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5 steps for building collaboration into an enterprise architecture revamp

Collaboration is key to refreshing an enterprise architecture team. Walgreens Boots Alliance's Grant Ecker shares his five phases for engaging your organization and aligning your enterprise architecture team with the organization's needs.
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For most of his life—since third grade, really—Grant Ecker has programmed. Today, as VP of enterprise architecture for Walgreens Boots Alliance, a global leader in pharmacy-led, health and well-being retail, Ecker has taken on a different kind of role.

Ecker has packaged his purpose, vision, and values to create a five-phase operational model for success. His model is also a guide for leading a cultural shift toward more effective communication across teams and up to the CIO.

He has plenty to teach people building enterprise architectures, especially those coming into a new role looking to revamp an organization's architecture, as he's done over the past year for Walgreens. "The first thing you must do [to kick off your first 90 days] is to make sure your organization connects to the needs that you're supporting—in any scope you lead," Ecker begins. "It could be the line of business; it could be the region or the overall organization entirely; these values should align with your values."

In a recent conversation with the Red Hat Chiefs, Ecker outlined his five key phases for integrating community federation and understanding the value of working with others into your enterprise architecture practices. He also discussed how to remain consistent with your purpose, vision, and values while doing so. The Red Hat Chiefs are a global league of chief architects who seek to embody the open source way to build strategic relationships, innovate relevant solutions with emerging technologies, and maintain their commitment to enterprise-grade open source development.

The phases of Ecker's framework are:

  • Listen
  • Assess
  • Partner
  • Plan
  • Engage

This blueprint is informed by Ecker's previous success in refreshing and resetting enterprise architecture initiatives. It also reflects the business value of breaking down the invisible walls that impede productivity and collaboration between the CIO, the enterprise architect, and the IT business, operations, and technology teams. Finally, it provides a framework for handling the first 90 days of building (or rebuilding) an enterprise architecture.

1. Listen

"Coming from a place of curiosity is powerful; coming from a place of knowing is dangerous," Ecker says. "If you find yourself firmly in 'knowing,' it means you're not being open minded. As a thought leader, I think it is expected that you bring in a certain perspective. I believe there's more created in curiosity with a more open mindset."

In his role as chief architect—which he has been cultivating over the last several years—Grant says it is important to remember that "curiosity is what helps you start to bring people together." In other words, it's imperative that in your first 90 days as an enterprise architect in your new organization, you get curious and take inventory of the way your enterprise functions. This includes the specific infrastructure, the processes, and the people that make it all happen to better understand the business areas most in need of care and start brainstorming ways to raise these topics with one of your biggest customers: your colleagues.

[ Seeking more insight into building an enterprise architecture team? Read Effective approaches to enterprise architecture organizations. ]

Ecker says exploring how to begin a relationship with IT leadership teams (ITLTs) begins with listening and learning. Think of the enterprise in terms of moving to a new neighborhood. "In any new company, all of your new neighbors want a good relationship in each of their peer interactions and in any new role," says Ecker. "Both the newcomer and the resident want their relationship to be beneficial and work out… it's an exploration by both parties to find resonance."

The exploration Ecker is referring to is the idea of authentically caring about 360-degree function feedback. In other words, starting an open dialogue with your colleagues (or neighbors) and using that nascent discussion to begin developing a healthy method of exchange between the appropriate teams: the enterprise architect with their respective leadership teams and with the CIO, which Ecker says is an architect's biggest customer.

These exchanges should acknowledge all experiences, good and bad, and be followed up with further meetings to gain context, awareness, and perspective. The process to help achieve this includes:

  • Learning the business strategy and its IT drivers
  • Asking the CIO for the first year architecture priorities
  • Asking the CIO's staff how they view enterprise architecture and its efforts
  • Asking their own team what is and what is not working

Shaping and integrating governance

A great customer experience reflects the organization's architectural frameworks and the IT infrastructure put in place to deliver business value, Ecker says.

However, driving business strategy should not fall solely on the shoulders of the enterprise architecture team. There's power in bringing people together to start the big conversations, building a technical hotline, and forming a network of expertise. When an architecture includes many different perspectives, it addresses a variety of different needs. This is what enterprise architecture is all about: creating organized, planned frameworks to meet the collective needs of an organization.

Adopting more proactive practices (as opposed to reactive habits) is a way to use your enterprise architecture community to craft methodologies and practices to sustain your architecture practice for years to come. For instance, taking a disorganized technology landscape and aligning it into the appropriate supported business capabilities—to demonstrate what problems are being solved—may help turn a mostly reactive approach into a series of ideas that become action items to bring intentionality back into the IT delivery pipeline. In other words, identify your enterprise's "what," figure out "how" you intend to solve for that "what," and encourage your teams to track actionable measures in solidifying your approach.

2. Assess

Start by evaluating your maturity targets in terms of how you're meeting your organization's needs. Ecker identifies three options to consider in maturing your enterprise architecture practice: join it, refresh it, or reset it.

From the moment you learn the business strategy to the moment you construct your team of architects, engineers, and technical and business strategists, everything leads up to how you will choose to build out your enterprise architecture practice.

In a 360-degree review or time of reflection, assess whether you need to join strong practices with insignificant gaps in maturity, refresh capable practices with strong talent and moderate gaps in maturity, or reset failing practices with foundational gaps in maturity, talent, and support.

Regardless of the specific areas of improvement you identify, maturity gaps will always need to be refreshed, and older, ineffective ways of thinking will need to be reset. But you cannot take on the load all by yourself.

3. Partner

As a leader in federated engagement, you want to bring other knowledgeable architects into that what and how equation and explore the talent around you. You can do that through partnerships that open doors for others while closing engagement gaps with needs-based changes to structure and alignment.

At the highest level, you, as an enterprise architect, bridge the what with the how to come to a solution, making processes such as enterprise planning easier. The enterprise architect role aligns strategic direction with capabilities and technical roadmaps by partnering with others to help define a solution broadly across capability areas—hitting the how.

The business architect defines the what of a solution in terms of business capabilities and needs. This role drives business capability assessments, roadmaps, and process models by mapping business needs to the solution portfolio and partnering with the technical architects on roadmaps.

The technical architect defines the how that enables the what the team is trying to solve within a given solution (e.g., application, technology, data) and its patterns for reuse. The technical architect's flexibility allows them to play an active role as an application, data, or domain architect. This means they can develop and maintain technology roadmaps as products and align designs with strategy and governance.

[ Make sure you're prepared to answer finance leaders' questions. Read 5 steps an enterprise architect can take to address adoption costs. ]

Architects are amazing, but there are other equally important people who drive business outcomes. It's vital to encourage other leaders within your community to congregate the experts across their domains to produce a more well-rounded architecture and to get your enterprise to start thinking at a global scale.

You can also cross-pollinate across your team to address needs and leverage your available talent to drive innovation, Ecker says. For instance, say you're "in the red" in a slice of IT digital capability enablement, and you know of a skilled person in your cloud architecture space who has expressed an interest in digital marketing. Support that cloud architect in developing and broadening their career to help fill the gap in digital. Taking it a step further, if you have more than enough people involved with handling cloud infrastructure, why not shift some of your team to help supplement your IT digital strategy? Use the talent around you and redirect their bandwidth from low-value tasks to start driving critical innovation in the areas of the greatest need.

In addition to nurturing engagement by developing individuals within enterprise architecture, give the organization what it needs by aligning goals with the CIO's team and creating a path to career development for graduates of your enterprise architect community. Encouraging people to take on new challenges outside enterprise architecture sets the stage for new enterprise architects to enter the function and demonstrate their technical leadership abilities, which keeps your community growing in a healthy way with support and understanding from your newest enterprise architecture graduates-turned-customers.

Now that you've listened to the needs, assessed where you stand as an enterprise architect, and constructed the most effective partnerships, enroll your team in a plan and create goals toward measurable business outcomes.

4. Plan

Planning creates dedicated ongoing momentum. In the planning phase, engage the enterprise architects in the maturity focus areas by assigning ownership of specified tasks within the plan that align with the CIO's staff members they support. From here, collaboratively align the architect's objectives and incentives with measurable outcomes together with the architects and their supporting IT leadership team members. From this alignment, the team will naturally work towards delivering the maturity plan together.

Through this activity, you are localizing goals with a strategy, objectives, and actions, as well as measures that define who is responsible for them and how they will be measured.

Consider how much of your focus should be on enabling and creating platforms that accelerate other teams vs. standards and architecture artifacts. And how will that change over time? Ecker leads with an example using physical structures: You would not build a mansion in the same way you'd build a mobile home. So how do you build to meet different demands?

"Today, instead of simply recycling the reusable components of a mobile home to build a new mansion, use your knowledge of architecture patterns and the appropriate fit for purpose to solve."

Remember, this is a gradual process, Ecker says. When you want to accelerate the way a team works, you must figure out the scope of the effort and adjust to that frame of reference. Design at a high level, and allow the teams to build out the details.

5. Engage

Again, enterprise architecture is not a one-person show. It is essential to be open to new ideas and perspectives, even if you don't exactly agree with them. Here's the crux of it: people need to belong. Use the different perspectives in your community to create a place of engagement and trust. Even if you disagree with someone, find what makes them valuable and what they have to offer, Ecker advises. Here is how you can accomplish this kind of engagement:

First, take feedback from the CIO and refresh your architecture practice. Engage the federated community and start collaborating with other architects to generate ideas around how to address the pain points. You can't do it all on your own; federated engagement is important not only for new ideas but also for building alignment and a united enterprise architecture vision for the organization. More people will support a strategy that reflects their input and ideas.

As the approach takes shape, be sure to provide a consistent vision across domain, platform, and business unit practices and to strive for consistent operationalization in your approach.

At this point, determine what architecture changes and artifacts are needed and where reviews will happen. It is critical to remain collaborative with your main customers (your CIO, their staff, and your peers). Your plan should now be inclusive of all the great minds within and across your teams who came together to create the strategy, methodology, design, and implementation plan, Ecker says.

[ New research from HBR Analytic Services - IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era ]

The moment of truth: Delivery

You're now at the defining moment when it's time to make these architecture dreams an organizational reality, Ecker says.

After creating a plan for delivery, structure your organization so that you can support your operating model's different dimensions. In other words, you've drawn the outlines, and now it's time to color inside the lines to bring the design to life.

"This is where things get kind of fun," Ecker says. "We know how the operating model works, but let's make it talk and make it real." Real means putting the right players in place to publish the platform strategy and oversee execution. Once you have your architecture community in place, work with them to construct the playbook to drive your operating model.

The benefits you'll take away

Why should you care about the five phases as a chief or enterprise architect? When you follow the what and how equation and partner with your colleagues to implement it, your theory becomes grounded, your solutions are balanced, the ivory tower is localized, artifacts are improved, and you've built a global technical hotline connecting your company to a broader range of ideas and expertise, Ecker says.

In doing this, you eliminate invisible barriers to communication in pursuit of a unified, concrete objective.

If you embrace the role of chief architect, as Ecker has, you can gain more meaningful interactions—and you can use those interactions to drive better business outcomes.


IT architects have incredible stories to tell. The Red Hat Chiefs invite you to engage in dialogue about your contributions to enterprise architecture, emerging technologies, and open innovation practices. To discuss your experience with the Red Hat Chiefs and publishing your ideas on this global platform, please email us at enable-architect@redhat.com.

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Marjorie Freeman

Marjorie is the Associate Editor for Enable Architect. More about me

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