Build Different. Build Victory.

It may not be obvious why one would combine a blog on strategy and architecture. Considering their modern meanings, or even tracing these words to their origins, may not elucidate the relationship. But it can help.

Brunelleshi's Dome

Architecture, comes from ‘architect’, which comes from the ancient Greek compound word ἀρχιτέκτων.  The first part of this word, ἀρχι- (archi-), means ‘chief’ or ‘ruler’; the latter half, -τέκτων (-tekton), means ‘builder’. An architect is a chief builder, and architecture is the craft of an architect. As the “chief builder,” the architect has a broader scope of responsibility than only construction. The needs and desires of the client, restrictions from local government or the environment itself, available materials, available labor, and costs are some of the concerns which must be accounted for in the plan which the architect proposes.

As computer systems and software became increasingly more complex, global, and interconnected in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, the need for an architecture-type role became obvious in many companies, and the field of systems architecture was born. In their book The Art of Systems Architecting, Mark Maier and Eberhardt Rechtin explain that

architecture is characterized by dealing with ill-structured situations, situations where neither goals nor means are known with much certainty…. [T]he requirements for the system have not been stated more than vaguely, and the architect cannot appeal to the client for a resolution as the client has engaged the architect precisely to assist and advise in such a resolution. The architect engages in a joint exploration of requirements and design, in contrast to the classic engineering approach of seeking an optimal design solution to a clearly defined set of objectives.

The systems architect balances the needs of the client with the realities of engineering.

Athenian general Kimon (510-450 BC)

Strategy also comes from an ancient Greek word: στρατηγός (strategos), or “general of an army.” It is not difficult to see how our modern word ‘strategy’ and its meaning derive from the word for a general. The general is the strategist; strategy is the work of the general. And the goal of strategy, as Aristotle noted in Nichomachean Ethics, is victory. Plain and simple.

Well, plain and simple as far as military strategy, anyway. What about business strategy? In Michael Porter’s seminal 1996 Harvard Business Review article What Is Strategy?, he defines three key principles to a successful business strategy:

  1. Creating a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities. Basically, doing something differently than your competitors, but in a way which still creates value.
  2. Choosing what not to do. Making trade-offs is a constant activity, and making the correct trade-offs will define success.
  3. Creating “fit” among all of a company’s activities. Gerald Weinberg emphasizes the importance of personal congruence, being who you are at all times, without artifice or prevarication. Porter emphasizes corporate congruence.

Strategy is about doing different things, or doing things differently, than your competitors to gain advantage; knowing what not to do; and maintaining a corporate consistency which reinforces the strategy at each turn. For businesses, victory – the goal of strategy – is measured by product (or service) acceptance in the marketplace.

Technology companies are businesses which build products. Those products, to be successful, must be built according to the strategy of the business. To be sucessful over time, they must be built such that they can evolve methodically without becoming a liability to the success of the strategy. Just as client needs and desires are requirements taken into account by the architect, the business goals and constraints must also be of paramount consideration. To fulfill them both is the goal of the architect. To fulfill them both in a way which is different from one’s competitors – and which is more compelling to the marketplace and the shareholders – is the key to victory.

Architecture is one major element which can be different, and architects can enable a business and its products to do different things. Architecture is not just building; it is building in strategic ways. Every system has an architecture, just like every army has a structure. But an army without a clearly defined purpose and objective, without a στρατηγός/general who can see beyond the next hill or battle, will not often achieve military victory. Likewise, a technology system without a long-term vision, without a purpose guiding its evolution, will not often achieve sustained marketplace victory. A competent ἀρχιτέκτων/architect can bring purpose, vision, and strategic differentiation to a system, enabling sustained competitive advantages for the business and a better chance for victory.

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