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How Enterprise Architects can cope with Opportunistic Failure

How Enterprise Architects can cope with Opportunistic Failure

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You may not think that Failure is a desired outcome, and on the surface, there are some negative connotations to failure.  It just sounds “bad” for a team to fail.  However, there are times when a manager will INTENTIONALLY fail in a goal.  Let’s look at the scenario where a manager may choose to fail, and see whether EA has a role in either preventing that failure, or facilitating it.

What is Opportunistic Failure?

Does your organization manage by objectives and scorecards?  Scorecards and metrics are frequently used management tools, especially in medium and large organizations.  In a Manage-By-Objective (MBO) organization, a senior leader is not told “how” to do something, but rather a negotiation takes places that results in the development of a measurable objective.  The term “measurable objective,” used here, is a well-defined idea.  It is specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART).  A measurable objective is a description of the results that a senior manager is expected to achieve.  In BMM terms, the objective is the “ends” while the senior leader is expected to figure out the “means.”  In business architecture parlance, the objective describes the “what” while the senior leader is expected to figure out the “how.”

Now, in many situations, a senior leader has to rely on other groups to perform, in some way, in order for him to achieve his measurable objectives.  This is quite common.  In fact, I’d say that the vast majority of senior-level objectives require some kind of collaboration between his or her people, and the people who work in other parts of the organization (or other organizations). 

For a small percentage of those dependencies, there may be competition between the senior leader’s organization and some other group, and that is where opportunistic failure comes in.

The scenario works like this: 

Senior leader has an empowered team.  They can deliver on 30 capabilities.  Someone from outside his or her organization, perhaps an enterprise architect, points out that one of those capabilities is overlapping.  Let’s say it is the “Product Shipment Tracking” capability.  The EA instructs the senior leader to “take a dependency” on another department (logistics in this case) for that.  The senior leader disagrees in principle because he has people who do a good job of that capability, and he doesn’t want to take the dependency.  However, he cannot convince other leaders that he should continue to perform the “product shipment tracking” capability in his own team. 

So he contacts the other department (logistics) and sets up an intentionally dysfunctional relationship.  After some time, the relationship fails.  Senior leader goes to his manager and says “we tried that, and it didn’t work, so I’m going to do it my way.”  No one objects, and his team gets to keep the capability.

In effect, the senior leader felt it was in her own best interest to fight the rationale for “taking a dependency,” but instead of fighting head-on, s/he pretends to cooperate, sabotages the relationship, and then gets the desired result when the effort fails.  This is called “opportunistic failure.” 

Thoughts on Opportunistic Failure

Opportunistic failure may work in the favor of anyone, even an Enterprise Architect.  However, as an EA, I’ve most often seen it used by business leaders to insure that they are NOT going to be asked to comply with the advice of Enterprise Architecture, even when it makes sense from an organizational and/or financial standpoint. 

In addition, one of the basic assumptions of EA is that we can apply a small amount of pressure to key points of change to induce large impacts.  That assumption collapses in the face of opportunistic failure.  Organizations can be very resistant to change, and this is one of the ways in which that resistance manifests. 

Therefore, while EA could benefit from EA, I’ll primarily discuss ways to address the potential for a business leader to use operational failure to work against the best interests of the enterprise.

  1. Get senior visibility. – If a business leader is tempted to use opportunistic failure to resist good advice, get someone who is two or more levels higher than that leader to buy in to the recommended approach.  This radically reduces the possibility that the business leader will take the risk to his or her career that this kind of failure may pose.
  2. Get the underlying managers in that senior manager’s team on board, and even better, get them to agree to the specific measures of progress that demonstrate success.  This creates a kind of “organizational momentum” that even senior leaders have a difficult time resisting.
  3. Work to insure that EA maintains a good relationship with the business party that will come up short if the initiative does fail.  That way, they feel that you’ve remained on their side, and will call on you to escalate the issue if it arises.
  4. Play the game – look for things to trade off with.  If the senior manager is willing to risk opportunistic failure, you may be able to swing them over to supporting the initiative if you can trade off something else that they want… perhaps letting another, less important, concern slide for a year.  

 

Conclusion

For non-EAs reading this post: EA is not always political… but sometimes it is.  Failing to recognize the politics will make you into an ineffective EA.  On the other hand, being prepared for the politics will not make you effective either… it will just remove an obstacle to effectiveness. 

  • Nick - wouldn't any reasonable organisation set Internal SLAs negotiated between teams or departments which would act to ensure that these daft sort of games wouldn't happen? I agree that in some organisations the political battles will ensue, but in todays move towards more outsourcing in teh value-chain, surely any reasonable team would look to do this as a matter of principle.

    Good piece & thought provoking as always

  • @Russell:

    An internal SLA is, as you indicated, a negotiated instrument.  Unless there is some kind of overarching governance, there is no requirement that a team MUST sign an SLA.  A team leader who wants to play these games will not negotiate.

    The only way to kill off this behavior is for senior executives to take personal interest in how the organization shapes itself.  

    Firing the game players is a stop-gap measure, unfortunately, and probably won't work.  The problem is that it is very difficult for an executive to tell when one of his people is playing this game.  A saavy player will make his team look like the most cooperative organization in the world.  Both teams will look cooperative, yet the initiative will fail, and both will be given a pass to "try something else."  Personal interest by the senior executives ends it because everyone's priorities are oriented in the right direction.

    You call these kinds of games "daft."  You are being mild.  They are insane.  But they happen.  All the time.  Every EA has to be aware of them, and do what they can to prepare for them.  These is no way an EA can prevent them.  (Only an executive can do that), but awareness helps.

    Good luck,

    --- Nick

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