On storytelling in architecture

On storytelling in architecture

Designing capability maps, developing target architectures and transition roadmaps, and formulating architecture principles is one thing, selling such kinds of deliverables is another thing. In fact, you might face stakeholders considering those work products a little abstract and far away from their daily practice. So what is needed to get people on board and make key messages stick is something that helps make things more approachable and relatable. This is where storytelling comes into play.

While storytelling has always been relevant in business contexts, it seems to have become even more important throughout the past years, especially with respect to architecture matters. First and foremost, this is due to today’s accelerated rate of change. Enterprises need to adapt (themselves and their architectures) to new conditions more often and more quickly, which raises a frequent need for explanation. This may be facilitated by the use of stories. In addition, corporate cultures and individual expectations have changed significantly at many places. People nowadays want to be taken on the journey and really understand where the enterprise is heading to and why. Finally, things have become more complex, which in turn finds itself represented in today’s architectures. A compelling story will help make those things more digestible for the audience.

What is a story?

Stories can be ‘big’ and crafted in a Hollywood-like way, with well-designed plot structures that include contrast and rising tension, conflict and resolution, and a hero opposing a villain. Stories can, however, also be ‘small’ and rather anecdote-like, which is more like what we tell on a daily basis. Both types of stories may help make a business point. Whether big or small, this is what is crucial for something told to be considered a story:

  • A story typically structures the narrative into a few steps or parts.
  • A series of facts and arguments doesn’t make a story. A story clearly describes something happening, with one event following the other. Typically, this starts off with time and place markers.
  • Usually, there are human characters in a story. Therefore, a story may well contain dialog, also in a business context.
  • A story may not necessarily present things in a strictly linear way from situation through complication to resolution. There may be turning points that lead to ups and downs and thus iterations between things being complicated and resolved. At least a story should contain something unexpected at some point, creating sort of an “aha” moment for the audience.

Why storytelling?

So what is it that makes stories so powerful and therefore relevant in an architecture context?

First, they give things a practical meaning. Vividly illustrating their use and benefits, stories will make abstract things like capability maps and architecture principles more tangible and may thus give evidence to what you propose.

Second, stories are memorable. Suppose you tell a story about a sports game to introduce a set of architecture principles to the audience. Typical principles such as the use of standards and modular design can be well explained by pointing to, e.g., the default size of the pitch and the fact that players assume distinct positions on it (e.g., goalkeeper, forward). This will likely be much more memorable than a simple presentation of the principles.

Third, stories allow for conveying emotion. You might, for example, take the audience back to re-feel the pain they might have suffered in past initiatives without a proper architecture approach. This is likely to help inspire action, which is essential to make architecture a collaborative effort.

When may architects use storytelling?

Architects may benefit from storytelling in various situations. One pertains to the articulation of what the architecture practice or a particular kind of deliverable is about and how it actually adds value to the organization. A story may help counter the confirmation bias that might exist in parts of the audience, i.e., their willingness to only see and accept what supports their own opinions (e.g., “we have been successful without an architecture practice for ages” or “architecture is too time consuming”), and is thus more likely to avoid pushbacks by the audience. In addition, a story may also help make the new and unfamiliar easier to grasp and deliver and stress a certain message.

Communicating and socializing a specific deliverable or blueprint that has just been created is another important use case. A story facilitates taking the audience through the process of how it has been developed and illustrating the reasons for certain decisions that have been made along the way as well as the changes that will come with them. It therefore provides the required clarity as to the why, what, and how of something happening.

So while architects certainly require a diverse range of skills, storytelling seems to have become a key one among those. If you are an enterprise architect or IT architect and are keen to learn more about storytelling, our Architecture Storytelling course may be of interest to you. For business architects, we offer a special course on Business Architecture Storytelling. If you are a Certified Business Architect® (CBA®), course participation will earn you Continuing Education Unit (CEU) credits. Please reach out to us with any questions and requests.

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