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, November 09, 2009

Restructuring IT: Organizing for Results

Up to this point in this series on Restructuring IT, we’ve looked at how IT has adopted an industrial model. IT has achieved scale, but at the cost of results, as is clear from the low rate of success of IT investments. We'll now take a look at how we can organize IT for results.

Professional versus Industrial

IT needs to reorganize for results, not scale. Organizing for results requires professionalism as opposed to industrialism.

People in industrial and professional situations each use drills, but you wouldn’t staff an assembly line worker in an operating room to get "capacity" on a surgical team.

To get professionalism, we need to organize less to try to be predictable (which will always escape us) and more to be responsive and accountable.

Let’s think about the things that would professionalize IT.

  • Instead of scrambling just before a deployment, what if every solution build acted as an internal gatekeeper of quality, continuously executing to validate technical, functional and non-functional completeness of everything we do?

  • Instead of trying to “inspect quality” into IT, what if testing were a team responsibility, automated and integrated into what we do daily?

  • Instead of watching big-up-front designs morph from whiteboard masterpiece to over-engineered Frankentecture, what if teams had the flexibility to take design decisions in near-JIT fashion, with a minimum of duplication and the fewest moving parts possible?

  • Instead of a “requirements arms race” between business and IT, what if we were able to accommodate continuous business involvement, facilitated to enable continuous change management and adaptive project management?

  • Instead of standing up volumes of impenetrable and unactionable requirements, what if we had short, business oriented requirements that could be quickly steered through development and QA and into production?

  • Instead of sending round reams of paperwork for PMs to fill out in little more than CYA exercises, what if we were able to govern IT non-invasively, ascertaining from our delivery teams whether they’re delivering value for money, and working in accordance with expectations?

We have the means by which to do all of these things. Today. Right now. But we can’t simply will them into place. To get these things, we need to restructure IT.

What does it really mean to “restructure”?

Before we discuss what restructuring IT is, let’s first understand what it isn’t.

Restructuring IT isn’t a question of org charts. All too often, new reporting lines just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. It also isn’t about budgets, either: we can’t do more with less, because there isn’t that much less with which we can get any more done with.

How about the management cheerleading of recent years, things like “be close to your customer” and “have fewer hand-offs in your work processes.” When folks like Tom Peters started putting those messages forward in the 1980s they were a wake-up call that business had gone adrift. And yes, we need to restructure with this in mind. But we can’t have reorganization by platitude. We need something actionable.

Restructuring IT is about behaviours. Changing behaviours away from industrial thinking to professional thinking is a pretty big shift. Among other things, it means each person is responsible not just for doing the tasks they’ve been assigned, but doing what is necessary for the project to succeed.

Think back to the surgical team metaphor. As my colleague Greg Reiser points out, the surgical team collaborates toward a shared objective, improving the quality of life of the patient. Their primary goal may be to graft blood vessels that bypass a coronary artery blockage, but their objective is to prolong the life of the patient. What does the team do when they discover, as they almost always do, that the condition of the heart and surrounding tissue is not exactly as they expected? They apply their professional expertise and work as a team to adapt in order to achieve the primary objective. This is how professionals behave.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there are so many headwinds to getting things done in IT, ranging from a constant cycle of upgrades that change points of integration to an abundant supply of people without the complete gene in their DNA. Results are hard. Finishing stuff is hard.

This begs a critical behavioural question: why take the risk of getting “results”? Why put yourself on the line, underwriting success with your personal guarantee, especially if you have a built-in scapegoat? I met with a team last year where the PM, BA and dev lead knew a project was going to fail, because the development team simply didn’t have the capability. The project leadership didn’t make any effort to change staff, because the decision of who to staff was somebody else’s: people were supplied to them by procurement. The project was conspicuous because it was late starting as it was, so their priority was to get started. Never mind that they knew it wouldn’t finish. In the end, they could say they simply played the hand they were dealt by the organizational structures – in this case, an industrial-inspired procurement function – that existed to make IT effort “cost effective.”

So rather than work to success, rather than pressing the button and stopping the line and saying “this project is going to fail and we need to do something about it before we make a commitment of capital and time” they simply got on with the work knowing they were going to fail.

This is all too common. There is structural disincentive to achieve results in a lot of IT organizations. This disincentive is supplemented with soft scrutiny. Most measures of “complete” amount to little more than people working to a state where nobody can tell them they’re not done, instead of working to a state where somebody can conclusively tell them they are done.

So what makes us think people will make the effort to get things done?

It also makes you wonder: how much of this is going on in your IT organization today?

In our next installment, we'll take a look at how, specifically, we restructure for results.