By Ross Pettit - 24 Febuary 2009
All businesses are undergoing unprecedented changes. Revenue forecasts aren’t materializing, capital structures are proving unsustainable, and operations are being scrutinized for inefficiencies. This, in turn, means that businesses are being completely restructured in how they are capitalized, organized, managed and governed. As businesses restructure, so will IT.
As we face restructure, we have to look critically at our IT lifestyle. We know that if we eat a poor diet and don’t exercise, we run a greater risk of health problems than if we eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. The same applies to IT: if our work habits lack discipline, we’re going to have health problems that, in turn, put business operations at risk equivalent to heart disease or diabetes.
Agile and Lean offer IT a healthy lifestyle choice: disciplined execution of a set of best practices give greater focus, consistency and transparency to operations than we get from traditional approaches to IT. Experience in a variety of business domains tells us that we can expect significant impact by taking on Agile practices: we will reduce the probability of a catastrophic failure, defects will decline substantially, delivery times will accelerate, and the business value of what we deliver will increase.
But restructuring to be an Agile / Lean IT organization is not something that happens by management fiat. Agile IT requires that each person embrace fundamental principles that value the business problem at hand as opposed to the technical problems we concoct. This requires behavioral changes that run counter to decades of training, messaging and mentoring embedded in the IT profession. In fact, it goes to the heart of the oft-cited gap between business and IT: day-to-day IT activity is often fundamentally misguided, as people are busy solving the wrong problems. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people in IT to subserviate a very real business need to go in pursuit of speculative technological “future-proofing.”
Given the urgent need to restructure, this behavioural gap presents IT leaders with a significant challenge.
First, restructuring takes a lot of effort. If restructuring IT requires changes to fundamental work habits, we must not underestimate the amount of effort that will be needed to bring this change about. Bridging the gap between “how we work today” and “the results we must achieve given the reality we face” is not simply an exercise in tools and training. It requires a concerted effort to change the behaviours that underlie how work is done: how requirements are defined, solutions are developed, teams are organized and managed and IT is governed. This comes about through experience. Change happens within each team and department as people gain proficiency with new work habits while delivering, supporting, and maintaining solutions.
Second, IT can't shut-down while it restructures; it must be restructured while delivery work is in full flight. That means the restructuring effort itself will be subjected to change and adaptation. This makes restructuring a moving target, which both blurs the vision of the target state and wears down people’s patience and energy for the change.
Significant organizational effort spent in pursuit of a moving target will put the change leader in a constant state of conflict. On the one hand, he or she risks managing to a compromise, where long-term sustainability is sacrificed for short-term "results" (often, ironically, in the name of pragmatism). For example, a project team may elect not to introduce unit testing because the effort is believed to be too great and the business need too urgent. The team may write code faster initially, but it will prove to be a false efficiency as defects rise and time spent refactoring obliterate any gains. On the other hand, the change leader must not be dogmatic. An IT organization doesn’t exist so that it can be Lean, it exists so it can deliver business results. Too great of emphasis on process – insisting on 100% unit test coverage, for example, just for sake of having high unit test coverage – risks prioritizing process in favor of results.
Most of the challenges the change leader will face during in-flight restructuring come down to a simple, if not always obvious, test: are we reconciling the reorganization to the business demands or reconciling the reorganization to old work habits? The prior part of the test helps us be sure that dogma doesn’t trump results. The latter tells us that we must not compromise in the name of making everybody happy.
To make this decision consistently, even when the goalposts are moving, change leaders must have a clear understanding of both the business need and the goals of the restructuring. By keeping the business outcomes such as reduction of defects or accelerated time to delivery the clear priority, we bring unambiguous focus to the change effort. And that focus is critical. Every day, change will be challenged by all kinds of things: distracting and counter-productive technical objectives (e.g., “we need to solve every possible problem we may have in this and any future application that requires session management”), irrelevant, non-value-added IT practices (e.g., "we've always required effort-remaining project status reports"), and individual motivations that run counter to change (such as job preservation or people's "stationary inertia" at work). In-flight operations restructuring requires intense, unrelenting effort to swim against the tide of “how things have always been done here.” The change leader must have a clear vision for operations that is flexible to business demand but uncompromising to IT convenience if there is to be a real, durable restructuring.
The change leader must always be clear that the goal of restructuring is to have the organization executing in such a way that it sustainably yields better performance. To be sustainable, we don't just need solutions to report improved technical measures, we need to work in such a way that day-to-day project decisions do no harm, much like decisions we take in our personal lifestyles. For example, we can send code to the "technical clinic" for IT liposuction, where we invest time into remediating tight coupling, dependencies and complexity so that a team has a clean code base, free of technical debt. However, just as the stomach-stapled person may resume bad dietary habits and regain weight, so will the IT team with the remediated code base resume bad habits. This means that IT leaders must insist on a constant, independent validation that restructuring has taken root. One way to do this is to regularly scorecard team performance to scrutinize execution. Another is to make sure that organizational structures – incentives and rewards, recruiting and promotion, governance and oversight – reinforce the Agile value system. If these things are done, old habits are unlikely to return.
The pressure has never been greater on IT. Business is asking, “what are you doing for me this quarter” with increasing anticipation and scrutiny. The best guarantee that IT operations can adequately and professionally answer this question is to execute in a transparent, consistent and disciplined manner. In an uncertain business world, that’s the best form of “futureproofing” IT can pursue.
About Ross Pettit: Ross has over 15 years' experience as a developer, project manager, and program manager working on enterprise applications. A former COO, Managing Director, and CTO, he also brings extensive experience managing distributed development operations and global consulting companies. His industry background includes investment and retail banking, insurance, manufacturing, distribution, media, utilities, market research and government. He has most recently consulted to global financial services and media companies on transformation programs, with an emphasis on metrics and measurement. Ross is a frequent speaker and active blogger on topics of IT management, governance and innovation. He is also the editor of alphaITjournal.com.