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