Protecting the Right Status Quo

I recently read an article on overcoming inertia in your strategy efforts. It listed two of the causes of inertia as cognitive biases and politics. From my own experience, I can attest to the detrimental effects of both. I can also tell you that they infect architecture teams as well as strategy teams. Both types of inertia spring from a love of the status quo, and a desire, conscious or not, to protect it at all costs and as long as possible.

Cognitive biases are those mental blocks which prevent a team from seeing new possibilities or options. Cognitive biases will prevent a strategist from seeing when a heretofore effective strategy is reaching the point of diminishing returns. They will prevent an organization from acknowledging the coming obsolescence of whole product lines or systems because of market dynamics. Tracking market and technology trends is critical to creating accurate visions of the future environment in which your products or services will live, but simply tracking is not enough. An honest, unbiased analysis of what those trends mean to your customers, your products, and your stakeholders is essential. An overattachment to an historically effective strategy can be debilitating when it is justified by a never-changing picture of the future.

Architects are not immune to cognitive biases. Software and systems architecture is as much an art as a science. There is a creative aspect to architecture that necessarily generates emotional attachment to successful products and systems. How many architects have you heard claim with pride, “That’s my baby!”? This attachment, if not acknowledged and constantly guarded against, can easily become a blinder when that architecture is no longer the right one for the customers or the business. This is often the main reason why a market is disrupted by a different technology: the disrupter had no undue attachment to the traditional technology or architecture already in place, and so was able to see the full potential of something different.

Politics is more insidious. Some people will always place their career concerns before those of their customers or stakeholders. They will be more interested in building their empire, their influence, or their reputation at the expense of others. Many of these people are masters at hiding this agenda in their speech by saying all the right things at the right time to deflect criticism. But the truth is always there in what they do, in the ways in which they treat those downline from them, and in the relationships they leave behind. Their M.O. is intimidation – in the worst cases, outright, blatant intimidation; but more often in subtle, read-between-the-lines-of-what-I’m-saying intimidation.

This type of politics hampers strategy efforts when a new strategy endangers the pet projects or schemes of the politically-minded managers or leaders. What is good for one’s short-term career advancement is often not what is right for a company’s strategy. This is frequently experienced in roadmapping, because making the future visible – a key tenet of roadmapping effectiveness – is not comfortable for those interested in maintaining the status quo at all costs.

The signers of the Declaration created a vision of the future with little regard to their own career paths.

This affects architecture in a similar way. Technical experts have a vested career interest in remaining experts, and so will sometimes submarine architectural options which go outside of their technical comfort zone, or would possibly make obsolete the systems or products on which they achieved their technical reputation. Exercising this type of control can be a leading cause of irritation between architects and designers and engineers. It is impossible to mask when architects attempt to mandate an architectural direction based on their own interests. An architect’s role should be about championing those options which fulfill the larger picture or longer-term strategy, not about controlling system designers and engineers to protect their own job.

From either point of view, whether strategy or architecture, the only status quo that really matters is maintaining a focus on value creation for your customers and, thereby, for your stakeholders. Everything else must change. If everything else is not changing, it’s time to look for causes of inertia, including cognitive biases and politics. Great leaders – the ones with meaningful career potential –  are those who can help organizations change by championing the vision of the future which will maximize that value creation.

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