21 September 2009

Is Architecture the Enemy of Innovation?

Never the Twain...
In my dealings with those who call themselves architects and those who call themselves innovators, one theme seems to come up time and again. “If it wasn’t for those guys in Architecture/Innovation (delete as applicable) it would have been fine”. It would appear from such conversations that these two disciplines are somehow mutually exclusive, and one cannot exist while the other is allowed to flourish.

As an enterprise architect, I would like to dismiss the idea that innovation is the enemy of architecture. This cannot possibly be the case, and if it were there would be no place for architecture in an organisation, as innovation is clearly essential to its continued success. Any architect who feels that innovation is the enemy is simply a person who fears change, and is therefore, in my opinion, not an architect at all.

This leaves me with the possibility that architecture might stifle innovation. Could it be true that my chosen profession is the Delilah that cuts the hair and steals the strength from the Samson of innovation? Is it possible that architecture is an overblown Goliath that needs to be brought down by the smaller, under-funded David? Or worst of all, is architecture the immovable object encountering innovation’s irresistible force?

Absolutely not! All of these views emerge as a result of the misuse of title of Enterprise Architect by those who seem not to understand its purpose at all levels. (I have posted previously on the question of what is and what isn’t architecture in my article It’s good, but is it Architecture).

What is Innovation?
At this point, it is worth considering a definition of innovation that emerged on Twitter recently as a result of a conversation started by Malcolm Lowe (@malcolmlowe) tagged as #innovation. The resulting definition is:

    “Innovation: Something that is not business as usual and adds business value”.

The implication of this definition (which I believe is correct) is that any proposed change that comes complete with a valid business case is by definition innovation. Most organisations base their entire project portfolio on work that fits this definition. It should of course be all organisations, but it never ceases to surprise me that there are still senior players in business who do not seem to understand the importance of a business case in decision making or even believe that one can be effectively created. Why in business would one want to make any changes that do not come with a business case? How can one decide how much to spend on something, if the potential benefit is not understood and quantified?

All that Glitters...
I believe this is at the heart of many of the criticisms levelled at innovation. The problems actually arise from the unmanaged implementation of ideas based purely on the “gadget” principle. A great example is the can opener. A fine example of genuine innovation, conceived of some significant time after the invention of the can itself, but essential in its use. There are then many examples of supposedly innovative can openers that are heralded as innovative, but are better described as gadgets. They provide no benefits whatsoever over the original, and are thus not innovative as they represent change without added value. A true innovator recognises that ideas generation is simply the start of innovation, providing the raw material that drives the selection process.

A true innovator also recognises that innovation is nothing without delivery, and this is where architecture comes in. If the purpose of architecture is not to formalise, articulate and enable delivery of innovative change then what is it? An architecture is not an edifice carved out of stone, to be worshipped and adored. It is a living model that adapts to change and makes it happen.

Aspire to Mediocrity? Not Me!
Enterprise architecture is expendable as an activity if all you wish to do is tweak business as usual and keep the lights on. If, however, you want to aspire to something better and stay ahead of the crowd you need innovation to create the vision and architecture to formalise the vision and to make sure that it happens. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If your enterprise architecture doesn’t make change happen then it isn’t architecture).

There is a selfish motive as well; innovation is change, and change impacts the architecture. It is innovation that keeps me busy as an architect and it is innovation that provides me with the opportunities to show that enterprise architecture is an effective tool for enabling change and thus for adding real business value.

And so, in conclusion, far from being enemies, architecture and innovation are essential components of the same process; business transformation. In anything other than the smallest of organisations, neither can exist without the other. Many businesses now have a Strategy and Architecture department, and then somewhere else exists an Innovation Team. This approach is fundamentally flawed. What we actually need is a department that maps out the future of the business by harvesting creative thinking, incorporating the credible into visionary strategy and then weaving this strategy into a deliverable to-be architecture.

A Final Thought
Hang on a minute! Let’s return to that definition of innovation again for a moment.

    “Innovation: Something that is not business as usual, and adds business value”

I may be biased, given my profession, but doesn’t that mean that far from architecture being the enemy of innovation, for some organisations architecture is innovation (and for far too many, innovation itself is innovation)?

The Enterprising Architect


  1. Well, obviously architecture is not the avowed enemy of innovation. As you point out, they ought to be on the same side, because there are some strong shared values.

    But surely the real question is not whether they ought to be helping each other, but whether (good intentions notwithstanding) they actually do support each other's efforts more than they (inadvertently) hinder and interfere with each other.

    I think there is some evidence for the proposition that Architecture and Innovation don't actually collaborate as well in practice as they ought to in theory. This does not necessarily mean a critique of Architecture as such, but a critique of current "best practices".

    You talk about the TO-BE architecture, but I am also interested in the TO-BE practice of architecture.

  2. Thank you for the interest and thee feedback.

    It is the very separation of innovation into a team separate from architecture and/or strategy that IMO creates this problem. It is the teams that fail to interact, not the disciplines. Such an approach is not, and has never been best practice, but unfortunately those who can't do teach, and there is alot of misleading information out there badged up as architecture (and similarly as innovation). If you define best practice as those enterprise architecture initiatives that can demonstrate business value you get a very different picture to what the literature might claim is best practice (rather than simply the opinion of the author) - and this is of course simply the opinion of this author.

  3. Innovation, Strategy and EA must work together towards a defined End Point? Agreed.

    EA is always described as a ‘dynamic’ or ‘evolving’ process and must be open to tailoring as a result of changes brought about by the myriad of influences on business Strategists. Innovation, as you rightly describe is any change that has a business benefit and as such can introduce developments that completely change business direction by opening new avenues or abilities. The EA _must_ be agile enough to respond positively to these challenges and guide the Strategists to this End Point change. But, how successfully these three discrete ‘Teams’ interact is down to their leadership and the willingness of their members to drop the usual silo’d approach that is so very prevalent in heavily regimented businesses…

    Great article, if a little Utopian. ;-)

  4. Are you talking about the common perception of innovation consisting only of landmark or radical innovations rather than a spectrum of change?

    The vast majority of innovation takes place as many smaller innovations that range from minor changes through improvement innovation, incremental innovation, general innovation and re-innovation to major innovations.

    To put this into context with your can-opener example above, the tin can was invented in 1810 in response to a cash reward offered by Napolean to find a way to maintain his ever lengthening supply lines.

    Early cans were tin coated iron and required a hammer to open them. The best craftsman could produce only 60 a day. There followed a number of years of product and process innovation until, in 1846, a technique was invented which allowed a can to be made in a single operation. Production increased from 6 to 60 per hour. This technique was mechanised in 1847 leading to mass production.

    The mass market and better can technology led to new market demand and the invention of the can-opener in 1858. There followed a number of cycles of innovation in can-opening technology with the key-opening system being invented in 1866. Since then we have had steel cans, electric can-openers, aluminium cans, ring-pulls and pull-openers which have subsequently made the can-opener obsolete.

    As Getz and Robertson pointed out, the cumulative importance of improvements and incremental and generational changes has been vastly under-valued. ‘Innovate or die’ is not the whole story.

    It is therefore fundamental that all forms of innovation ranging from continuous improvement through incremental innovation to radical innovation are built into the fabric and culture of a business and become part of business as usual for everyone in a business as opposed to being "something that is not business as usual".

    The aim of innovation is utility therefore a better definition of innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas. In this context, enterprise architecture is concerned with defining the organisational capabilities required to successfully exploit new ideas.

  5. I realize that my comments to this blog are now somewhat dated- however they may be of interest.

    First- there are so many definitions and interpretations of "Innovation" that applying any one of them unilaterally is problematic.

    By far the best description I have seen so far is as follows;
    For something to be innovative- it must be new and substantially different from what is currently available. The goal of innovation is to solve a problem, improve a process, and/or accelerate growth and productivity through radical or incremental improvements. Very simply- “Change that creates a new dimension of performance” (Peter Drucker – Hesselbein, 2002)

    The most interesting piece (and perhaps most relevent to this thread) is in the emerging convergence of innovation- idea management (as a process)- and project portfolio management. IMHO- this crossroad truly represents the intersection point of architecture and innovation for organizations.

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