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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sector Seven Is Clear

Many years ago, there was a television ad that showed an intruder being chased through a building by two security guards. The guards chase him from room to room, and ultimately down a long hallway. At the mid-point of the hallway, there's a line painted on the floor and wall. On one side of the line is a large number 7, on the other is the number 8. The intruder runs down the hallway, over the line. The two security guards come to a sudden stop right at the line. They watch as the intruder continues to run down the hallway into some other part of the building. After a pause, one of the security guards grabs his walkie-talkie and announces: "sector seven is clear". The intruder is still in the building, but the security guards no longer consider him to be their responsibility.

Every now and again I reference this ad in a meeting or presentation, in the context of Industrial IT. I've been reminded of it again recently.

Industrial IT encourages specialization: It is easier for HR to hire, staff, train and procurement to contract for people in specialist roles. And specialization is comfortable for a lot of people. Managers - particularly managers who have a poor grip on the work being done - like specialization because it is easier to assign and track tasks done by specialists. People in execution roles take comfort in specialization. It's easy to become proficient in a narrow field, such as a specific database or programming language. Given the slow rate of change of any given technology, you don't have to work too hard to remain acceptably proficient at what you do. You only face a threat of obsolescence. A commercial technology with sufficient market share and investment mitigates that risk to the individual.

Specialization means the most critical information - systemic understanding of how a solution functions and behaves from end-to-end - will be concentrated in a few people's heads. This knowledge asymmetry means those few people will be overwhelmed with demands on their time, creating a bottleneck while others on the team are idle. There will be a lot of hand-offs, which increases the risk of rework through misunderstanding. Because no single specialist can see a solution through to completion, nobody will have ownership for the problem. At least, not beyond making sure Sector 7 is clear.

I've written about it many times before, but Industrial IT prioritizes scale over results, specialists over professionals, predictability over innovation, and technology over value. Industrial IT is large but fragile: it struggles to get anything done, there aren't enough heroes to go around, its delivery operations are opaque, and it produces high-maintenance assets.

Even when there is executive commitment to change, it takes a long time and concentrated effort to change the industrial mind-set at a grass roots level.

We have to reframe problems above the task level. Everything we do should be framed as a meaningful business result or outcome, complete with acceptance criteria against which we can verify success in the business context. For example, the problem isn't to fix the payload of a specific webservice, the problem is to allow multiple systems to integrate with each other so that sales transactions can be exchanged. Agile Stories are particularly helpful for defining actions this way, whether new feature or defect. Stories make it possible for each person to explain why something is important, why something is valuable, why they are working on it. Back to our example, I'm fixing this webservice because until I do, there won't be order flow from a principal commercial partner. Stories are also helpful as they let us measure the things we do in terms of results, and not effort.

But there's more to this than process. Each person must feel personal ownership for the success of their actions. The job isn't to code to a specification, or to test against a test case. The job is to create a solution that enables a business outcome. Each person must ask questions about the completeness of the solution, and be motivated to verify them in the most complete manner possible.

Which makes the point that this is, fundamentally, a people challenge. We're asking people to change how they understand the problems they're solving and what "done" means. We're asking them to change their behaviours in how they investigate, test and verify what they do. More broadly, we're asking them to build a contextual understanding for the work they do, and more importantly why they are doing it. And we are asking them to take responsibility for the outcome: I will know this is complete when ...

Do not under-estimate the challenge this represents. The transition from industrial to professional is amorphous. There are false positives: people who sign up for this too quickly don't understand what's going to be required of them. It isn't long before the never ending chorus of "I don't" starts: I don't know how to do something, I don't have that information, I don't know how to find that out. And we can't take anything for granted. We must constantly challenge people's contextual understanding: can they explain, in a business context, why they are working on something, who it benefits, why it is important.

Not everybody will make this transition. For some, because this isn't their calling: not all assembly line workers can become craftsmen. Others will self-select out, preferring the comforts afforded by a specialist's cocoon.

All of these things - changes in process, practice, behaviours and people - require a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude. The would-be change agent must be prepared for a frustratingly slow rate of change, and to invest copious amounts of time into people to help them develop new context and new muscle memories. On top of it, leaders are in short supply and mentors are even scarcer in Industrial IT shops. Legacy assets and systems (and their legacy of patchwork integration, bandaged maintenance and situational knowledge) will slow the rate at which you can make new hires productive.

The benefits of changing from industrial to professional are obvious. While the destination is attractive, the journey is not - and be under no illusions that it is. But who we work with, how we work, and what we get done in a professional IT business make it worth doing.