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.]


  1. Charlie Alfred said,

    October 26, 2006 @ 9:50 pm

    It’s been my experience that the degree of difficulty of establishing a vision is a function of:

    o how vivid the value proposition of the future state is
    o how well understood the challenges of getting there are
    o the extent to which all the key stakeholders understand both

    Breakdowns in any of these three areas will compromise the vision.

    If the value proposition is cloudy, then the architects won’t know
    how to make good tradeoff decisions, or mitigate risks (re: SEI’s ATAM method).

    When the value proposiiton is clear, but the challenges are not well appreciated, vulnerability to underfunded projects with unrealistic schedules is the result. I suspect that many of us have participated in these types of death marches.

    The most common situation is where the business people really understand the value proposition (including how it varies across context), but this is not communicated effectively to the architects. At the same time, the architects understand the strengths and limitations of the solution technology, but don’t grasp the nuances of the business problem. To exacerbate things, the two sets of stakeholders don’t speak the same lanaguage.

    It’s like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” on steroids.

    Other than that, there’s not much to establishing a compelling vision, is there?


  2. Ruth said,

    October 30, 2006 @ 2:11 am

    No, indeed, not much at all. :-) Just a little courage! And Grove.

    I’ve led, and participated in, visioning in different formats and I keep returning to Grove’s graphical facilitation format. I often improvise on their graphical templates, but also often use them as is. If you didn’t already follow the links on my post, I highly recommend taking a look at

    It is amazing what happens when you bring together the various stakeholders (including business people and technical people) and create a shared visual mindspace. It takes some courage for us technical types to jump into graphical facilitation in the fuzzy front-end, but it is the best lightweight way I’ve found to navigate expeditiously to a shared vision and roadmap.

    As we enrich our understanding of the value propositions to the various stakeholder groups, across the value contexts, we will refine the vision, illuminate the challenges and improve our roadmap. But it always amazes me how powerful the group graphical facilitation format is in aligning diverse stakeholders, and creating enthusiasm for a shared vision that is vivid, and rich in imagery, tells a visual story that is owned by all the diverse participants, because it was created by all.

    Thanks for creating dialog Charlie. It gives me hope that this will grow to a conversation!

    (For those who don’t know, Charlie Alfred has begun a value modeling blog. I have very high expectations for this blog, given Charlie’s other writing and his first posts to his blog. See

  3. Charlie Alfred said,

    November 9, 2006 @ 4:07 am

    Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been busy finishing up a consulting report for a client, and traveling to Canada and back to present the conclusions.

    In any event, the Grove materials look pretty good (without having actually used them). They seem to address the right things – where would you like to go, what are the opportunities that make it possible, and what are the obstacles and risks in your path.

    Larry Bossidy, an ex-GE protege of Jack Welch and former CEO of Honeywell is the co-author of a book with Ram Charan called “Execution”. One of the chapters of this book deals with executing the strategic planning process, and says, “Many strategies fall apart because the right critical issues aren’t raised.” They go on to illustrate the point with examples from AT&T (negative), Motorola/TRW, Dell, and Honeywell (positive).

    I agree. A solid grounding in reality is the primary ingredient that separates a solid vision from a fanciful dream. And value models show pretty conclusively that reality is based in how well the vision participants can identify the impact of obstacles, opportunities, dependencies, and risks on value, and then figure out how best to attack the resulting challenges.


  4. dips said,

    December 21, 2006 @ 12:28 pm

    but still the question is answered.who is responsible for the vision document and how is the architect involved in it.

  5. Ruth said,

    December 27, 2006 @ 9:34 pm

    Do you view architects as leaders? If so, leaders among which community?

    Leaders inspire and set direction. Early on, direction is set in terms of vision. So a leader needs to ensure that vision input is sought from key stakeholders, and that a vision is articulated, championed, and bought-into.

    A more specific answer begs more specific context. For example, if you mean the vision document for a product, then this is best created by the multi-functional team responsible for the product, led by that team’s leader. The software architect may or may not be the team leader in this situation. But the software architect will lead on the software architecture vision that may be a component of the product vision, or may complement the product vision.

    Alternatively, if the architecture is for a product family (or software product line), then the architecture has a lifecycle of its own. This begins with vision, and the lead architect will be responsible for creating, selling, and sustaining the vision, with the help of others on the architecture team, and the extended team (future product marketing, key developers, etc.).

  6. Charlie Alfred said,

    December 28, 2006 @ 11:54 am

    I agree 100%. Virtually all products and systems today have more complexity, and require deep knowledge of more subject matters, than one mind is able to master. Yet, a group of undirected experts is unlikely to create something that delivers great value.

    As an example, for the past 6 weeks, I’ve been working with a company which is in the planning stages for a next generation cardiac defibrillator/monitor. Even though this product replaces an existing 7 year old product, the vision and planning activities involve people from clinical, product marketing, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering, human factors, manufacturing, field sales, support, and finance.

    When we were first brought in, we conducted interviews with 24 different stakeholders. Interestingly, everyone was in full agreement that they needed to build a defibrillator/monitor, and everyone had a good appreciation for what that involved (most having done it several times before). However, the group’s vision lacked alignment. The general manager had been pushing for a low cost unit. His boss felt that cost was important, but time to market was more important. The Marketing director knew that a major competitor had just introduced a new product and pushed for competitive features, especially in the area of hospital data management.

    In this particular case, I believe that a key to gaining alignment will be a financial model which illustrates the tradeoffs between a 1% change in market share vs. a $50 decrease in parts cost, vs. a 3 month delay in getting to market. Vision usually requires tradeoffs, and this means getting someone to loosen the grip on a perspective and belief system that they hold close to their hearts.

    BTW, 30 years ago, if I had any idea that my path as a software engineer, architect, and consultant would lead in this direction, I would have paid a lot more attention in psychology and sociology classes!


  7. John Wu said,

    January 26, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

    Ruth :

    This subject has been a hot topic in IT community. Cutter IT Journal recently call for paper on The CIO Today: Technology Manager or Strategic Visionary? The sad part is that EA get a long way to become mature, we are still at the stage to identify the direction. The good part is that we are lucky to be part of this evolution.

    In my openion, an Enterprise Architect is a facilitator as you said 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.

    An entry in my blog have also touched this subject . Enclosed is the URL for your reference.

    The link :

    I have come up a book propsal in

    Please review and comment.


  8. John Wu said,

    January 26, 2007 @ 7:42 pm

    The link :

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.