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Technology Guiding Principles For Better Decisions

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Lighthouse to illustrate technology guiding principles

We have already discussed technology guardrails and their general value in driving better technology decisions and business outcomes. Guiding principles are the broadest of the technology guardrails we recommend and the ones we recommend you tackle first.

There are a few reasons we recommend them first.

  1. They take the least amount of work to create. This is for many reasons, but two key ones are: (1) you only need and want a few of them, and (2) they are usually created by a smaller group of people than many of the others.
  2. They provide the most comprehensive coverage of all the guardrails. Therefore they have the potential to solve more problems than the others. The broad scope also means they create a safety net – even as you move forward to create more specific guardrails, principles will catch topics you have not yet addressed.
  3. They are foundational to all the other guardrails. Any other guardrail you create should comply with the guiding principles. You should at least discussed each guardrail against the guiding principles, as there are times you will decide not to align with a guiding principle (but more about that later).

Guiding Principles

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a Guiding Principle as

an idea that influences you very much when making a decision or considering a matter

Cambridge Dictionary

Guiding principles are a set of fundamental values that establish a framework for expected behavior and decision-making. They create a company culture where everyone understands what's important.

Here's an example of a Guiding Principle:

Keep it simple.

It is succinct, assertive, easy to understand, and provides general (and not specific) guidance. It gives you something to think about before you make a decision.

The correct Technology Guiding Principles reflect and support an organization's vision, mission, and strategic intent. They form a basis for decision-making when more specific guidance (like policies, standards, and non-functional requirements) is unavailable.

Why Do You Need Them?

People making technology decisions (old school style)!

Technology isn't about technology; it is about people. You deploy technology to support people. People make the decisions that will create your technology direction and result in the business outcomes supported by that technology.

Any technology architecture traces back through a series of technology decisions made by people. Technology Guiding Principles provide information and guidance that influences the people making those technology decisions.

Technology Guiding Principles serve two roles in guiding decision making.

They guide decisions. The six principles each provide direction for a technology decision. For example, “Put the Customer First” ensures that end customers are always a key driver for every technology decision.
They structure decision analysis. Together the six principles provide six dimensions on which to weigh options when making a technology decision.

If defined correctly and communicated comprehensively, they offer a host of benefits:

Technology decisions align better with the company mission and technology strategy
Technology decision making is faster and more consistent
Technology decisions better leverage the organization's technology strengths and core competencies

Best Practices for Technology Guiding Principles

While the effort involved may be less than creating many other types of guardrails, writing sound technology guiding principles isn't trivial. Since they lay the foundation for the other types of technology guardrails, it is essential to get them right. Best-practice guiding principles are:

Assertive

Guiding principles should be bold and offer no alternative. There is no “if” in guiding principles… if not risky, if not expensive, etc. A guiding principle asserts a truth and requires that all behaviors and decisions comply. The “ifs” come later when you choose to make an exception instead of complying with the principle. You never let guiding principles force you to do something stupid, but not following a principle needs to be willful non-compliance done for a good reason

Understandable

Guiding principles will not be effective if the people you are trying to influence don't understand them. The intent of each principle should be clear and unambiguous. State each principle using terms known to the audience

Comprehensive

The key to broad coverage is, well, providing broad coverage. Your set of principles should drive the behaviors you are trying to promote as widely as possible. A good test can be to review the principles against historical decisions (both good and bad) and determine if they would have helped achieve the desired outcome.

Enduring

Since they are overarching, guiding principles shouldn't have to be changed often. If you need to change them frequently then either the focus is too granular (and the guidance it is attempting to provide is better served by a more detailed guardrail), or your technology direction is shifting too frequently and you should stabilize it. While agility enables rapid response to external forces, lack of commitment to a strategy makes it difficult to progress.

Contextual

Guiding principles are focused on influencing decisions in a domain. In this case, the context is technology. The context is also your organization. Paying attention to the context will also help you write guiding principles that are specific enough.

All those apply to guiding principles of all shapes and sizes. Since we are focused here on technology guiding principles, it is also crucial that they drive technology decisions. That is the entire point of having them. Do the principles reflect the technology direction of the organization? Do they support the business strategy? Review each proposed principle and apply it to some recent good and bad technology decisions. Would it have helped make the right decision?

Technology Guiding Principle Format

We have seen guiding principles captured in many different ways. For example, the Open Group™ provides a formal approach for establishing and stating Architecture Principles. While detailed analysis and rationale can be essential in determining principles, technology guiding principles must be understandable to the audience to be effective, and our audience for these principles is everyone!

Sample Principle

Since the objective here is that people always have the principles in mind when making technology decisions, they need to be clear and memorable. We recommend that the final list of principles you publish be short (6 or less) as not to challenge anyone's memory. The language of each principle should assert the desired behavior clearly and concisely using a short verb phrase, like:

Keep it simple.

Then provide a few sentences of detail to capture the implications of the behavior:

Implement on a minimum set of technologies and infrastructure. Do what is commonly done. Buy and integrate technology solutions as-is. Build or configure only for a differentiated member experience.

Journey Onward!

Getting started with guiding principles is simple. Just write some down, debate them until they are good enough, and publish. Of course, there is a little more than that – understanding what will best support the business strategy and technology direction to name a few – but it isn't rocket science. While they should be enduring, changing them when you realize later you have better options isn't the end of the world (unless you have already stocked a warehouse with principles T-shirts, hats, and mousepads). The heavy lifting for technology guiding principles is the training and change management to make them a part of our culture (see also T-shirts, hats, and mousepads).

Warehouse Boxes of Technology Guiding Principles Swag
Everyone loves Principles swag!

In my digital travels, I stumbled across this article from 2016 of 101 Enterprise Architecture Principles. While they don't follow our recommended format, they cover a broad scope of potential topics and may help you get your creative juices flowing.

So, if you don't have them yet – just do it. In the meantime, if you want help driving better technology decision outcomes or if you'd like us to help you whip up some principles, please contact us!

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