Enterprise-architecture: Bring on the clowns?

Over on the long-running LinkedIn thread about enterprise-architecture as a bridge between strategy and execution, there was a bit of discussion about trusted advisors and a potential role for Pat Ferdinandi‘s parrot (Scarlet – the star of Pat’s enterprise-architecture how-to book Parrotology). In other words, we’re back on the always-fraught theme of where – if anywhere – is the proper place in the organisation for enterprise-architects.

Most of the conventional EA frameworks (TOGAF, FEAF, Gartner, CapGemini and the like) are all quite strongly IT-centric, and hence tend to place the EA role as either a direct or indirect report of the CIO (Chief Information Officer). But as EA becomes more business-oriented, as a discipline, and begins to break out of the IT box, it’s clear that that reporting-relationship wouldn’t really work any more: the role needs to have a wider scope. So, where does it fit?

Given the hierarchical nature of so many organisations, it strikes me that there’s a rather nice analogy here with a mediaeval court.

There’s the King, or perhaps the Queen (the CEO): the one at the top of the tree, the one who makes all the final decisions. (‘Execution’ can have a rather different meaning here than the one we’re used to these days in business… 🙂 )

The monarch is surrounded by an array of courtiers, all jostling for position.

Some of them are just sycophants, and most of us would get sick of them quite quickly: but they’ll find some way to hang around, whether they’re wanted or not. (Yes, we find plenty of those in present-day organisations too, unfortunately… 🙁 )

Some of them are various officials (aka managers) of varying rank, pushing and shoving to get heard, to get their specific issues addressed, their achievements noticed, their bonus, their reward, their promotion. They’ll drag us down right into the dust and the detail if we’re not very careful indeed.

There are the priests and the generals and the judges (aka governance and audit), and the ambassadors from other realms (aka government, senior lobbyists, potential partners). They probably need more attention than we might like, but they do indeed matter.

Then there are the monarch’s advisors: wise men and women all (the specialists and subject-matter experts). Very senior, of course, all wearing fine robes and raiments. Sometimes nodding sagely, more often arguing intensely with each other – sometimes so much so that they fail to notice the monarch’s original question.

And then, to put it bluntly, there’s the mob. Hoi polloi, ‘below the salt’, kept well apart from ‘the persons of quality’, their opinion and experience is usually deemed not to matter not at all – even though they’re often the only ones who know what’s really going on. Which is an interesting problem, and one that’s often reflected in present-day corporations, too…

Yet there’s one other person that we’ve probably missed, so visible that he’s almost invisible: the court-jester. Unlike all those advisors, he’s not a specialist of anything, really: he’s a generalist, such that some might dismiss him as ‘a jack of all trades and master of none’. And again unlike those advisors, there’s often only the one jester – yet he’s also the one that the monarch may listen to most of all.

The jester has no real pride: he’ll talk with anyone – which means that he can find information from everywhere, including those firmly-forbidden, carefully-forgotten places. He can make a joke out of anything, see the mythquake in the making; anarchic, unexpected, sideways from the predictable paradigm, or the suspect certainties of the usual worldview – and yet every jest has its bite, its deeper contrast, its deeper meaning. It may not be comfortable for the monarch, and even less so for the advisors – but often the jester is the only one who will truly speak the truth.

Seems to me sometimes that that’s the real role of the enterprise-architect: the confusing court-jester, one of those strange ones who links everything to everything else, talks with everyone, coordinates, connects across the whole enterprise.

So bring on the enterprise-architects, as the quiet clowns of the corporation – because they’re often the only ones who make sense. 🙂

[Update] One of the items I wrote this post for, and then promptly forgot, was this quote from the Wikipedia page on Morris dance, about the role of the jester or ‘fool’:

Many sides [troupes] have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool will often dance around and even through a dance without appearing really to be a part of it, but it takes a talented dancer to pull off such fooling while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set.

The Morris fool will usually be the best dancer by far in the side – yet to many people watching, he won’t appear to to be much of a dancer at all. It’s also a teaching role: I’ve seen a Morris fool gently highlight yet brilliantly parody every one of the mistakes of each of the other dancers, whilst weaving in and out and through the rest of the dance in seemingly-drunken abandon. (Given that these are often stick-dances, each dancer wildly wielding a thick cudgel perhaps two or three feet long, that’s not a task for the faint-hearted. 🙂 ) The parallel with much of enterprise-architecture should be clear: we weave in and out of the dance of change, connecting everyone, keeping everything moving, keeping everything pointing towards the overall vision. Which in the Morris-dancers’ case would usually be the vision of a very large jug of ale, together with a dance in which no-one’s actually been bashed over the head with a club… most enterprise-architecture won’t offer quite the same level of excitement, but close at times, perhaps?

4 Comments on “Enterprise-architecture: Bring on the clowns?

  1. Tom

    Believe it or not, British Airways actually had a Court Jester once, and he was extremely effective for a while. You can read about him here.


    But as the article points out, it’s not a role that can easily be sustained for very long, which to my mind means that it’s not a great model for enterprise architects to emulate.

    However, some of the roles of a corporate fool listed here by David Firth do match those of an enterprise architect.


  2. Interesting, I have heard many references to that role before when talking to management consultants on how they see their role. Many are actually seeing the roots of their discipline – at least in Europe – in the Jester role. Found out about this when supporting a book on a shared vocabulary and possible collaboration scenarios between designers and consultants.


  3. Sally – many thanks for this – nice pointers to the role of the ‘professional fool’ 🙂

    Enterprise architecture has a lot of similarities with the role of the professional futurist – in fact in many ways it is a futurist role. And like the Jester, it’s a risky role: I remember one colleague saying that “if you’re employed by a corporation as a professional futurist and you’re not being fired at least once every couple of years, you’re probably not doing your job properly!” 😐

  4. Milan – likewise many thanks, and very interesting: any pointers or links to that “book on shared vocabulary”?

    Amused but not surprised that “many [management consultants] are actually seeing the roots of their discipline … in the Jester role”, because management consultancy is so often about resolving conflict, and Jester-style humour is known as one of the best ways to highlight the points of conflict yet also minimise the pain. Back when I studied scriptwriting I remember that the lecturer argued that the roots of all comedy were in ‘logic-clash’ – creating an expectation in one direction, but meeting up with reality going in another direction. Sounds a lot like the logic-clashes we meet up with so often in enterprise-architecture work: should perhaps everything we do be classed as comedy? In which case, how do we make it more fun for everyone – including ourselves? 🙂

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