Democratizing Your Architecture

Caricature of a politician, from Pompeii

Graffiti has been used since ancient times for many reasons and in many ways: protest, poetry, artistic expression, or simply boredom. Many examples of graffiti were preserved in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. There are examples of classical Greek graffiti on the pyramids in Egypt, which were already ancient when ancient Greece was young, and were a popular tourist destination for the wealthy of that time. In some cases graffiti devolves into the criminal activity of defacing property without permission; in other cases it is encouraged and supported as a means of decorating otherwise nondescript locations. In both cases, graffiti commonly serves as an outlet for expressing thoughts and opinions when no other medium seems to exist.

I have found that the power of graffiti can help improve both an architecture and its disemmination throughout a technical organization.

Any architect with a reasonable view of his or her own limitations understands that they do not have a monopoly on all of the answers, or even all of the best ideas. They also understand that it is not  feasible to involve every person in the organization in every architectural decision which must be made. But it is possible to receive informal, and sometimes invaluable, thoughts and opinions on architecture drafts via graffiti in this simple way:

  1. Make a big picture of your big picture. Print the drafts of your architecture diagrams on the largest sheets of paper you can. Some plotters support page sizes which are multiple feet in dimensions.
  2. Be sure to include a descriptive title, a contact name/email/mobile, the date of printing, and a version number (if applicable).
  3. Hang copies of these prints in common areas or hallways where they will be seen by the engineers, developers, testers, and others.
  4. Hang an additional copy directly outside your own workspace.
  5. Provide a marker or pen for writing comments directly on the draft. I have found it helps to write “Please add your own comments!” or some such encouragement in very noticeable type directly on the page. (You can even get the party started by adding some mark-ups of your own.)
  6. Publicize via an email or word of mouth that you want to know what people think of the draft, and that you would appreciate input written directly on the diagrams. Explain that if someone writes a question and desires an answer, the author should include their name or some other way for you to know who they are.
  7. Sit back and watch what happens!

Every time I have done this, I have never failed to receive valuable input. The posters become gathering places for people to debate and discuss different points of the system, the ensuing design, or the future possibilities enabled (or prevented) by the architecture. Other benefits include:

  • Insight into which areas of the architecture or diagrams are confusing or misleading.
  • Greater understanding of the architecture throughout the technical organization.
  • More willingness on the part of many to stop by and personally discuss aspects of the drafts with you and your team.

Make time in your schedule to walk around and visit the posters, and join the conversations. Be sure to listen to what people are trying to say (beyond the words they are actually using). Try to answer questions by following up with the asker, or by writing the answer directly on the poster. Once the draft has evolved, hang the new and improved version and repeat. Don’t forget to follow up with gratitude for all of the input.

In the end, many more people than just “the architect(s)” will feel they have made a valuable contribution to, and therefore will feel ownership of, the system architecture. Obviously this idea is applicable beyond architecture. Strategy, roadmaps, design – any big picture concept which has organizational impact can benefit from additional input or insight. I have yet to see a downside to such democratization!

Do you have other ideas to spread knowledge and ownership of big pictures? Please share below!


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