//Enterprise Architecture as Story

Enterprise Architecture as Story

One of the most compelling things that an EA can do is frame the vision of a better future as a story.  I’ve found this to be true many times, and others have discovered this as well, but it is not frequently discussed among architects.  I’d like to bring together some of these threads and talk about three things: a) the effectiveness of story, b) how to create a story, and c) whether you need more than one story.

The Effectiveness of Story

Enterprise Architecture is about change.  If nothing is changing, the value of EA is fairly low.  That said, very few organizations, public or private, are in a stable state these days.  Change is everywhere.  But change is not easy.

imageYour stakeholders need change, but they may not want it.  In some cases, they want the change, but their peers are not asking for change.  Either way, getting change to happen in an organization requires a touchstone – some common belief or idea that everyone can relate to.  It has to be more than a fact, and more emotive than a strategy.  It has to be compelling, interesting, surprising, and easy to remember.  In the words of Chip and Dan Heath, this central idea has to be “made to stick.” 

In my experience, every time an organization changed, there was a story at the heart of the change.  In each case, there was a single story that helped people to see how the change would happen, or helped to see how the customer would be happier, or helped to illustrate how the new world would work. 

Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business ExecutionIn the book, “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy,” Jeanne Ross described the concept of a “core diagram” which was a single image that people rallied around.  I’ve spoken about core diagrams before, and have suggested a way to create a core diagram that reflects an optimally agile organization.  However, the core diagram is only part of the story.

The story itself is what makes change possible.  The story itself is the touchstone – the “shared memory” that everyone recalls when the topic of change is discussed. 

Truly effective leaders understand this.  Steve Jobs would often use stories to get audiences (internal and external) to see the value of what he was doing.  Bill Gates, having shifted to health and education issues, still uses stories to communicate and connect.  The most effective political speeches, and most rousing situations, are always connected to a story.  At the time of this writing, Nelson Mandela recently passed away.  What are people remembering?  They are remembering his story.  They are also remembering how he used stories, as well as principles and a dedication to action, to create change. 

Successful change requires more than a story.  You also need to have a vision of what the destination of your change is.  But you cannot get to that destination unless people move, and people won’t move without an emotional connection to that destination.  Stories are necessary, but not sufficient.  Stories are the connection, not the destination… but you need both to survive.

How to Create a Story

Storytelling is an old craft, but business storytelling is fairly recent.  There are many things to consider, and it can take a while to figure out all the steps.  In general, I suggest that change agents should focus on four areas:

  1. Focus first on the Content: Why do you want to change?  What must change?  How will the change occur?  What if the change happens (and what if it doesn’t)? 
  2. Focus second on the Audience: Who must change and in what way?  Who do they listen to?  How do these folks learn?  How do they make decisions?  If you don’t know who you are telling the story to, you are reducing the odds of success.
  3. Focus third on the story elements themselves: What is the structure of your story? Who are the characters of your story?  What drives them to move forward in the story?  And, very important, how will you tell the story to the audience?  Will you use videos?  Will you use a PowerPoint presentation?  Will you have people enact the characters?  Will you rely on signs and posters?  You have to think about all of these elements.
  4. Focus fourth on the Design of the story and the Testing of the story.  Design is critical and important, but as you can see, we don’t jump into design first.  We first understand the story we want to tell.  We go to design late in the process, only after we’ve thought about the problem we are solving, the people we are trying to change, and the elements of story.  But even minor mistakes in design can create unnecessary distractions from your story. 

    How do you find the mistakes?  Test, Test, Test, Test, Test.  You wouldn’t “ship” a software product without testing it, right?  (unless you are the Center for Medicare and Medicaid :-).  So why would you “ship” a story without testing it.  This means rehearsal, delivery to friendly audiences, feedback from peers and the friends of your stakeholders, etc.  Any way that you can get good ideas about how well your story is connecting.

I use a simple mnemonic to remember these four steps: C-A-S-T.  Content- Audience- Story- Tell.

image In all fairness, this is a simple blog post, and the topic is a bit bigger than can be placed here.  Big enough, in fact, for a good book.  If you want to actually create a story, I’d recommend readers to pick up a copy of my book from Amazon or your local bookstore: Stories That Move Mountains.  It is a visually striking book (thanks to Mark West) that tells the story of storytelling for business change. 

Note that the book is available in multiple languages, so check out your local bookstore.  (I shared a copy with one of my friends, and my wife picked up the Italian edition off my bookshelf to hand to him.  We all got a good laugh out of that).

How Many Stories D
o You Need?

In telling a story of Enterprise Architecture, you may need more than one story.  You may need a story for the IT folks, and another story for your business stakeholders (especially for heavily technical stories like you’d find with BI or SOA initiatives). 

For each story, you will go through the process above, and in each, you would consider the audience.  But for the sake of this blog, I’d suggest that an Enterprise Architecture story needs to consider each of the changes being suggested.  Typically EA impacts each of the BAIT areas, but you probably only need two or three stories: one to tell about the IT changes and one or two stories for business stakeholders (a low-level story for impacts to business processes, and a high-level story illustrating alignment and customer centricity).


I don’t have any better advice to give to an Enterprise Architect seeking to increase his or her level of impact and influence than this: learn to tell effective stories.  The story never stars the Enterprise Architect.  At best, you are the helper, the assistant.  You are not Frodo, but Samwise (or Gandalf).  But the story compels the mind, and engages the heart.  The story holds the vision and makes it easy to communicate.  Wrap your vision in a story.  It is not a promise of success, but it helps. 

By |2013-12-11T21:26:14+00:00December 11th, 2013|Enterprise Architecture|7 Comments

About the Author:

President of Vanguard EA, an Enterprise Architecture consulting firm in Seattle focused on the Pacific coast of the US. Nick has over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".


  1. Alan Chapman December 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Thought provoking as always Nick.  

    Of these things the biggest issue I have encountered is not working hard enough on understanding the stakeholders and their agendas.  Any time a significant piece of work has come unstuck it has almost always been because not enough thought has gone into who is impacted by the change, who might have competing agendas to the proposed change and, who can influence the key decision makers (directly and indirectly).  No matter how good your story is, if you don't find a way to influence or negate competing agendas you won't get the outcome you strive so hard to achieve.

  2. NickMalik December 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    I completely agree, Alan.  Managing the shifting perceptions of the proposed change, not just prior to the program, but while the program is proceeding, is essential to success.  A story gets you buy-in and provides a reasonable way to remember the change, but it won't prevent someone from taking aim at the change when it works against their self interests.  

  3. Tiago Silva December 13, 2013 at 5:55 am - Reply

    I really like this post.

    At first, I read it a bit like "be a salesman, but don't try to go sell ice to eskimos", but there is much more than that, of course.

    I feel there are very strong points in your article. I would just emphasize that one should always try to create a bridge between the story you tell and the attendance reality, so that they can perceive the added value for themselves. In a way, that is also why you may need different stories, because the value you deliver will be different for different audiences.

  4. Peter Bakker December 14, 2013 at 12:25 am - Reply

    Hello Nick,

    Good points but too bad that you don't say anything about the setting or place of a story, the story element that binds all stakeholders: mapbakery.tumblr.com/…/the-value-of-mapping-consensus-design-click-on 🙂

  5. NickMalik December 15, 2013 at 12:14 am - Reply

    Peter, I'm honored that you dropped by.  Love your work.  The book discusses setting, and it is important.  However, I'm not sure I would go so far as to say that the setting is "the" story element that binds all stakeholders.  When you listen to some of the presentations by Steve Jobs, setting is incidental.  The motivation of the characters is not.  That said, in my own personal stories, I have always felt the need to be clear about the setting, because I feel like *some* of the stakeholders will have an easier time visualizing the story if I provide a well framed setting.

  6. NickMalik December 15, 2013 at 12:19 am - Reply

    HI Tiago,

    The story IS the bridge between the architectural vision and the audience's reality.  If there is a need for a bridge between the story and the audience, your story has failed.  If they cannot perceive the added value of your vision by hearing your story, create a different story.  

    And, yes, different audiences are quite likely to need different stories.  This is a function of their position with respect to the change, their learning and decision styles, and the concerns that they have in making the change "come true."  

    — N

  7. Adrian Grigoriu December 19, 2013 at 12:39 am - Reply

    To me the question is, are we going back on "A picture says a thousand words"?

    See the whole comment at http://www.ebizq.net/…/is-enterprise-architecture-a-story.php

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