Archive for October, 2006

That Vision Thing

I get challenged on the question of vision. Is it management’s responsibility to come up with the vision, or the architect’s? Well, this is my push-back: the architect needs to be sure there is one. Remember: no vision, no destination, a random walk.

If management has established a shared vision, and we have a shared understanding of this vision in terms of what it means for the technical community, great! Job done; get to work on architectural strategy.

Still, I can’t tell you how many projects I encounter where the technical people feel there is no vision. So, is there really no vision, or no vision the developers relate to? Either way, the architect has an important leadership role to play. And moreover, even if management “leads” on the vision thing, the vision will be the better for the architects involvement. The architect is (or should be) responsible for the goodness of the architecture (value delivered, structural integrity and resilience under change) as it is sustained through the incarnations it will take as market changes and internal forces impinge upon it. The project manager is responsible for each release, one release at a time. There is an important tension there.

The tricky part is establishing a shared vision without having it be an unmercifully drawn-out process unto itself. To do this, leaders ask that the job of articulating the vision be delegated to them by the community. This is a job of trust, and a balancing act between participation and traction. Then it is a job of informing and influencing, inspiring and persuading.

In engineering, we tend to use and appeal to logic as our principal tool for persuasion; logos, standing on the shoulders of ethos. We tend to eschew pathos, the appeal to the emotions; we neglect enthusiasm, the importance of building it in ourselves that it may light in others; we neglect to tell stories that connect personally, appealing to the common history and aspirations of those we would persuade.

On the subject of persuasion, there’s Gladwell’s triad for infections of epidemic scale: connector, maven, salesman (The Tipping Point). Or as I interpret the triad: relationship builders creating conduits for persuasion, knowledge that imbues the message with meaningful value, and the emotive power of the carrier. Overlapping with, but importantly extending the triad of rhetoric: logos, ethos and pathos.

Gladwell also makes the point that the message has to be sticky. This has two aspects: the message must be compelling but the environment also must be receptive. Good people act in more, or less, helpful ways depending on their perception of context. That is why we focus so much on context leading up to vision and strategy.

We need to build a shared sense of where to get to, and a sense of the context that behooves us getting there—our history, our present context, and the forces that will reshape our context. The really neat thing is that we don’t place ourselves in the forefront, trying to persuade and otherwise bludgeon everyone with the vision thing. Simply getting people in the room to talk about context, their view of it, and others view of it, builds a sense that this view, this context, is shared, and more than that, it has its comfort and its motivating force. And yes, by being careful about inviting key individuals with various important perspectives, we play a shaping role in creating a valid shared context view. 

If the vision that comes out of this sense of our shared (business or project) context and the forces that will reshape it, and the opportunities it opens up, is not the vision we hold, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves.

Being ethical as a leader, to me, means not setting out to be self-serving. Rather it means to honorably, responsibly, seek out the value that is compelling to our community, build a shared vision, build passion and commitment to attaining the vision, and lead the decisions and the action that realizes the vision. It is not about power or dominating the will of others (as in, telling them what the system must be, how it must be organized, how to make it “perfect”). It is about leading to value delivery by facilitating the best joint effort of the community, creating the spaces in which individuals can make their best contribution to a system that will be successful and, in the process, building their own self-esteem and satisfaction with what they are spending the better part of their daily lives on.


[This post draws from various October entries in my online Architecture Journal.]

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