When working as an enterprise architect, I used to profess that optimal decisions in IT do not exist. There are as many independent valuations of a solution as there are stakeholders in the decision. Stakeholders take viewpoints, and each viewpoint defines a different set of priorities in terms of which alternatives are evaluated.
But this doesn’t at all mean that architectural considerations become a matter of taste, or must be the subject of endless debate1, as often happens. I define “architectural decisions” loosely as: decisions in IT which have a large impact over a wide scope. They take place at every level from IT strategy down to developer teams.
In my experience, a very productive approach to shared architectural decision making is to split the discussion into two decoupled levels: evidence and utility. I have successfully used this in workshops to achieve “the best” architectural decisions, even in environments where opinions were strongly divided.
On the evidence level, the goal is to establish agreed-upon objective conclusions based on evidence. E.g.: “Alternative A takes X less time to build, whereas B is Y times more reliable”. The quantities X and Y needn’t be exact, but must be supported by evidence and be uncontested by any party.
Any argument which cannot (in principle) be substantiated by facts is disallowed in this phase. For instance, a statement “alternative C is better because it follows service-oriented principles” is tabled until “better” is quantified, and “service-oriented principles” are qualified.
This phase turns out to be both valuable and enjoyable for participants. It is all about engineering, and everyone is working together toward a shared goal, namely to establish measurable, objective truths about the competing alternatives. Almost as a side effect, a lot of insight is gained that will be useful for the eventual design of the solution.
On the “utility” level, the goal is to elicit viewpoints potentially held by stakeholders, and the probable valuation of the alternatives given their frames of reference (objectives, constraints, priorities). In decision theory this would be called determining the utility functions. Note to self: in very complex decision processes, probabilistic graphical modeling a useful tool?
Again, the discussion is not about deciding the optimal alternative, or what is the superior viewpoint. The goal is to make all valid viewpoints explicit, so as to understand how alternatives are rated differently by different people. Participants are expected to not argue for their own view, but also to come up with the reasoning of other stakeholders.
It is especially during this phase that differences between factions are resolved. They might not sway their opinion just yet, but gaining an understanding of where other people “are coming from” as well as an awareness of one’s own biases are the much more important benefits. In fact, even when the goal of this phase is not to obtain consensus, it tends to bring parties much closer together.
It would seem that the above activities, however pleasant they may have been, haven’t brought us further. At the end of the analysis we have collected objective facts and a shared understanding of the different valuations, but what is the decision going to be?
The final decision will be made by the person with the responsibility and authority to do this. That person’s viewpoint will be known at this point (or else a major stakeholder was overlooked in the previous phase!), but this does not mean that his/her viewpoint necessarily determines the outcome. It behooves the decision taker, now that all viewpoints are known, to consider these in making ‘the right decision’.
What is interesting is that during the process, the single decision maker becomes less relevant. From the shared understanding of the knowledge that has been gained in the process, and from the (intuitive) knowledge that people have about the distribution of influence within the organisation, most people present in the second workshop will already know what the outcome must be. Not only that, they will also better understand the outcome, even if it was not their (a priori) preference.
In that sense, there ís an optimum outcome of architectural decisions: it is the one which is maximally evidence-based, and creates the most shared understanding of the outcome.
The above is not just theory. I was positively surprised by its results (and the fun had and insights gained by all participants) when I first trialed it at a client where I was consulting. I later repeated it and refined the way the workshops worked, but then left architecture consulting for genomics. I was recently reminded that I should document this somewhere. Hence this post.
The seeds for these ideas came from an obscure but well-researched and thought-out Ph.D. thesis that I stumbled upon when searching for a tool for documenting architectural decisions. The thesis  had been written by  during an internship at IBM (Vienna?). The tool itself never made it to deployment, as it was a 700MB download which included a full unreleased version of WebSphere Server which I couldn’t get to work. :)
I don’t remember who coined it, but I love the proposed collective noun (as in: “a pride of lions” and “a flock of seagulls”) for architects: an argument of architects. ↩