Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect: Midwives versus doctors

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series confessions
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Bjørn Furuknap you have gone too far this time! There I said it.

On behalf of the SharePoint community, I feel that someone needs to speak up about your reprehensible behaviour, so I have taken it upon myself to right the wrongs that you so needlessly inflicted onto the community. You see, Bjørn has gone and written a non controversial post on the confused role of the SharePoint architect. I am extremely concerned about this abrupt change of behaviour and worry about the example he is setting for the young and impressionable members of the SharePoint community. If Bjørn keeps going down this rational road, then he will make the rest of us look irrational and tip the delicate balance of the SharePoint blogging ecosystem into unknown territory. In other words, we will lose the excuse of “Well, at least I’m not as nuts as Furuknap!”

That said, I have been meaning to write about insights from my life as a (post) SharePoint architect anyway. I have a few of my own lessons learnt and Bjorn has inspired me to finally get a few written down. So in this preamble post, and in a forthcoming series on common SharePoint governance mistakes, I will give you a dose of the opinionated world according to Paul, but I will back it up with some juicy references that you can check out for yourself if you are that way inclined.

Why (post) SharePoint Architect?

You might be wondering why I referred to myself as a “post” SharePoint architect. Unfortunately its hard to answer this question without sounding self-indulgent so I will keep it brief.

In 2007, I got my first non IT gig in a highly complex urban planning project. I had no contribution to make in terms of technical or discipline knowledge to this project at all. My job was to enable others to develop a shared understanding on a highly complex problem they all faced, to enable shared commitment to a course of action. Since that time, this non IT side of my work has continued to grow in terms of number of clients and the scale of the problems being tackled. Like any skill, I have gotten better with practice, which in turn has led to larger and more complex scenarios.

This year in particular, I’ve helped the executive teams of several large organisations re-find their purpose, realign their strategy and make some very difficult and courageous decisions in redesigning their organisations. Just to be clear, we are not talking SharePoint and we are not talking IT. I am talking about how these organisations adapt to changing conditions that, in some cases, affect their very existence. These organisations span the public and private sector across Australia.

From a SharePoint perspective, you could say I have moved from the server room to the meeting room and now to the boardroom. In spite of my self-indulgence warning earlier, you have to admit – this is damn cool!

Who’s misunderstood anyway?

So with that little preamble done, let me return to Bjørn’s post. He feels the SharePoint architect role is misunderstood and I agree with this, but in a different way. I feel the core issue is that SharePoint architects themselves are often the ones who misunderstand what they need to do and how they should go about it. This in turn manifests in the rest of the world not understanding what they ought to be doing.

To elaborate on this contention, let’s meet the four most common SharePoint architect stereotypes that I see in organisations:

The SharePoint architect who used to be a developer

This stereotype comes in two flavours. The alpha developer who had attained top dog status among peers via bluffed programming prowess, or the developer who always struggled and finds that this is a way to get out of hands on coding. Either way, this person still lives through the SharePoint object model. They will focus on ensuring that there are unit tests, solid source control and solutions packaging regime. Utilising the object oriented view means that metadata is king and folders are to be despised. They will not think twice about utilising content types in any situation because it is completely obvious that you would work this way. Their information architecture will be a work of art, and they are not shy in telling everyone so. To sum up, their SharePoint solutions will be logical, well coded to defined standards and completely useless to users.

The SharePoint architect who used to be an infrastructure guy

This stereotype tends to bewilder clients and colleagues alike with a seemingly endless set of options and considerations that need to be made up front. It is likely this architect will introduce SharePoint via the pie/frisbee diagrams, but discussions will focus on architecting for scalability, security and fault tolerance. This architect will likely mandate strict governance rules on those cowboy developers, untrustworthy site admins, and downright scary users to ensure that the environment remains pristine. Accordingly, SharePoint Designer will be outlawed – it’s so obvious that one shouldn’t even be asking why. Any burden imposed by these governance rules will be seen as a necessary evil and will be addressed by mandatory user training and besides, the next SharePoint version will definitely address the gaps. Their solutions will be scalable, architecturally sound and completely useless to users.

The SharePoint architect who thinks they are an enterprise architect

This stereotype – despite their obvious protests to the contrary – is the right brained equivalent of the infrastructure guy. This person absolutely gets off on making models because conceptual reality does not involve making any actual commitments. In fact as soon as there is any push to a commitment, they feel an irrepressible urge to resist and push everyone back into make-believe world. Over-utilising the line “Oh, I am business you see, not technical” as if it’s a sign of maturity, they will plan, plan and plan again, drawing many cool diagrams on whiteboards but never a task on a Gantt chart. The models they come up with are abstract, over-engineered and they always fall deeply in love with them. They won’t let anybody touch their models for fear of their abstract thing of beauty being messed with. The irony is that the basis for their models will actually be underpinned by some solid theoretical frameworks. Unfortunately, this person actually doesn’t understand them in any depth, but the terms used sound really cool. Their solutions will be … Wait, who am I kidding? They won’t have any solutions because they plan forever…

The SharePoint project manager who thinks they are an architect

This stereotype is arguably the most dangerous of the lot because they are driven by the need to “Get Things Done Now!” whether those “Things” make sense or not. Consequently, they jump into solution mode without a full understanding of the real problem the business is facing. Scope documents, plans, schedules and Gantt Charts abound, but the chances are that all these are geared towards solving the wrong problem. Talking to annoying stakeholders just gets in the way of the scope statement and besides, that’s what Business Analysts are put on this earth to do anyway. Their solutions will be built to time and cost, but completely useless to users.

“Let’s drill halfway…”

Bjørn also spoke of architects needing breadth of knowledge over depth of knowledge. This is completely true, but is not the full story. You see, there is a common bad habit that our stereotype architects often make; a bad habit that is in common with many other consultants who end up doing damage to organisations.

Irrespective of their breadth of knowledge or otherwise, these architects act like doctors prescribing remedies. They breeze into organisations, making sweeping statements that contain cool sounding maxims like “business value.” Then, using their clearly superior intellect based on years of experience and that cherished breadth of knowledge, they assess the organisational symptoms and prescribe the appropriate SharePoint medicine to address them.

I can hear it now… “Got an organisational headache? Just take this SharePoint content-type three times a day and see me if pain persists.”

I’m sure people can see the obvious problems with this approach (If you can’t then you are in the wrong business – seriously). One of the many issues is that organisational symptoms are often just visible manifestations of deeper underlying issues. The late, great Russell Ackoff once stated that you would not use brain surgery to cure a headache, despite the pain being felt in your head. Instead you would take a pill, even though there appears to be no direct relationship between the pill and the pain being experienced. Ackoff mused that organisations routinely use brain surgery for their headaches and tools like SharePoint are the blunt instrument of choice to do the drilling. Add to this, the technical complexity of SharePoint means that brain surgery has to happen in discrete phases.

“Okay guys we don’t have enough budget for this, so let’s drill halfway into the skull for phase 1.”

The SharePoint midwife…

SharePoint architects have to understand that the solutions they architect are actually not for them. “Gee Paul that’s profound,” I hear you say sarcastically. While this statement might sound obvious, why is it that many architects exhibit behaviours that contradict it?

If you want to know why this happens I suggest that you read part 1 of the Heretics book. But rather than rehash that here, let’s see what we can learn about problem solving from the insights of Horst Rittel and Ron Heifetz. In case you are wondering, no they are not SharePoint MVPs. Rittel coined the term “wicked problem” and is highly influential in various fields due to his early insights into complex problem solving. Heifetz is well known for his work on the theory and practice of adaptive leadership: how to mobilise people through what he termed adaptive change.

Note: If you have not heard of the term “wicked problem”, then go and read this old post of mine. It’s assumed knowledge here…

Rittel stated that when solving problems, nobody wants to be “planned at.” Additionally, the knowledge required to solve a complex (wicked) problem never resides with a single person. Instead, there is a symmetry of ignorance (I love that term). Rittel characterised symmetry of ignorance as situations “where both expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants and no-one ‘knows better’ by virtue of degrees or status.” Accordingly, the process of problem solving must involve those who are directly affected by the problem. These are the key stakeholders “living” the problem, rather than experts who “know” the problem theoretically. The aforementioned experts should guide the process of dealing with a wicked problem but not impose solutions. In Rittel’s words, the planner is the “midwife of problems rather than the offerer of therapies.” It is the group that must come up with the answers.

Ron Heifetz echoed Rittel in his advice to leaders. One key strategy of adaptive leadership is to give the work back. Heifetz warned that when a leader undertakes to solve a problem, the leader becomes the problem in the eyes of many stakeholders. The implication is that the leader also becomes the convenient scapegoat if the solution goes awry as blame can be attributed to the leader. Instead by placing work where it belongs—with employees responsible for doing the work—Heifetz argued that issues will be internalized and owned by the parties best placed to deal with them. The best solutions, he maintained, are when the people with the problem become the people with the solution.


Given what Rittel and Heifetz have to say, it should be little wonder that I feel SharePoint architects should not be doctors prescribing remedies. SharePoint is often an adaptive change because you are asking people to change their behaviours. Those architects (and management consultants) who act like doctors tend to find out fairly quickly that the solutions they so lovingly come up with do not always get traction. Therefore, as Rittel suggests, a SharePoint architect needs to be more of a midwife than a doctor. It’s the client who is giving birth to this thing and you are there to create the conditions for them to make that journey as stress free as one can. Who is the one who has to adapt and live with the result anyway? Certainly not the consultant.

For some, this comes at a cost to architect ego because architects often have to let go of their creations. An architect cannot revel in the glory of their masterpiece if those affected by it do not buy into it. It will have a crappy legacy no matter what the intent. In letting go, one has to accept that stakeholders will also have an incomplete world view and will make mistakes. Therefore as an architect, how about architecting not just the SharePoint platform, but architecting the conditions by which SharePoint is delivered.

An obvious condition is one of real collaboration among stakeholders (which when you think about it, is kind of important when putting in collaborative systems!) Another condition that should be there is one that allows people to fail forward. Assume that mistakes will be made, take away the blame and architect SharePoint to be resilient in the face of change instead of making it brittle. Create the environment conducive to co-creation by painting part of the picture and allow participants to fill it in. After all, the learning that occurs via the journey is often just as important as the result achieved.

My confession is that I often say to my SharePoint clients that it is inherently more efficient for me to transfer my knowledge of SharePoint to them, than for them to transfer their deep knowledge of their organisation to me. To do the latter would be highly inefficient for both my clients and me, and my clients would not have the same opportunity to build their own SharePoint competencies and adaptive capacity. At the end of the day, they architect a lot of the solutions. Sure… I might offer suggestions here and there, and I might nudge them when I feel they need to be nudged, but more often than not, I lay some core foundations and they are the ones who do a lot of the legwork.

So to conclude, while I agree with everything Bjørn said in his post, I think the real key to being a good SharePoint architect is to architect the conditions by which SharePoint is delivered, just as much as SharePoint itself. While being a midwife may not be as glamorous as being a doctor, the solutions delivered will have more staying power.


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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18 Responses to Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect: Midwives versus doctors

  1. Bjørn says:


    Good article, as always… I’m not saying you’re wrong in any way, but you’re not looking at the whole picture here.

    In fact, I think I’ll need to address your omissions in a new blog post,


  2. admin says:

    Like a red flag to a bull eh Bjørn? 🙂

  3. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect … | Mastering Sharepoint

  4. Kerri says:

    Excellent! Wave your red flag high Paul!

  5. Ken says:

    Great article Paul.

    Having done development, project management, and a number of other things on the IT side of the house for many years, I found your descriptions of the “X turned Architect” amusing, now I just have to hope that people find my solutions useful! 😀


  6. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Confessions of a SharePoint Architect part 2: Don’t define “governance”

  7. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Confessions of a (post) SharePoint architect: Do not penalise people for learning

  8. Américo Nascimento, @AJRNascimento says:

    Great article!
    As always, a must read! Thanks a lot.

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  11. Nancy says:

    “SharePoint Midwife” My new job title.

  12. Pingback: SharePoint Daily » Blog Archive » More Serious SharePoint Mistakes; Enterprise Network in the Azure Cloud; Windows 8 Review: The Desktop

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  14. Rob says:

    Excellent article. I like the “midwife” approach as it fits what I am trying to accomplish very well. I too shall call myself a “midwife” from now on!

  15. Pingback: A Wicked Problem Case Study « Ben McMann's Weblog

  16. Judy Price says:

    As always Paul, love your work! Im thinking I might change my current job title to Sharepoint midwife 😉

  17. admin says:

    Hi Judy

    Thanks for the feeback. I think I need to create the international association of SharePoint Midwives group on Linkedin 🙂



  18. There’s one more example that demonstrates the rest of the features that makes.

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