Archive for February, 2010

Bias, Process and Credibility

I’ll start by posing a question. What is the most important attribute of an architect? What is it that makes him effective?

Is it technical skill, experience, communications skills? I’d suggest that it is credibility. Where does this come from, obviously it can have it’s foundation in any of the skills noted above and probably many more that I’ve not mentioned. However, I’d argue that ultimately, credibility is about trust. It’s about people trusting the architect. Trusting that he’s telling the truth and that he is giving them as accurate and impartial assessment of the topic as is possible for a mere mortal.

Impartiality is an important lesson that too few architects seem to have learned. Architecture is not about who’s right it’s about what’s right for the client. One way that we ensure impartiality is by having objective processes that minimize individual bias  and provide transparency for decisions. By no means are any of these processes perfect, traceability makes the process transparent and so when someone is unhappy with the decision the reasoning behind it can be explained. By this means a good architect protects his client’s interests  and indirectly his greatest asset his own credibility.

I’ll give you an example. Recently a technically competent, but frankly rather arrogant architect at a client of mine made a “judgment” call. Without consulting the rest of his practice or recording his process. This resulted in him  excluding a particular vendor from a selection process for a pretty much commoditized capability. His reason he’d seen the product “years ago and it wasn’t that good then. I doubt it would have changed..” he went on “besides I don’t like XXXXXX”.

The problem with this is he’s lazy he’s made a call based on information that he admits is old and hasn’t  given XXXXXX a chance to change his mind. This isn’t what your boss pays for when he hires you. This architect has no doubt done this many times and because his client trusts him he can get away without due process, he is abusing their trust.

This particular architect however has come unstuck. The vendor unhappy with the unfairness of the decision has forced a meeting with higher management and because the architect has been  lazy and not a little bit arrogant he has no defense. There is no recorded assessment process, no defined principles, just his say so. He’s looking pretty vulnerable right now, his management are more than a little embarrassed and have insisted that a proper assessment be done. Architecture is about rigor, being told by executives that you haven’t been rigorous enough should be a humiliation for an architect.  Now I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy fixes the assessment process so that the vendor can’t win, because for him it’s about him being right. But, the fool doesn’t seem to realize that the real damage has been done. From now on every decision he makes will be questioned by his executive because he was lazy,  biased and has betrayed their trust.  He’s credibility is now shot.

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Truth and consequences a cautionary tale for architects

Once upon a time there was an architect known to his friends as Elmo, who worked for a very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer. One of this outsourcer’s clients was an even bigger and meaner bank.

One day the even bigger meaner bank who were in the habit of bullying the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer decided that they needed a disaster recover drill. Actually, being a big mean bank they really couldn’t care less, but the one thing they sought of feared, a slow moving  almost toothless regulator on the prowl. And given how banks had recently almost ended the world as most us know it, they were almost sensitive to the idea of what people might think and were afraid that the slow moving almost toothless usually ineffective regulator might actually bite them as they too were being scrutinized because the recent near death experience of the world economy was seen by not a few people as being at least partly their fault. So a scenario of the cheap, mean, cowardly, unwilling and usually ineffectual came to pass. All things being equal there were no great expectations.

Elmo the architect was assigned to certify that this drill was effective. Which all sounds very professional. But is really the big mean bank’s way of mitigating risk, of passing the risk to the people best able to handle it. Which is short hand for any barely credible idiot greedy and dumb enough to take it! After all the one thing the recent near death experience of the world economy had demonstrated was just how good banks were at managing risk and what good fellows they were when it came to accepting responsibility and the tax payer’s money.

Anyway, Elmo’s a pretty good architect, a diligent keeper of notes and he knows a thing or two about this kind of drill. A real contrast to the usual half arsed preparation done by the  very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer. While this sounds good and I’m sure the large cowardly cheapskate outsourcer exploits Elmo’s diligence for marketing purposes to win business, his rigor really isn’t part of their business plan. The appearance of it is, but not the actual detail, after all who really cares? Well, Elmo cared because Elmo had certain values another area that the recent near death experience of the world economy had exposed as a strength of the banks and the finance industry in general.

So, on the night of the drill, Elmo in attendance observes carefully, taking notes, lots of notes, lots of good notes with time stamps. At the end of the drill the certification decision isn’t difficult, because Elmo had taken notes, lots of notes, good notes with time stamps. “No chance” he says! And referring to his notes, his good notes he reals off reason after reason why the drill failed to the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team and goes home to sleep with a clear conscience. He’d done his job and it wasn’t his problem to fix. The account team will have to talk to the big mean bank. It was  going to take some money to fix these issues.

The very large, cowardly cheapskate outsourcer’s account team have been bullied so often by the he big mean bank that the mere thought of doing anything other than genuflecting to the bank’s every whim  provokes a panic attack! What’s worse they know so little about IT  that they can’t actually explain to the always grumpy big mean bank what needs to be done. This made the big mean bank even angrier than usual and the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team responded by being even more pathetic than usual.

So, filled with fear and unable to explain themselves the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team resorts to the only behavior it knows works. Why not, it works on them; they start trying to bully Elmo. At first this was a low level cowardly bullying; as you might expect, which Elmo, being an easy going kind of architect  just takes as folks under pressure being a little snappy. But, he doesn’t change his position. No certification for all these reasons. Well, the very large, cowardly cheapskate outsourcer’s account team are a gasp a techie talking back to them! Well they weren’t sure if he was or not because he kept using words they don’t understand. But, it can’t be good because he won’t say yes. And this was really bad because it meant that the big mean bank would shout at them again and be very unhappy and they might have to spend some money and bring down the profit on the account which would make the boss of the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer  also shout and not give them some money, they might even miss a payment on their Porsches.

There’s nothing for it the problem must be addressed they decided with remarkable determination for a team that generally only genuflects. We’ll take this problem by the horns! The architect must change his assessment. Then the big mean bank will be happy and we we’ll make our Porsche payments and all will be well.

Problem was Elmo had values one of those was professionalism, increasingly rare I know and often a liability, but believe me highly desirable.  Well you can imagine the sought of thing that went on as the increasingly hysterical very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team tried the “truth as a social construct” approach on the positivist objectivist  trained architect. True to his word Elmo could not be convinced, after all he had the notes, lots of notes, really good notes with time stamps.

So, very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team waited until Elmo went on leave and convinced some other architect; who hadn’t been present at the drill and had no notes, of the utility of socially constructed alternative realities and all was well. The big mean bank stopped shouting and they could make their Porsche payments.

And they all would have all lived happily ever after if it were not for the slow moving almost toothless usually ineffective regulator actually catching up with the game! See how it doesn’t happen until the last chapter. Now they also kept notes, really good notes with date stamps. And one of these notes said that last time this drill was done it wasn’t that flash and what’s more you the big mean bank better make sure that the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer tests this stuff more thoroughly next time to prove you are taking us seriously or else we’ll bite you!

Well, the big mean bank is insisting that the  very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer should take the slow moving almost toothless usually ineffective regulator’s bite on its behalf as they certified the drill! Meanwhile the very large cowardly, cheapskate outsourcer’s account team are all polishing their Porches  and looking the other way while the certifying architect is polishing his CV. The slow moving almost toothless usually ineffective regulator is impatiently tapping its foot and polishing its teeth. The only one who sleeps soundly is Elmo.

Moral of the story, keep notes, lots of notes with timestamps and don’t let  people transfer their responsibilities to you even if they do wear expensive suits.

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