Software Architects: The Power of Dissent

Posted July 10, 2019 in Cutter Business Technology Journal
software architect

The rise of the Internet, and the instantaneous access to information and connection to people on the other side of the world that it provides, has had a profound impact on society. Globalization and the Internet have combined to make everything faster, cheaper, and more direct. This speed and connectivity have, however, come at a price: we have yet to figure out how to navigate the new challenges created.

One challenge is a much greater degree of interconnectedness and dependency, in, for example, supply chains; relationships; and economic, social, and even political systems. This makes the world much more difficult to predict and control (or to give the impression of prediction and control) and means that businesses are operating in ever-more connected and intertwined markets.

As the level of interdependency increases, we become more susceptible to serious failures, with impacts cascading from actor to actor where there once were boundaries that isolated and protected organizations from each other. The potential for catastrophic failures increases beyond our control and understanding — and we are poorly equipped to meet this challenge. This degree of interconnectedness is often cited as the initial and amplifying factor in the global financial crisis of 2008.

Herein lies the need for dissent, the act of challenging an accepted opinion. In complex technology projects, this involves pushing back against biases, oversimplifications, and the need for certainty that will inform many proposed solu­tions. The role of dissent is to harden and strengthen these proposals and to identify the right course of action among them. Dissent is what provides another view and forces a team to step back and consider another reality; the more often a team presents dissent, the more likely it will explore the complex interdependencies that define modern enterprise technology projects.

Given the software architect’s role of relating technical decisions to business reality, this places the architect in the eye of the storm. With the ability to understand and formulate the impact of business or technical decision making on each other, architects are well placed to help drive projects to better results through the effective use of their own and others’ dissenting opinions.

By dissenting, architects will often find themselves faced with tough decisions. On one side, there is a great deal of research showing the positive effects of dissent on projects; however, on the other side, that same research has long shown the human tendency to isolate and punish dissenters. This places architects in a predicament: to voice dissent with the goal of navigating the complexity of modern projects or to stay silent and make progress in their career.

The Benefits of Dissent

A wide body of research supports the idea of the positive benefits of allowing and encouraging dissent in organizations. A group’s understanding of a complex issue and the relationship between the different aspects of that issue increases as dissent is presented to the group. It has also been argued, notably in the book Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, that dissent is necessary in avoiding catastrophic failure in complex systems. Minority dissent is also shown to be effective in defeating group­think, shifting the information search toward less confirmatory sources and encouraging divergent thought in the group.

When dissent is presented in a consistent way without dogma and with strong reasoning, it can influence decision making. Research shows that a group exposed to minority dissent:

  • Utilizes more strategies in the pursuit of performance

  • Recalls more information

  • Manifests more flexibility in thought

  • Shows more originality

  • Detects solutions that would have otherwise gone undetected

Dissent is also shown in many cases to be a form of loyalty to an organization, and successfully dissenting employees are happier and have better relationships with management. Finally, research reveals that dissent can lead to higher levels of innovation. The lesson gleaned from all this research is that dissent is useful, and we should welcome it. The architect, then, as the interpreter of decision impact across the business/technology boundary, should seek to become the arbiter of dissent, as every dissenting voice potentially exposes more hidden complexity that helps harden and improve the quality of the system. The dissenting opinions of architects themselves and those around them are a goldmine of information that teams can use to produce more resilient systems.

Good architects are familiar with dissent. Architectural review, design testing by external architects to gather more opinions, and security penetration testing are all forms of dissent that good architects encourage and use regularly. By paying even more attention to dissenting ideas around us, even outside the technology domain, we can capture more of the complex reality that defines how our systems will interact with the world.

Higher levels of innovation, wider shared understanding of complex issues, fewer catastrophic failures, better relationships with management, more originality, and novel solution discovery are all sought-after goals when navigating complex business environments. By enabling dissenting architects, organizations can potentially unleash these benefits. Capturing this potential — often kept hidden by the need for certainty — is the desire of many currently engaged in digital transformation and, as such, could present serious competitive advantage. So why aren’t we doing this already?

[For more from the author on this topic, see “Dissent and the Art of ‘Hype-Cycle’ Maintenance.”]

About The Author
Barry M O'Reilly
Barry M. O’Reilly is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business & Enterprise Architecture and Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practices and a member of Arthur D. Little's AMP open consulting network. He is the founder of Black Tulip Technology and creator of Antifragile System Design. Previously, he held positions as Chief Architect for Microsoft's Western Europe practice and IDesign, IOT TAP Lead for… Read More