The Optimistically Critical Architect


Adam D. Bonanno (

March 2008

Summary: The author asks that you, as architect, promote optimistic critical thinking in your organization. (2 printed pages)


Being Optimistically Critical
Being the Architect


Can a person be considered both an optimist and a critic? To me, the answer is clearly "yes." Yet, I know, many people would disagree. When I think of a critic, I think of someone who offers reasoned objective judgment. A critic, just like anyone else, can have good or bad intentions. Some critics might enjoy finding fault and observing a pessimistic view of the world; but, for the most part, I don't believe that this is the case. I believe that most critics want to help leaders understand risks and prevent failure.

Being Optimistically Critical

As Max De Pree states in his book Leadership Is an Art, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality." Critics help to perform this reality check. A person who is both an optimist (someone who tends to feel hopeful and positive about the future) and a critic would offer reasoned judgment and expect a positive outcome from this judgment.

I believe that these traits of optimism and criticality are essential for architects and other technical leaders in IT and other businesses. Optimism—expecting the best—is an easy trait to praise. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that critical thinking is undervalued and, in some instances, detested by leaders.

You will hear people say that criticality stifles innovation and de-motivates a team. I disagree. Being critical, particularly of the way in which things have always been done, actually fosters innovation. If we don't question why we do what we do, we will not change. Identification of the obstacles to success is not what de-motivates a team. What de-motivates a team is their being provided inadequate recourses to overcome known obstacles.

Being the Architect

Optimism comes easily to me; being critical is something that experience has taught me. To optimists without experience, every plan, design, and schedule looks great. They have nothing to compare against—no measuring stick of experience—so they assume that everything is as it should be.

I think that most people with whom I have worked would agree that I have a positive outlook. That all seemed to change when I became "the Architect." Architects must ask questions (a lot of questions) to gain an understanding of a system and its components. I have found that questions often lead to a perception of hostility, pessimism, and excessive criticality. No matter how much I try to show neutrality, empathy, and reason, some people inevitably will focus only on the negative aspects of being critiqued, and they take it personally. I have quickly come to learn that questioning with sensitivity and being optimistically critical are skills that are required to have an extended career as an architect.

Criticality is needed to perform the basic function of a technical leader; sensitivity is needed to help communicate critiques; optimism is needed to succeed and just remain sane. There are times when silence is prudent; but, in general, we as architects must communicate our views, both good and bad, or we add no value. We must communicate our views—sensitively, whenever possible; bluntly, when necessary; and harshly, never.


There are four key observations with which I'd like to leave you. They might be obvious, but I find value in repeating them:

1.      Being sensitive and kind doesn't move us forward, but it makes the journey more pleasant.

"I always prefer to believe the best of everybody; it saves so much trouble." –Rudyard Kipling

2.      Being critical doesn't move us forward, but it does help guide our steps.

"Large skepticism leads to large understanding. Small skepticism leads to small understanding. No skepticism leads to no understanding." –Xi Zhi

3.      Being optimistic doesn't move us forward, but it motivates us to take the first and subsequent steps.

"Every strike brings me closer to the next home run." –Babe Ruth

4.      It is the actions of people that move us.

"When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals; adjust the action steps." –Confucius

I ask you to take action and promote optimistic critical thinking in your organization.


This article was published in Skyscrapr, an online resource provided by Microsoft. To learn more about architecture and the architectural perspective, please visit