The Moderating Business Architect: Lessons from the Field

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Senior Director, Ameriprise Financial
Dean Heltemes is a business and technology executive with diverse, global leadership experience across multiple industries. He is a business architecture evangelist with a focus on IT and Business Strategy Development, Strategy to Execution Planning, Enterprise and Business Architecture, and Business Process Management. Dean has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from St. Cloud State University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. He is also the co-founder and owner of MindStart, a company that designs and sells activity products for persons with dementia. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and three daughters.

The older you get and the longer you work, the more you start to see recurrences of major events from your corporate past.  Centralize/decentralize.  Outsource/insource.  Distribute/consolidate.  Specialize/generalize.  Scott Adams of Dilbert fame helped us all to realize that this happens in companies everywhere.  In the corporate context, a pendulum swing is a metaphor for the dramatic swing from one strategy extreme to the other.  Some days I feel like I am in an eternal time loop, cursed to spend my days seeing the same pendulum swinging decisions repeat themselves over and over.  This, however, is a great opportunity for business architects to demonstrate value.  Business architects are in a prime position to spot these as they materialize, call them out, and help the organization moderate the effects of oscillating positions to ensure consistent progress toward strategic goals.  Here are three examples.

1.       Excessive Risk Aversion

Major events such as security breaches and lawsuits can quickly swing the pendulum toward extreme risk aversion.  The result is the empowerment of risk management functions that are asked to ensure “it never happens again.”  And the pendulum starts to swing.

In the past I have stated that as a business architect I believe my job is to figure out how to get stuff done, solve business problems, and help the business execute its strategy.  I like to think of myself as an enabler.  In times when risk aversion is on the rise, risk management functions such as legal, sourcing, information security, and yes, even architecture often become disablers, more focused on ensuring nothing bad can happen than on moving the company’s agenda forward.  The impact: project delays and frustration.

Managing a corporation’s risks is clearly important, so what is a business architect to do?  Help them to balance risk with agility.  In today’s fast-moving marketplace, companies who move too slowly and are unwilling to take risks will quickly become extinct.  Push these teams to streamline their processes.  Understand what risks they are trying to protect against and see what you can do to help them.  And probably most importantly: get them to become part of the project team, measured and held jointly accountable for the successful, on-time delivery of the project.  Making them have some “skin in the game” for project success is a great incentive for them to balance risk with agility.

2.       Strategy Churn

Here is the scenario: Manager A leaves the department.  Manager B is appointed to head the department.  Manager B doesn’t like what she sees and launches a transformation, replete with a new strategy and new organizational structure.  A transformation begins.  Everyone is impressed with Manager B and she gets a promotion and moves on to a new assignment.  Manager C is appointed to head the department.  Manager C doesn’t like Manager B’s plans so he promptly abandons them, announces a bold new strategy, and starts another transformation.  And the pendulum continues to swing.  Some companies never seem to finish implementing a strategy before moving on to the next one.  The worst victims of this are the loyal employees who get organizational change fatigue and transformation overload as leadership continues to change directions and shuffle seats.  Each change brings in another new person in who feels obligated to change something and the cycle continues.  Of course change is needed and inevitable.  The cost and impact of these types of changes, however, is often underestimated, both from an employee engagement perspective and from delays to important initiatives and long-term capability improvement.

Business architects can play an important role in helping the organization steer through this chaos.  Work with leadership to improve clarity on the current state and potential impacts of change.  Capability roadmaps are a great tool to ensure the big picture is being considered.  I would also like to advocate for a potentially new construct: a strategy and organizational continuity plan.  A business continuity plan outlines how a company will ensure it can operate tactically in the event of a disaster.  A strategy and organizational continuity plan would have a longer-term focus on how a company would ensure it maintains a level of consistent progress toward its target capability maturity.  It would be more comprehensive than succession planning for key roles and strategic workforce planning in that it would also consider the impacts of strategy changes and organizational change on overall capability.  It could be a powerful tool to help ward off strategy churn.  More to come on this in future articles.

3.       Over-Specialization

“That’s not my responsibility, I’m just the <insert job title here>.”  As teams grow, the opportunity to have people specialize increases.  This can reach a point, though, where overall productivity is diminished due to the need to involve too many people to get anything done.

Some days I represent the business.  Some days I represent IT.  Some days I am working on long-range strategies.  Some days I am helping gather requirements.  Everyone has experiences and skillsets and focus areas, but if everyone were just a little more willing to help out by extending themselves, what a wonderful world we would live in.  I’ve never really ever met anyone outside of our profession who really understands what a business architect is.  But at places where they have good ones, leaders really like them, and are always asking for them to be involved. The flexibility of a business architect to cover a lot of ground is a great way to build that trust and respect with the business.


Change is inevitable.  How we manage that change, however, is up to us.  Business architects are well qualified to help companies moderate the impacts of potential pendulum swings by bringing the broader context of the company’s journey to the table.  Think about it like you are replacing the pendulum with a metronome set at an established, agreed-upon rate of progress steadily beating toward the desired future state.

This article was prepared by Dean Heltemes in his personal capacity. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the view of his employer.

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