Architecture and Governance in a Hybrid Work Environment

By Chris Lockhart, Director at Point Management Group

In the old days, that seem so long ago, if you wanted to really get to the heart of solutioning with the architecture team, you’d grab a conference room and whiteboard things out. Similarly, governance was easy because the lead architect could simply walk over to the bull-pen and have a conversation about standards or best practices with the team.

Is this as effective in a hybrid working environment where people are interacting mostly through Zoom or Teams? Has good architecture and governance survived the pandemic-induced realignment?

The answer, of course, is that it depends (the standard architect answer).

Breaking apart what it means to ‘do’ good architecture and maintain good governance can help us understand what it takes for it to work in an era where people don’t physically interact.

Architecture is the art and science of thinking through problems and by designing solutions for those problems, organizing a system in a way that it can be articulated to others. It is impossible to ‘do’ architecture in a vacuum or a dark closet someplace, emerging after 6 months to bestow your designs on the common folk. Organizing a system can only be done by interacting with the people that are part of that system.

Governance, in the context of architecture, is a method, various processes, the overall culture and clearly defined responsibilities that come together to ensure the effectiveness of architecture in a company. It cannot be effective if the people involved don’t speak to each other or have no shared culture, clear roles or commonly understood processes.

Architects can’t architect if they don’t speak to other people. Likewise governance isn’t effective if you are talking best practice to yourself alone in a dark room someplace.

Getting this right in normal times isn’t always easy. People have meetings, they are working hard and don’t want to be disturbed, they need their coffee from the corporate cafeteria or the Starbucks down the street, they’re at lunch or they’re leaving at 430 to get to their kid’s baseball game. In short, it isn’t always possible in normal times to round people up and have a day-long whiteboard session on architecture.

With hybrid working models, it is even more difficult because we can’t simply walk over to the cube next to us and have a conversation. In fact, most of the time we have no idea where people actually are or what they’re doing. We rely on text, chat, Teams, Outlook and other tools to give us a sense of whether someone has 5 minutes to chat. If you want a 3 hour whiteboard session, that involves a high degree of coordination with people’s calendars in Outlook. Even then people always seem to have ‘hard stops’ at times that are really incompatible with thinking and design sessions.

In some companies, there are strong personalities that can strong-arm people into attending sessions. In other places, managers and directors can simply impose mandatory working sessions and force people to clear their calendars. Even then, with blended onshore-offshore models, folks in various different timezones, and the fractured nature of control in matrixed organizations that have flourished with hybrid work, it isn’t always possible to get together.

Additionally, the concept of time management has taken quite a hit with hybrid models. Meetings used to start late or end early because people had to walk across the building to the next meeting. Now, it is just back to back all day non-stop without time for a bio-break. Finding people who have open time slots for even a quick chat to coordinate a working session is approaching impossible.

So we’ve established that people interacting with each is critical for architecture and governance and that in hybrid situations it isn’t always possible. What do we do?

It starts with relationships. That may sound like a squishy feely trope, but the reality is just that simple. Management dictats may be influential, peer pressure sometimes works, public shaming can help, but these things are useful up to a point. There comes a time when no matter how hard you whip the horse, they just cannot run faster. And in fact, they may decide to just have a seat and stop racing entirely.

Relationships matter for architecture and for governance. In fact, relationships are central to both. The problem with this is that architects, developers, analysts and others involved in what historically have been largely technical implementations, aren’t all well known for empathy or high emotional quotients. It may be that the hybrid work environment has put the spotlight on the most historically weak aspect of business technology skillsets.

Relationships start with understanding. Architects should be good at this. Understanding complex things is a key skill of the architect. However, people are probably the most complex system an architect will ever encounter or try to understand. Which is why architects need empathy, now more than ever. It used to be that an architect could get away with having low empathy because of all the reasons that in-person work is different from hybrid work. But this work-anywhere, work-everywhere environment we’re in today means they can’t get away with it anymore.

Empathy is critical to making sense of why people operate the way they do. Empathy is usually misunderstood to mean ‘thinking about what I would do if I were in that other person’s shoes’. That isn’t empathy. That’s self-reflection of what YOU would do. The key is to try to understand what the OTHER person would do given the context that they find themselves in. Here’s the good news: architects and people usually involved in governance should be pretty good at spotting context and understanding it. Both architecture and governance are context-dependent.

Applying that skill to people isn’t that big of a stretch.

It comes down to:

  1. Identifying the factors that a person finds themselves in, enabled by, constrained by 
  2. This in turn will enable an understanding of motivating factors of the other person
  3. Which allows someone to know and predict the behavior of other people
  4. And that enables one person to adapt their behavior to better align with the other person’s needs, wants and actions. 

Good use of empathetic thinking and resultant change in behavior drives understanding which drives better communication, growth of mutual trust and two-way credibility. 

With this shift, away from demands and mandates and toward people understanding each other’s motives and needs, there is a much higher chance for alignment. Alignment breeds faster, better architecture and more effective, less intrusive governance. 

Empathy is critical to operating in the hybrid work era. In fact, it enables architects and others to operate more effectively than they did in the in-person era. Sessions will be more productive because people have established that trust and mutual understanding of each other’s needs. You’re communicating better, these sessions should be shorter and more efficient. Architecture will be better with empathy because the interaction between people is better. If we aren’t face-to-face, developing the communication skills we need to effectively convey our ideas will only improve the alignment we achieve around those ideas. Governance will be more effective because credibility and trust is central to Zoom-based relationships working at all. Best practices and standards will be better adhered to because teams are working better together. Governance may in fact become somewhat self-organizing in this environment. 

The short answer is that ‘doing’ architecture and performing governance in a hybrid work environment is not only possible, the skills needed to do it at all may make it more effective than it was before. 

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