The Agile Architect: Turning Followers into Leaders

"The higher you go in an organization, the more your suggestions become interpreted as orders." - Marshall Goldsmith

An Architect garners a high level of authority by being an expert. People will follow their lead. But what if the Architect is wrong? They will follow right off a cliff.

How do we get people to think like the Architect? Use the principles of Intent-Based Leadership to decouple the success of your project from the personality of the architect. By creating clarity around architectural goals and by engaging people in problem solving rather than defining rules and standards we can divest control and create an organization of leaders.


Outline/Structure of the Talk

This talk explores how leadership skills in an architect are essential. The traditional model of command-and-control design authority leads to an organization that is heavily dependent on the architect. The leadership model taught in David Marquet's book shows how we can enable agility by moving authority to those doing the work. This creates tighter feedback loops that detect problems faster and detect flaws in assumptions.

In Marquet's model, the two pillars of giving control are to develop Technical Competency and Organizational Clarity. I will touch on both in this talk, however this is not a technical talk and the focus will primarily be on the latter.

This talk is based on an experience report I gave at Agile 2015. The backbone of the talk is the story of how we tried and failed and various models for the Architect role. Each model is used as a lesson to teach something about leadership and how it relates to the Architect role.

Details of the talk:

Brief story – The danger of trusting the expert – I had a trip to the doctor for some allergy tests right after donating blood. The doctor knew I had just given blood. I get woozy with needles and the allergy test involved many pin pricks. I became woozy and had to lay down. The doctor came in to take my blood pressure. She put her stethoscope right on top of where I had recently donated blood. I remember thinking “That really hurts. Its ok. She probably has a good reason for doing that”. In hindsight, it is clear that she just didn’t know that is the spot I had just had my blood drawn, so why was I so ready to offer up total control to the expert?
"The higher you go in an organization, the more your suggestions become interpreted as orders." - Marshall Goldsmith

Is an Architect at odds with Agile values? The manifesto talks about self-organizing teams producing better architectures and designs. I believed that the best thing we needed to do as leaders was to get out of the way and our teams be successful.

Model 1: Lassaize faire

  • We want to empower teams to self-organize - Hands off, let the team decide
  • This model was successful on small projects that a single team could consume and the skills were already present.
  • Greenfield project – Required skills and experience that were not present and required coordination of multiple teams. We struggled to get started. Multiple false starts. Project was at risk and this was demotivating.
  • Realized that empowering people is more than just taking your hands off the wheel

Model 2: Architecture Scout

  • Architect was nominated to research and find an initial approach
  • Goal was to avoid becoming dictator. Just scout ahead and report back. The teams own the designs!!
  • Project got moving, but we had problems: -> Architect becomes bottleneck – Have to be everywhere at once to find mistakes, can’t take a vacation -> Dysfunction between teams - -> Problems go undetected

Inflection Point – Our approach was flawed, and some people knew before the Architect, so why didn’t they bring it up sooner.
“You’re the architect, I thought you knew something I didn’t.”

I’m a technical guy. I was giving technical solutions to what I perceived were technical problems. This is a people problem!

Leadership model up until now:

  • 1 dimensional – Take your hands off the wheel or tell people exactly what to do.

I knew things were better with my help, but I needed an approach that didn’t involve me just providing solutions to people.

Introduce Marquet –Without the technical competence or organization clarity, people will struggle. This opened a new dimension to how I viewed leadership. Not just how much autonomy people have, but also how much they understand and are aligned with the architecture goals. So how do we get people to think like the architect!

Model 3: Architect as Coach – Marquet

  • Leaders are rewarded for how well their team performs while they are there, rather than when they walk away.
  • Why don’t we trust people? What is missing?
  • Rather than moving the information to those with authority – move the authority to those with the information. But first we need to put two pillars in place: o Technical Competence – Do they know how to do the job? Do they have the skills to make decisions? If we want maintainable designs, do they know how to create them? o Organizational Clarity – What assumptions are built into the architecture? What are the motivatiosn behind the architecture approach? When I have to make a tradeoff, should I be sacrificing performance or maintainability?

Methods for Organizational Clarity:

  • Resist the Urge to Give Solutions – partner with people to arrive at solutions
  • Open ended questions –> What solutions have you already considered? -> Which one would you chose and why?
  • I Intend To…. -> When you use this approach for awhile, you notice that people don't bring you problems anymore, they know what you're going to ask already. "I have a problem. Here are some options I've considered. The pros and cons of each are.... I intend to implement this one because .....". After awhile I could respond with "Very well"
  • Create a framework for resolving conflict – Architect is often expected to resolve conflicts between teams by enforcing rules and standards. Pull people out of positional arguments and get them to solve the problem. Ask them to give situations where their solution may not be the best. -> Physically separate people from their ideas by writing them on the board. As a team, objectively dissect the pros and cons of each solution. Every engineering decisions is made by considering tradeoffs, we just have to reveal them. Tradeoffs help reveal assumptions and disagreement on tradeoffs can help reveal misalignment.
  • Disagreement is a mechanism for organizational clarity – The moments where people disagree the most are the best opportunities to delve deeper into the WHY. -> Story: Disagreement on implementation. One team was implementing logic in the database while everyone else was doing it in the domain layer. Architect to the rescue! My impulse: Tell them to get in line with the architecture! Looking at this through my new lense of leadership I realized that they were missing one of the two pillars: Organization Clarity. We used this as an opportunity to delve deeper into the reasons behind the architecture. Over the next couple of weeks, we met regularly between teams to explore the reasons and assumptions that went into the architecture. We weighed the pros and cons of different approaches. We realized that on this team there were two people with a very strong database background. They felt strongly that data integrity should be valued above all else. When weighed against the other tradeoffs, we realized this wasn't the most important thing to consider. Ultimately the architecture approach was upheld, but what we achieved was a deeper understanding of the architecture by multiple people.

Model 4: Architecting As A Team

  • Many people understand the assumptions and WHY behind the architecture
  • We have the skills to produce clean code
  • We are skilled at resolving conflict and navigating the complex tradeoffs of engineering decisions
  • We have the freedom to make design decisions
  • Are highly motivated and engaged – They feel ownership for their work.

Final note: Architect is a leadership role. We need to mindfully develop the leadership skills of our architects and the next generation of technical leaders. We tend to promote people primarily on their technical abilities. An Architect with both the technical & leadership skills has the potential to help transform an organization into a truly self-organizing team. One that can deliver better designs and architectures.

Learning Outcome

  • Drawbacks of leading with authority
  • Benefits and approaches to Intent-Based Leadership
  • Practical techniques of how to turn followers into leaders
  • How to help people think like the Architect

Target Audience

Developers, Architects, Managers

schedule Submitted 3 years ago

Public Feedback

comment Suggest improvements to the Speaker
  • Fincy Yousuff
    By Fincy Yousuff  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hello Chris! 


    How are you doing! Happy to see that you have send in a proposal for AI 2017 :)

    Are you planning on having or do you think it would be good to have hands on activities as part of this talk? I have a feeling that 45 minutes talk would be difficult to convey. What are your thoughts?

    Looking forward to meeting you in March! Have a great day!



    • Chris Edwards
      By Chris Edwards  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Fincy,

      I've given this talk a few times and 45 minutes seems to be a good length. I gave the talk at Agile 2016 and it was a 75 minute sessions which seemed to be a stretch. I did throw in a 10 minute exercise there which helped break it up a bit. I can consider doing it for this one as well, although the material fits well into 45 minutes on its own.

      The talk as been fairly well received when I have done it in the past. I did present it at Agile India last year, but it got a full room so I thought it might be good to give it again this year.

      Hope you're doing well!


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