>Breakthrough Thinking and Enterprise Architecture

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Breakthrough thinking is at the heart of great enterprise architecture. Incremental improvements in the organization are one thing, but dramatic breakthroughs that take an organization to a whole new level is what EA dreams are made of.

Harvard Business Review (HBR), December 2007, reports on how to achieve this breakthrough in thinking.

Firstly, HBR contends that brainstorming does not work for a few reasons:

  1. No structure—“most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming.” Outside the box thinking is too vague for people to really get their arms around the problem and provide concrete solutions.
  2. Data analysis is constrained—“slicing the data in new ways—almost always produces only small to middling insights…the contents of every database are structured to correspond to insights that are already recognized, not the ones that aren’t.”
  3. Customer requirements can’t tell the whole story—customers “can rarely tell you whether they need or want a product that they have never seen or imagined.”

So what do you do to get breakthrough thinking?

The approach “takes a middle path between the two extremes of boundless speculation and quantitative data analysis.

For example, “one question that can generate insights in any business is, “what is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?”

When you ask questions that create new boxes to think inside, you can prevent people from getting lost in the cosmos and give them a basis for making and comparing choices and for knowing whether they’re making progress.”

Here are some questions that drive breakthrough thinking:

  • “What is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?”
  • “How would our product change if it were tailored for every customer?”
  • “Which customers use or purchase our product in the most unusual way?”
  • “Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?”
  • “Who else is dealing with the same generic problem as we are but for an entirely different reason? How have they addressed it?”
  • “Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?”

“The most fertile questions focus the mind on a subset of possibilities that differ markedly from those explored before, guiding people to valuable overlooked corners of the universe of possible improvements.”

From a participant’s standpoint, do the following to encourage breakthrough thinking.

  1. Selection—“select participants who can product original insights.”
  2. Engagement—“ensure that everyone is fully engaged;” provide incentives as appropriate. People are competitive by nature and a little competition can go a long way to idea generation.
  3. Group size—break the participants into groups of around four, since that group size encourages everyone to participate and not hide-out.
  4. Focus—set boundaries using preselected questions; “don’t worry about stifling creativity. It is precisely such boundaries…that will channel their creativity.”
  5. Results—At the end of the brainstorming, “narrow the list of ideas to the ones you will seriously investigate…nothing is more deflating to the participants of a brainstorming session than leaving at the end with no confidence that anything will happen as a result of their efforts.”

From a User-centric EA perspective, what better way to serve the users than by thinking how to serve them better with improved products and services? The chief enterprise architect should facilitate breakthrough thinking to create the target architecture and transition plan for the enterprise.

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