savings into the immensely fun task of innovating. At first, this may look like items from a department “wish list” being added to a backlog but it should mature into the implementation of new processes that are advantageous to the user and their team. This should be a truly enjoyable process that engages and further empowers every member of the team.
Collaborate: With the previous three stages executed flawlessly and trust built up among the once disparate teams, collaboration begins occurring within the context of multi-disciplinary Agile teams that address issues proactively. In ideal cases, collaboration may also occur within an analytics Center of Excellence or some other similar type of initiative. The key point is that members of different teams continue the hard work of the previous stages and do so together in pursuit of organizational goals and professional growth.
Enhance: After new processes are implemented and new tools are in place, an organization is best served by measuring the impact of those new implementations and where necessary, refining them. In this case, we call those actions enhancements because, hopefully, they are making an already efficient process even better. By this time, the necessary enhancements should be addressed by an Agile team containing the individuals needed to complete any desired feature.
At this point, assuming that the technical aspects of your project were completed successfully. Your relationship with your users should be defined by their confidence that you will always advocate for their interests and be honest with them when you think other considerations may need to be prioritized. Disagreements don’t have to be awkward or contentious – they can become a critical part of your planning process and make everybody better for having engaged in the exercise. That said, without the trust nurtured during some shared success, having those conversations can often be difficult.
This is the first in a series of bog posts about how to most effectively engage your organization. Please subscribe to the site to receive a notification when the next post is available.
Note: The version of the template shown above can be downloaded from here but will require Microsoft Visio or another compatible program to edit.