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IT just isn’t that into you

August 5, 2012

Many projects have spectacular visions, detailed and reasonable 5-year-out expense/revenue projections and strong EBIDTA potential.  They rely on new innovative systems and processes to deliver value to the customer.  So why, after all this time, do so many systems projects fail, particularly those requiring timely innovation?

The literature talks about aligning business and IT.  Of course, this truism has been stated for decades and nothing much has changed in terms of fixing the historical 40+% project failure rate applicable even to this day.  We track Red/Amber/Green, publish weekly, biweekly and monthly project progress reports, each crafted to blame the other participants.  As they used to say in the Soviet Union about visible failures, “we execute the innocent, grant medals to Party members and declare another victory for the motherland”.

Joint IT – Business projects fail because of two factors:

1 – The Plate Tectonics issue

2 – You’ve annoyed IT to the point where they could care less if you succeed as long as they cannot be blamed and can outlast you.

The Plate Tectonics issue

Wikipedia defines Plate Tectonics as how the Earth’s crust is broken up into moving mega-islands, called plates, each moving annually at a distance ranging from zero to about as long as a nail grows. When plates moving at different speeds brush up against each other, one plate might submerge under the other, or mountains form, volcanos erupt or worst case, they suddenly release energy called an earthquake. Basically, the plate collision outcomes sound eerily similar to the range of emotions in a typical IT-Business project review meeting.

Many IT organizations work on a 10 year application lifespan assumption, with functional maturity occurring around 3 years after go-live.  Some applications even survive for 30 years or more, with most large organizations having at least a few IBM 360 era applications still purring along, the developers having long since retired. Given long application lifespans, dates are generally seen as being ‘best effort targets’ by IT, while the business sees them as commitments.  IT also tends to develop applications without very much business context, building exactly as was specified and agreed to with the Users.

Another reality on 2012 Corporate IT is staffing at bare bones levels, where new applications have to be built by an already stressed staff supporting an entire portfolio of existing applications.  No wonder then, a major topic in any IT project meeting is setting and balancing priorities to fit new launches around predefined new release dates.

In an effort to become more fluid, many IT organizations have tried to adopt ‘agile’ methodologies, which have turned out to be a disaster for any application project with some degree of functional complexity.  It is not uncommon to encounter (in our project rescue practice) Agile projects a year or more behind schedule and 400% over the original business case cost estimates. Given their proven results with Waterfall (sequential) development methodologies, IT organizations have evolved resilient, largely sequentially focused cultures, control systems and processes, and tend to hire (and retain) people who fit into this structure. If, as a business person, you think this is axiomatically a bad thing, realize how reliable most of the largest computer applications you work with every day have become. IT has worked very hard to evolve from finicky to utility, i.e. something you expect to see and use when you plug into the wall socket. Most internal IT organizations just aren’t very good where rapid continuous innovation is required.

Plate tectonics is now a very common issue because business has now become so fast paced, 10 years is like 7 lifetimes.  Business can be measured in dog years and expect their technology vendors to follow suit.  While IT is planning out years, the leading SaaS vendors we deal with everyday release new minor functionality and fixes weekly, with major releases 3 times a year.  Even exceedingly complex applications vendors,  such as those selling Policy Administration Systems (an insurer’s core application for staying in business), now have a 12-18 month new  major release cycle including a lot of new functionality, and a 36-48 month complete redesign cycle (from whiteboarding onward) to take advantage of the latest architectural and system concepts.  IT professionals, still thinking in 10-year segments, are colliding daily with their business counterparts thinking in 10-month timespans; cue the sound of tectonics plates colliding.

What can we do to fix this?  Move it all to some country with lower salaries and throw thousands of bright people against it?  Tried that – the savings proved illusory. Have people spread-out throughout the country in cheaper locations?  Ever tried to hire a top graduate from a good Comp Sci program, telling them you’ll relo them to some out of the way place without a strong innovation community to hang around?  Live meetings and chats between employees cannot replace talking about their passions over coffee after hours. Outsource it to a big vendor who can do an ‘outsource in place’ (take over your IT staff and data centers, running it with their seeming efficiency)?  I worked with AT&T, watching as they outsourced their hardware to IBM (seemed logical at the time), and their applications and support staffs to CSC (seemed cheap at the time). The resulting gridlock was fatal within 3 years.

The answer is to transform your IT culture from Utility to Vendor.  Vendors have a vision of the market, move in synchronicity to their customers, or are consistently ahead of them and the market.  They simultaneously support today’s applications while working on cool new things.  They’re exciting places to work. You buy from a vendor because they have already solved your problem/need and you respect them for it.  Honestly, only about 50 – 70% of your IT staff will make the transition, but in the end, your IT groups will be faster paced and better aligned to the business.  How long does this take?  In our experience, about a year of intensive training, reinforcing and mentoring, and the remaining personnel will be hard-charging and innovative.

You’ve ticked off IT to the point where they submerge themselves CYA activities

Ever witness a conversation where two people are having an intelligent and heated discussion and where English is both not their native tongue and is the only common language between them?  That’s typically how IT and business people communicate.  Business people are tuned in to their markets and potential customers.  They understand the timing and the necessity for first mover advantage.  In these fluid situations, competitors and ‘table-stakes functionality’ evolve weekly, if not at times, daily.  IT is given a series of seemingly moving targets as specifications; any one of which could have serious architectural, solution – topology or security implications.  Often, during review meetings, business people brainstorm new features, giving IT the impression the business has not quite thought this all through.  Remember – if IT lives largely in a waterfall (sequential) comfort zone, twists and turns are seen as risks, issues and threats.  This is why many IT groups have intermediaries who translate business needs to IT process steps, which is a valuable function as long as the person in this job sees the need for hitting your specifically required dates and function points, rather than trying to explain, and then re-explain,  their internal sequential processes to the business.  Ultimately, the business gets frustrated seeing their market and business plans put at risk, shouting erupts and CYA behavior sets in, forcing a reversion to stiff process adherence on all sides.

This is not a new story in the human drama.  My father tells the story of how being in charge of the engine room on a WWII Destroyer Escort, he once received so many commands to go fast, go slow, go fast again, go slow again, that out of frustration, he rang up the Bridge and said something to the effect he was 6 commands behind them due to the real-world of the machinery, and could they give him time to catch up before they sent him new commands or stick with the same speed for a few minutes?

The answer to this dilemma is simple – deceptively simple.  Treat IT staff as people, who need context and an understanding of why your priorities are not based on ego, pushiness or arrogance.  Make them believe in your issue.  Make them want you to succeed and not fall into the CYA sinkhole.

How to make these two major tectonic plates move at the same speed and form one great continent?  Help transform IT into your well respected vendor and have IT treat you as their customer.  Easily said, not easily done, but doable.

Richard Eichen is the Founder and Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program Rescue and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT/Systems Integration and key initiatives. Return on Efficiency, LLC specializes in those companies and initiatives where technology is the primary means of service delivery and revenue creation.  He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com

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