Paths to Power: What can Architects Learn from Sources of America’s Global Dominance

In discussing American exceptionalism and influence in the modern world, political scientists and academics talk about various sources of American power, for example US military might or its economic dominance.  Walter Russell Mead, an academic and a foreign policy analyst, defines four kinds of American power: the sharp power of the US military that provides the foundation, the soft power of American pop culture and the sticky power of an American-led economic world order that build atop the foundation, and finally at the very top the hegemonic power of the US, a prerogative and privilege to provide credence and confidence to all things worldly, whether they be economic coalitions or other global pursuits.  Organizational theorists and researchers have done extensive study of power and influence of individuals and groups within organizations, however the political scientists’ lens provides an interesting framework to understand how power should be built and exercised.  An example of such an application is looking at how the architecture function wields and exercises power with an IT organization.

Architects typically exercise their power and exert influence through formal governance processes and mechanisms – the infamous “architecture review board” is one of the various architecture forums that have given many a sleepless night to IT program managers.  Architecture governance can be characterized as the architects’ sharp power that is exercised by poking and prodding the IT teams to behave in a certain manner.  Just as a nation’s sharp military power serves as an important foundation for its power structure, so too does the architecture governance framework for the architecture group.  But, a foundation is not enough to create and sustain power.  US’s overwhelming military power is a powerful deterrent for many, but it is far from enough to ensure American dominance in world affairs.  And this has been demonstrated time and again by many IT organizations where in spite of having strong governance processes, the architecture teams fails to have appropriate influence in decision-making.  What is needed to complement the sharp power of governance are the architecture team’s sticky and soft powers.

America’s sticky power rests on two foundations: a dollar based global monetary system and free trade.  A dollar-based system not only allows America to reap direct economic benefits e.g., seigniorage from issuing bank notes to lenders all over the world, but it also allows America to exert the influence of its monetary and fiscal policies far and wide.  Globalization and fee trade, championed by American based multinationals, has created an economic framework in which benefits accrue to all countries that participate.  There are strong incentives for a country to participate in such an economic system, and strong disincentives to leave.  Architects have an opportunity to wield sticky power by creating a system in which their work creates benefits for their key stakeholders – architects should reorient their work to facilitate the outcomes and key decision-making IT management would like to have but cannot due to political, organizational or technical reasons.  Be it brokering talks, striking alliances, or negotiating trade-offs, architects in this role will need to function as first-class deal makers.  And in this role, architects will be seen belonging to an elite group that knows how to get things done. In an ideal state, IT managers will have no choice but to engage with the architects, because of the assurance that such an engagement will provide for the achievement of the outcomes they desire.  Achieving initial success will create a self-reinforcing system in which stakeholders will be increasingly willing to work with the architecture team and increasingly hesitant to work against them.  Sticky power, however, needs an inducing agent, something that will draw others in.  That is where soft power comes in.

American soft power emanates from America’s ability to successfully export its culture, values, ideals, and ideas to the rest of the world.  Architecture’s ability to successfully project its image across the entire organization is critical to garnering soft power.  The typical perception of architecture work being just technically focused is a result of architecture’s team failure to project an image commensurate with the stature of true architecture work.  Architects need to build a culture, set of ideas, principles and work habits that are unique and suited to the problem-solving, deal-making, and relationship and influence building that architecture work demands.  It starts with hiring the best and the brightest – not just the technically savvy, but true leaders, strategic thinkers and doers.  But creating such a culture is not enough – it needs to be packaged and “exported” to the rest of the organization, with the goal of creating an environment where the rest actually want to go join the architecture team because it has a certain cool factor.  On this scale, the typical architecture team fails miserably – one has yet to come across an IT organization where he architecture team is considered one of the cool teams to join.

Hegemonic power, the holy grail on the road to building power and influence, is power that comes from powers of all other kinds – it is the cherry on the top of the icing that allows America to set the agenda and rules for world affairs, or be the “gyroscope of the world”.  The architecture team is in a prime position to be the gyroscope of the IT organization.  By combining the power of governance with the ability to create real value for their stakeholders and attracting the best talent, the architecture team can influence decision-making at the highest levels – it can set the agenda to facilitate its own goals and outcomes and thus perpetuate its power and influence.   The nature of architecture work is such that sustaining power and influence are crucial to ensuring long term success of architects.  Maintaining power on an ongoing basis however takes effort, wise decision-making, and moving with the times – just witness the case of Britain, which only around a hundred years ago, was the world’s leading power by far and wide, but which was gradually supplanted by America as it held onto its stubborn positions and made fatal policy mistakes.

Google’s Lessons Applied to The Consulting Profession

I recently read a review of a newly released book “How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (Don’t Be Modest).  This is an interesting book by the architects of Google on what makes Google so successful, and how can other companies emulate its success factors and experience the growth rate it has over the past fifteen years.  The authors describe three critical factors that are central to Google’s success: 1) Thinking Big 2) Failing Fast and 3) Leveraging  Data.  As I was reading the review of the authors’ treatment of the subject, I could not help but think the applicability of these success factors to the management consulting profession.  When I come across successful management consulting professionals in my day to day professional life, I see them possessing all these success factors.

First and forhow-google-works-2014-10-08emost, “Thinking Big”, or in the parlance of Silicon Valley, the “moonshot”. Google’s management is not happy with employees striving for incremental improvements; they want employees to think up ideas that will deliver 10x gains.  And so it is with management consulting professionals, or at least the good ones.  Consultants are paid big bucks not to provide advice that merely enhances existing strategies, but to think up big ideas that change the nature of the game itself.  Truly successful consultants however do not stop there: they are actually able to convince their clients to launch such game-changing strategies, and subsequently also help them execute those strategies.  “Thinking Big” is applicable to the more mundane and normal as well.  If the client has asked for a cost reduction strategy that delivers 10% cost improvement, there is no reason not to strive to overachieve and over-deliver for a 15% reduction if possible.  And of course, “Thinking Big” in a consulting context means having the big picture.  Many a time consultants get too frequently caught up in the weeds and the nitty-gritty detail of the data analyses, and fail to extend their findings to truly altering the big picture. Thinking Big sets a high bar to over-achieve and over-deliver, and what can be better than that for someone in a services industry such as consulting.

Second, “Failing Fast”, which refers to the cultural aspect encouraging people to rapidly experiment to test the viability of their ideas, adapt and evolve the ideas based on the results, or move on if those ideas are not workable.  “Iteration is the most important part of the strategy”, as the authors of the book advise.  Google is well known for its ability to push out hundreds of incremental product updates every day as part of this iterative strategy.  This agile iterative approach is in Google’s DNA.  And the significance of this piece of advice can be seen if one considers how Agile based approaches have been successfully applied to managing complex projects and delivering new ground-breaking products.  Iteration is at the heart of Agile. An agile iterative approach to problem solving is an absolutely necessary tool in any good consultant’s toolbox.  This is particularly important in a strategy and advisory setting, where often information at hand is incomplete and the problem to be solved is ambiguous. Even the sharpest consultants will fail if they cannot rapidly adapt their approach as conditions change and new information emerges during the course of the project.

Finally, “Leveraging Data”, which refers to the primacy of data over a HIPPO, group think or collective experience, intuition or gut.  Google conducts hundreds of data-driven experiments to gauge how a particular product feature or enhancement would be received by the market place.  Such data-driven decision-making is at the core of a number of successful companies in other industries.  This exactly is the essence of the fact-based hypothesis-driven approach that all good management consultants swear by.  All good scientific approaches to solving management problems start with defining hypotheses, and then subsequently collecting and analyzing data to test those hypotheses.  Good consultants may start with their favorite hypotheses, but will be the first ones to throw them out the window if the data show those hypotheses to be untenable, no matter how much effort has been spent in defining the hypothesis and no matter how near and dear the hypothesis is to them.  Data, no matter how insignificant a role it plays, lends a certain credibility to strategic analysis that plain intuition and “experience” cannot.  Distinctive consulting skill comes from the ability to frame up the data analysis in a way that is effective and efficient, as well as the ability to interpret the results in a way that is convincing and yet simple.

Providing the foundation for these critical factors is Google’s culture of employee empowerment and enfranchisement.  Google hires the best and the brightest, but goes to great extent to ensure that employees are happy and engaged.  And culture perhaps is the greatest factor that distinguishes great consulting firms from the ones that are mediocre.  A culture that encourages healthy debate and intellectual challenge to authority, no matter how low down the totem pole you are, and even one that goes beyond to make it a mandatory requirement, an “obligation to dissent”.  A culture that is fair and ruthlessly meritocratic, yet one that is fun.  But most importantly, a culture that patiently cares about the development of the company’s most important asset by way of providing strong mentorship, support and professional guidance at the right place and at the right time.