Axioms for the Practice of Agile Architecture

This document includes a set of axioms which are guidelines or restrictions that Agile architects are recommended to follow. Adherence to these axioms will help to guide the Digital and Agile Transformation of the enterprise.

The axioms are named, and then each is presented as a brief statement with expositional and narrative discussion.

In Think like Amazon, John Rossman [Rossman 2019] claims that “digital is about two things: speed and agility – externally to your customers and market and internally within your organization”.

John Rossman states that speed is “about moving in one direction very efficiently, very precisely. Operational excellence at scale is the business equivalent to speed”.

Several of the axioms have been conceived to support speed and agility. All the axioms support the digital and Agile enterprise.

Axiom 1. Customer Experience Focus

Customer experience focus is a way of doing business that meets the expectations of customers. By analyzing the interactions between the enterprise and its customers, Agile Architecture shall enable the delivery of a pleasant and differentiated customer experience.

In today’s digital world, the quality of customer experience is becoming a critical success factor. Consumers and Business-to-Business (B2B) customers have expectations that are shaped by Internet giants. For example, a prime delivery service that includes free shipping, preset ordering options (preset address, preset credit card), and return options with prepaid or printed return labels is becoming the new norm of the retail industry.

Axiom 2. Outside-In Thinking

A very large car manufacturer recently looked at cars from the perspective of “how it is used by a customer rather than how it is created or delivered”. Does this mean these companies no longer produce cars? Absolutely not. It illustrates the shift toward an outside-in stance that could lead to reinventing the automotive industry.

Just asking clients what they need is not enough to create a differentiated customer experience. Discovering the hidden or untold customer needs is the key to success. Agile Architecture shall use marketing and design methods to discover how customers are likely to use products and services. Job-to-be-done analysis, customer journey mapping, and design thinking are examples of methods used by Agile enterprises. Design thinking, which is a human-centered approach, incorporates human cognition and emotion as key aspects of the value definition.

Axiom 3. Rapid Feedback Loops

Research seeks to understand the needs and desires, both explicit and latent, of target customers and users. Prototyping helps to experiment with research assumptions before a product or service is released. It can be done at any stage and helps to architect better solutions. Agile Architecture shall seek rapid feedback loops to verify customer and user assumptions. Examples of feedback loop frameworks include OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) and PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act).

Don Norman [Norman 2013] states that “feedback is critical to managing expectations, and good design provides this. Feedback – knowledge of results – is how expectations are resolved and is critical to learning and the development of skilled behavior”.

Axiom 4. Touchpoint Orchestration

Agile Architecture shall enable a holistic orchestration of every single touchpoint of an enterprise and its ecosystem: “the boundaries between external and internal touchpoints are blurring and will continue to do so” [Wind 2015].

Clients and users are empowered to take control of their relationship with the enterprise and its media. Touchpoint orchestration delivers relevant utility or enjoyment at the right time, place, and social or physical context to the right people.

Axiom 5. Value Stream Alignment

Agile Architecture shall identify the enterprise value streams. Value shall be specified from the standpoint of the customer. A value stream shall be identified for each product or service family – from concept to launch and from order to delivery [Rother 2003].

The analysis of value streams helps make the work flow by giving visibility to problems such as delay, rework, excessive handoff, or interruption. Identifying common steps across several value streams is a key input to operating model design.

Axiom 6. Autonomous Cross-Functional Teams

Agile Architecture shall segment the organization into autonomous cross-functional teams. Team autonomy is a prerequisite to speed. Why? If teams spend too much time coordinating with other teams, it increases lead time.

The way teams are structured has a major influence on productivity, employee satisfaction, and agility. William Pasmore [Pasmore 2019] reports the discoveries of Eric Trist and his colleague who have analyzed why the introduction of new technology succeeds or fails. They reveal that the way work and teams are organized is the explaining factor: “teams of multi-skilled workers formed spontaneously and took on responsibility for the entire cycle of mining operations … These teams were capable of self-direction, reducing the dependence on supervisors to provide constant direction to individual workers. Problems were solved by the team as they were encountered, resulting in operations running more smoothly and safely.

Axiom 7. Authority, Responsibility, and Accountability Distribution

Experience quality and operational excellence require effective coordination and cooperation between autonomous teams. Agile Architecture shall balance freedom with responsibility and accountability. Why? Accountability and responsibility improve predictability, which is a prerequisite to:

  • Meeting the customer promise

  • Industrializing operations

Agile Architecture shall distribute authority, responsibility, and accountability at each layer of the organization: “it is essential to understand how authority, responsibility, and accountability are designed and broadcast within a socio-technical system and how these concepts can be managed during an engineering process of these systems” [Berdjag 2019].

Axiom 8. Loosely-Coupled Systems

High-performing teams are more likely to have loosely-coupled architectures than medium and low-performing teams [DevOps 2015 & 2017]. When dependencies are minimized, teams can develop, test, and deploy new functions and features without depending on other teams for additional work, resources, or approvals, and with less back-and-forth communication [Forsgren 2018].

Agile Architecture shall create new modular systems or decompose monolithic legacy ones into loosely-coupled sub-systems and components. Modularity matters because:

  • It shortens development time as separate teams can work on each module with little need for communication

  • It increases product flexibility as changes to one module have little impact on other modules [Parnas 1972]

Axiom 9. Modular Data Platform

The centralized and monolithic data platform is an anti-pattern [Dehghani 2019]. Agile Architecture shall create modular data platforms using domain decomposition logic: “instead of flowing the data from domains into a centrally owned data lake or platform, domains need to host and serve their domain datasets in an easily consumable way”.

Source domain datasets represent closely the raw data at the point of creation and are not fitted or modeled for a particular consumer. Data consumers can always go back to the business facts and create new aggregations or projections. They use data platform self-service capabilities to retrieve the data they need, formatted the way they want.

Axiom 10. Simple Common Operating Principles

Agile Architecture shall use a set of simple mechanisms that all elements and connections will use. For example, in the software domain all components or services will expose functionality using standard APIs and all inter-services communication will use these APIs.

Axiom 11. Partitioning Over Layering

The layered architecture pattern tends to lend itself toward monolithic applications, even if presentation and business layers are split into separate deployable units [Richards 2015]. On the business side, functional organizational units such as marketing, finance, or operations are equivalent to layers. Layering tends to create silos, which reduces agility and scalability.

To counter these drawbacks, Agile Architecture shall partition the enterprise and its systems. Partitioning shall be market-driven at the business level, capability-driven at the operating model level, and domain-driven at the software level.

Axiom 12. Organization Mirroring Architecture

Agile Architecture shall structure Agile teams in a way that maps the system’s intentional architecture.

Conway’s law states: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.” The Inverse Conway Maneuver is about shaping the enterprise’s organization in a way that mirrors its intentional product and software architectures.

The interested reader can find a description of the Inverse Conway Maneuver in Chapter 1: “The Problem with Org Charts” of Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow [Skelton 2019].

It is also important to note that neither the enterprise’s organization, nor its product and software architectures remain static, and success in implementing this axiom relies on the co-evolution of both over time.

Axiom 13. Organizational Leveling

Organizations shall be described at different granularity levels:

  • Group level, which refers to economic entities formed of a set of companies or public agencies which are either controlled by the same entity, or the controlling entity itself

  • Entity level, which refers to an enterprise, a business unit of an enterprise, a governmental body, or state agency

  • Team of teams, which refers to large organizational units that capture at scale the traits of agility normally limited to small teams [McChrystal 2015]

  • Agile teams, the size of which do not exceed 10 to 12 members

Axiom 14. Bias for Change

Agile Architecture shall welcome changing requirements, even late in development. The architecture model is a living artifact that evolves and is continuously refined as requirements evolve and the organization learns.

Though BDUF is an Agile anti-pattern, does it mean architecture should solely be a product from emergence? As James Coplien argues [Coplien 2010], some intentional architecture saves waste and accelerates the decision process.

Agile Architecture shall seek a balance between intentional and emerging. Intentional architecture provides value if it is done differently. Intentional architecture represents a set of assumptions that must be verified. It should not slow down the integration of new requirements.

Axiom 15. Project to Product Shift

A true Agile team does not deliver a project but a product. Product-centricity shall drive the Agile organization: “Moving from project-oriented management to product-oriented management is critical for connecting software delivery to the business” [Kersten 2018]. The product-based focus helps to create stable Agile teams that have an end-to-end perspective and are staffed with stable resources.

In an Agile context, product-centricity refers to the shift from temporary organizational structures (projects) to permanent ones. A product-centric organization is composed of cross-functional Agile teams which are responsible for developing products and operating them. The DevOps principle “you build it, you run it” is core to product-centricity.

Axiom 16. Secure by Design

Agile Architecture shall create an environment that helps developers to build security into their design and codebase from the start. The Agile enterprise will shift from DevOps to DevSecOps, where security is embedded at every stage of the software delivery lifecycle.

A full discussion of this topic is available in the O-AA Security Playbook 2021.