Friday, October 19, 2012

Chaos Theory for IT

I made a career shift several years ago from financial services to higher education. Being in IT leadership, I wasn’t concerned with making the change. From my point of view I was simply doing a similar job, just different industries. What I discovered was a fascinating cultural shift from a centralized top-down environment to a distributed consensus-based world.

Moving from organizations with enforced technology standards to a one-size-fits-none world was an interesting transition. Personal computing tools in a corporate environment were locked down and well controlled. In a higher education environment, particularly universities, funding comes from many sources and technology decisions can sometimes be made in many places.

I could debate the relative merits of technology in these different worlds, but the most fascinating difference is the decision-making process. Utilitarian efficiency experts may argue that top down is the obvious preferred approach. Decisions get made and everyone simply follows through. Logical.

But do the best decisions get made in this model? The university world provides an interesting counter-example. Major decisions are made with extensive socialization of the underlying issues. Building consensus in this world is like pulling back an elastic band or a slingshot. The more effort you put into developing consensus (or pulling back the elastic), the more buy-in, understanding, and acceptance you have to the solution. When you launch your initiative and let go of the elastic, everything goes faster.

My lesson from implementing large IT projects in this model: invest the time in developing consensus and you will see the return. It is worth the time and effort to build consensus first, because you have everyone’s support later. The time upfront is saved by reducing grief and re-work during the implementation.

The process of consensus-building starts with engaging the key thought leaders across the organization. The next step is to make it interesting for them. What do they want from it? Once you get their input, use it. Apply their comments in a meaningful way. Consensus doesn’t mean everyone gets to make the decision. But it does mean that everyone at least has the opportunity to contribute.

Ultimately, consensus is about relationship building. Whether you work in a top-down hierarchy, a centralized bureaucracy, or a distributed chaoscracy, the one consistent factor is your ability to create confidence in the decisions made and the path forward.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

IT and the Holy Grail

I can't help but notice how many IT leaders, myself included, list "strategic planning" on their resume and their LinkedIn profile and any other personal profile. It makes me wonder if strategic planning is the holy grail of IT. Any single topic with so much attention begs the question: do we put too much faith in our ability to plan?

To answer the question, let's borrow a trick from mathematics and think about strategic planning by working backwards from the end state. Consider where you are today and how well a plan from five years ago could have predicted your current predicament. Could you have planned out an enterprise IT strategy that accommodated Google Apps and Bring Your Own Device and ubiquitous Apples and staff with multiple IP addresses? And could you have predicted the need to balance all of this with ever growing privacy legislation? What about the decline and fall of outsourcing (witness General Motors turfing HP/EDS)? If these events were unpredictable half a decade ago, why do you think you can plan out the next five years?

Over the past few years I have had the wonderful opportunity to read several IT strategic plans as well as write a few. They are all remarkably similar. With my eyes closed I can tell you the titles of the first three sections: Mission, Vision, and Values. Creativity doesn't seem to be considered a valuable asset in strategic IT planning. Yet without creativity, how can we imagine the future? 

The process to write these plans is fun to watch. Sometimes these strategies are built in a conscious fashion using a formal planning approach; sometimes these strategies emerge through convulsive reactions to change in the world around us. Some groups start with an enterprise architecture; some groups start with a crisis. No matter what the motivation, everyone has a plan. You may develop it elegantly, or you may stumble into it wretchedly, but it is human nature to crave a plan for the future.

The problem is that the accuracy of your plan five years from now has a plus/minus of 100%. In other words, the rounding error for any IT strategic plan is roughly equal to the entire contents of the plan.

So how do we reconcile the need to plan with the inability to plan well? Military strategy sometimes comes in handy. Think about the brilliant Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917. After years of trench warfare stalemate, a technique of rolling bombardment was introduced. The shells landed just-in-time and just-in-front of the advancing infantry, thereby preventing the enemy from emerging from their bunkers in time to mount a credible defense. 

Maybe we need rolling strategic plans. Instead of trying to predict an accurately future IT state, set some basic objectives (invade Germany and capture the Kaiser) for the long term. Then figure out what you need to do in the shorter term to work towards those goals (capture the next trench). Then revisit and adjust the long term view every year. 

So, five years ago, an IT plan could have easily said, "investigate web-based productivity tools." A year later it may have said "assess vendor product roadmaps for web based productivity tools." The next year may have said, "compare cloud-based tools for productivity services from Microsoft and Google and what are the performance issues." Finally, the next year the plan may have said, "evaluate Google Apps service from Apple and Android devices and determine the impact of privacy legislation on their usage." 

Narrowing the scope from broad strategy to practical implementation is the ultimate measure of success for any strategic plan. The real holy grail of strategic planning is accomplishing real work. It isn't about the plan. It's about what the planning process enables you to accomplish.