Examining The Enterprise Architect’s Role in the Agile Enterprise – Part One

(Editor’s Note: What follows is part one of our interview with Marc Rix, who manages the development, adoption and ongoing value delivery of engineering-related training products for Scaled Agile, Inc.  Prior to this role, Rix was a coach, who transformed large enterprises through a combination of Agile and DevOps. Part two of the interview will appear in November.)


Question: What are the primary responsibilities of the enterprise architect in the agile enterprise?

Answer: The first one is pretty obvious. Enterprise architects are in a unique position in the organization to bridge the gap between business and technology. EAs tend to have the business insights and technical insights to help keep business strategy and technology strategy linked together. A lot of that responsibility has to do with translating—explaining business concepts in ways engineers can relate and vice versa.

Another important responsibility for enterprise architects is to own internal technology initiatives. In SAFe, these are often “enablers” that improve our ability to meet future business needs. Things like migrating to the cloud, automating the delivery pipeline, and developing a full-stack monitoring capability. These are big, cross cutting technology initiatives that improve delivery efficiency and require coordination and orchestration across technical teams. Enterprise architects are in a great position to own these and shepherd them through the entire value stream on behalf of the organization.

The third responsibility, which is one we feel very strongly about here at Scaled Agile and doesn’t get talked about much, is transformational leadership. This responsibility applies to all architects, but especially EAs. They’re usually in more senior roles and have very rich experience in many facets of the business. This gives them a lot of natural influence across the organization. EAs need to come down out of the Ivory Tower and actively lead, coach, and mentor in ways that help the business compete more effectively rather than simply governing from afar.

Q: Enterprise architecture and agile enterprise work with business stakeholders as well as solution and system architects to implement technology initiatives across value streams. What factors and influencers help drive programs and teams toward a common technical vision?

A: A few things. It all starts with understanding the direction of the business. What are the long term business objectives, the short term business objectives, and the measurable outcomes we’re driving toward? Fundamentally, it’s important for everybody in the technology organization to understand these business drivers. Without them, the work lacks context.

In the agile world, we decentralize decision making and empower teams. For this model to work, those teams need to have the right business context, the right framing in which to make those localized decisions. But many folks throughout the technology organizations are removed from the business, at least one degree, and usually by several degrees. The larger the organization, the more separated the practitioners are from the business strategy. This is where we need architects to help align the technology vision with the business vision and work across value streams to make sure that linkage is not lost to entropy.

Q: Excellent, so enterprise architects and agile have the authority and knowledge to work across solution trains and agile release trains. Why is this important? What kind of strategic, technical direction can they provide from this vantage point?

A: It’s not only strategic technical direction, but it’s leadership, coordination and communication as well. We need to have cross cutting, coordination, orchestration-related roles and activities to keep the strategy glued together. When we have multiple ARTs running in tandem and they’re all working toward a common objective, it’s usually an indication that we’re working on very large, integrated systems with very complex dependency networks. Sometimes these programs also have external supply chains that make delivery even more challenging.

If each these release trains and suppliers was working in its own silo, they would get their work done fairly predictably. But integration and delivery of the finished solution would be highly unpredictable, and that’s bad for customers. These large teams of teams—and teams of teams of teams—must instead operate as an open system where the work is highly visible and schedules are tightly synchronized. We need people who can work across all those teams, suppliers, and budgets to manage cadence, priorities, and value flow.

Q: How does the enterprise architect help the enterprise realize the competitive advantage of embracing organizational change?

A: This is where vision and planning becomes very important. We see this in the field every day. We are in an age of digital disruption, the app economy, and software eating the world. It’s a new paradigm and companies know they need to do things differently to thrive. This force is a strong  headwind for most organizations, especially those that have been around for many decades and are highly protective of the operating models that ensured their success in the past.

So companies are faced with these opposing forces—the old versus the new. We know that we need to change, but what do we change, to what extent, and how long is it going to take? Enterprise architects can help through their ability to understand desired business outcomes, look ahead to the horizon and chart a course that will lead the organization to success. Architects are skilled at developing roadmaps. They should apply this skill to help manage organizational transformation. Additionally, they need to be able to adapt those roadmaps at any time to remain in lock step with an ever-changing business.

There is a tremendous amount of legacy technology and processes in place today, and it is slowing down businesses. It’s an anchor. This is driving the need for transformational change and business agility. In general, companies need to step up their game, throttle up their delivery throughput and maximize product quality so they can enable their businesses to fly. All of this requires a technology platform that’s conducive to rapid business change, which, in turn, requires planning, forecasting, and placing bets on which transformational strategies will yield the best economic results. Somebody has to manage that, and enterprise architects are perfect for the job.