I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Case for Restructuring IT

Business is tough right now, and it’s going to be so for a while. In tough times, you want to be very good at what you do. The more “fighting fit” you are, the more likely you are to survive a challenge.

Unfortunately, IT isn’t all that good at what it does. In fact, on the whole, it’s pretty bad. That means that IT isn’t very well prepared for this downturn.

How bad is it? The research organizations have historically reported a pretty high failure rate of IT projects: about 30% of all IT projects fail outright, while another 30% disappoint their business sponsor (e.g., excessive cost, wrong functionality).1 On the whole, an IT investment has, at best, a 4 in 10 chance of success.

Companies are already reticent to invest in this climate. IT doesn't offer scared capital a safe haven.

It also suggests that IT is on a trajectory of self-destruction. If we want to look ahead to where IT is headed, we need look no further than present day Detroit.

Photo credit: Ben Wojdyla, The Ruins of Detroit Industry

How did this happen? Consider some of the forces that have shaped the current IT landscape in the past 20 years. The steady growth of IT that was accelerating slightly with the advent of client/server gave rise to explosive growth driven by the combination of internet and Y2K. By the mid-1990's, demand for IT was dramatically outstripping supply. To satiate this demand, IT went in pursuit of scale. To get scale, IT took professional jobs and codified them into industrial tasks, because it’s easier to staff vast numbers of people in highly specialized roles than it is to develop professional capability to solve business problems using technology.

Today, businesses buy, recruit, staff, govern, gatekeep, develop, analyze and test following a model that puts a priority on “big.”

Unfortunately, all the time we’ve been in pursuit of scale, we’ve not been in pursuit of results. Results are assumed. We assume armies of specialists will follow an explicitly defined project plan to produce a solution that is technically sound, functionally complete, and financially satisfactory, all with minimal risk of impairment.

With a 4 in 10 batting average, results cannot be assumed.

By placing a priority to scale, IT mistakes effort for results. We often see success expressed as a function of hours to be invested. It isn’t that simple. Successfully delivering an IT solution is a function of a lot of factors, such as clear communication, effective collaboration and capability; well-informed decision making about technology, functionality and commercial viability throughout the life of a project; flexibility and responsiveness; and ultimately, producing meaningful things for our business partners. These can’t be captured in task orders and forecasts of work effort. They’re lifestyle decisions of how IT goes about its business.

It is time to restructure IT, to move away from an effort-centric industrial model, towards result-centric professional one.

1 As an example, the 2009 CHAOS report from The Standish Group shows that things haven't changed all that much, reporting 44% of IT projects were challenged (late, over budget, and / or with less than required features and functions) while another 24% failed.