The Roles of Innocence and Experience in Innovation

By Mark Dickson, The Open Group Architecture Forum Director

Over the last decade or so, a lot of effort in technology-led businesses has gone into finding ways to give teams a kind of innocence in how they go about their work. By now it’s a cliché to say that every business is becoming a technology business, and to talk about how technological change is an ever-accelerating affair. In the midst of this, there has often been a drive to start (as far as possible) from fresh, to enable innovation which is unburdened by the technological and intellectual debt of the business and create the best possible solutions from the newest ideas.

Anyone who is professionally involved in technology will likely be able to think of small or large ways that this has been put into practice, from giving teams greater decision-making autonomy by flattening organizational structures, to carving out employee time for non-directed experimentation in the hopes that it produces valuable innovation. Indeed, a big part of how we think about now-dominant schools of thought like DevOps and Agile involves giving teams the opportunity to start from their own blank page, innocent of restrictions.

Breaking Down the Competition

The value that genuine innovation can deliver for businesses is, of course, indisputable – but from that it can be too easy to see it as standing in opposition to established solutions, and to the bodies of knowledge which were built up in the process of creating them. This is particularly unsurprising given how often progress is framed in terms of competition and combat: businesses want to be first movers, winning arms races against rivals and outpacing the market. There is a real risk that businesses feel they must discard what they have experience in if they are to successfully move forward.

The relationship between the new and the old, however, is in truth much more subtle than this. Pablo Picasso once said of his work that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child: for him, it was decades of experience which enabled a truly innocent approach to art.

Something similar can be seen in action in the world of technology when we focus on the outcomes of innovation, and not just on its tools or methods. Distributed ledger technology, for example, might be an interesting and exciting area of development – but if the outcome needs to be a highly-efficient, highly-stable user experience, an expertly-implemented SQL database is likely to be the better solution. Even the cloud’s manifest benefits for scalability and flexibility do not render the highly-monitorable on-premises server obsolete.

Putting Experience in its Right Place

Longstanding systems cannot be maintained indefinitely, but nor can organizations start from a truly blank slate if they want to deliver real value. Instead of asking where experience can move aside to allow for innovation, therefore, the right question to ask is about where experience should be positioned in an organization in order to enable innovation to both take place and achieve its best possible outcome.

This insight is one reason why the idea of Enterprise Architecture is now reemerging as a critical capability for enterprises to build up. One way of looking at Enterprise Architecture is as a methodology for building a holistic model of how an organization operates and achieves its necessary outcomes. By establishing a clear picture of how teams relate to one another, how information flows through them, and how success is measured, Enterprise Architects put a cohesive organizational context in place which helps mitigate the overlaps, gaps, and mismatches which can otherwise occur in self-directed, rapidly iterating development.

Another way of looking at it, however, is as a body of knowledge where organizations can find best practices and solved problems which enable them to make sure that any blank page which a team is working from is focused on the actual challenge at hand. In the recent TOGAF® Standard, 10th Edition, for example, the information and guidance the TOGAF Standard offers has been restructured and refreshed with a modular structure in the core knowledge base is complemented with distinct topic-specific guidance for certain verticals and operating areas.

In other words, the discipline of Enterprise Architecture formalizes experience, as a vital body of knowledge built not just from an organization’s own work, but the collective of thousands of professionals. For Picasso, it may have taken a lifetime of experience to learn how to truly create something from a fresh start; for technology-led businesses, Enterprise Architecture means that many lifetimes of experience are there to be drawn on.

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