enterprise architects need uncertainty

If you need to be sure about which door to walk through (or which to send your company through), then enterprise architecture is going to be a tough gig.  Enterprise Architects need uncertainty because this is the oil that keeps our trade viable, we just need to embrace it.

A central theme running through enterprise architecture is uncertainty.  More importantly understanding how people relate to uncertainty as architects, program/project managers, stakeholders, sponsors etc.

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”Voltaire

There are several techniques commonly used to alleviate the anxiety caused by uncertainty in enterprise architecture:

  • The most common is the assumption.  Often used like the ultimate Teflon disclaimer.  However, beyond Enterprise Architects these assumptions are often invisible next to their more dominant associates; the timeline and the estimate.
  • The most dangerous is the critical success assumption, which is an assumption that must hold true for the business case, design, or concept, to be feasible and/or viable.  It is rare to see critical success assumptions differentiated from the other assumptions that are often just preferences that people want to articulate early.
  • The best antidote to the assumption is honesty and logic, however, this is easier said than done.  For the more authenticity uncertainty it can be good to use the hypothesis driven experiment, providing it avoids proven the known, and focuses on the actual key unknowns with objectivity.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

cognitive bias
Human beings are hard coded to look for certainty.  As Enterprise Architects we know our stakeholders crave certainty and so we aspire to provide it.  We also pride ourselves of being devoid of bias, however this is hard to do at the best of times let alone in the heat of battle, particularly when formulating the business case with all the associated pressures and expectations.

The work of Daniel Kahneman and others has given us a great insight into these mental shortcuts commonly referred to as cognitive bias.  We’ll talk more about these in a future blog post, but the interesting angle that Kahneman brought us is identifying the strong appeal of cognitive ease, which in our case is nicely supported by a few good assumptions.

Providing our stakeholders with a comfortable and cohesive story is very effective, but can also be very dangerous for our companies.


“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” 
― Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow

business cases 
As Enterprise Architects we have probably all been involved in the evolution of many significant business cases.  Quite a few of us would have been involved in core system replacement business cases where at large companies and organisations these often run into hundreds of millions of dollars, and presenting significant opportunity and risk to those companies and organisations (along with the sponsors and others).

The challenges are well understood by us.  Often we are looking at how to replace legacy core systems developed to meet the nuanced (undocumented) needs of the situation over several decades.  Typically the pre-sales sessions have set expectations of the stakeholders sky high.  We are asked for conceptual and/or solution architectures, cost estimates, and timelines; “just make any necessary assumptions”.  These assumptions are quickly discarded but the estimates and timeline are not.

Normally there is a certain dollar figure that is deemed acceptable in the business case, even though logically the scope is implicit given it is a core system replacement.  A few more phrases like “out of the box”, and “no gold plating” are also waved around.  Those trying to get the business case over the line understandably have to have a relentless focus on getting the cash first, then dealing with what can be done with it.

This is challenging and precarious territory for the humble Enterprise Architect.  The temptation to please people is strong.

embracing uncertainty
The world is uncertain.  Enterprise architecture, and in particular large programs of work are no exception, actually the are archetypal.  Perhaps the best we can do as Enterprise Architects is to embrace this uncertainty and try our best to navigate through it with objectivity.

Some countermeasure to uncertainty aversion include:

  • Use assumptions sparingly and ensure that any critical success assumptions are clearly identified, along with implications, and accompanied by a specific approach to prove or disprove these assumptions as early as possible.
  • “Do your job!” –  the famous mantra of New England Patriot’s 5 time Superbowl winning head coach Bill Belichick.  As an Enterprise Architect it generally should not be our job to sell the business case.  Keep a distance from getting to caught up in making the business case work.  You need to be a trusted and objective advisor to the business.  So, do your job!
  • “Don’t know” – these two words (Zen saying) are very hard to say as an Enterprise Architect, but these words will help liberate us from bias, while gaining the respect of our peers.
  • If you have to make a call, then make it, but take care with your bias.

So, uncertainty is the central essence of enterprise architecture, that is if we can live with it and embrace it.  Although, I’m not entirely sure about that.  Are you?


“As one judge said to another: ‘Be just and if you can’t be just, be arbitrary.'”

– William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (notorious Beat Generation author and grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, which after the 1986 merger with Sperry UNIVAC was renamed Unisys)

uncertainty blog post

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