• rm@rmbastien.com

Tag Archive Quality

Constructing Digital for Deconstruction

The Citation

“The information revolution is sweeping through our economy.  No company can escape its effects.  Dramatic reductions in the cost of obtaining, processing, and transmitting information are changing the way we do business.”

How do you relate to the statements above?  True? False?  Haunting you day and night?  Excited about endless opportunities?    Need help?  All of the above?

Here’s the interesting detail: it comes from a landmark article from Porter & Millar published in July 1985.  Yes, nineteen-eighty-five.  How old were you that year?  That’s 35 years ago! 

Don’t re-read the quote to try to find a flaw related to its age.  There isn’t. 

Change, the Only Certitude

There is wisdom to emerge out of realizing that disruptive technologies like big data, internet of things or artificial intelligence are just the last in a long series of tech-drivers that change the way business is done.   That was true in 1985, and will be true in 2055.    Change is the only certainty.   

How is your organization prepared for that?  More specifically, how well rigged are your digital teams —and the digital assets they created over the years— to sustain constant change for the next 35 years?

If there is one thing that will not change, it’s the certainty that whatever corporate IT does to support a given business shift, it will need to be changed again and again.   Sooner than later, what they’ve created will require to be replaced or retired.   

Keep that in mind for a moment as we side track to a personal experience.

Summer Festivals

In fall 2014, I was attending an annual symposium organized by the Montreal Chapter of the Project Management Institute.  One of the speakers gave a candid presentation on how projects are managed in his business: logistics and physical installation of the infrastructure required for summer festivals.   His job was to transform villages, parks, beaches, or city streets into giant entertainment complexes, with performance stages, parking areas, restaurants, kids amusement gear, etc.   That’s pretty cool.  His business domain appeared to the IT guy I am as both remote and refreshing. There is one portion of his talk that struck me.

It was about timing pressures.  Not the very common pressures of having very little time allotted for complex endeavors.   Nothing new there.  Not the fact that the start dates of these festivals are cast in stone, publicized at least a year before, with no possible way to delay the delivery.  That made the IT guy think about the hundreds of delayed deliveries that I witnessed in corporate IT projects and made me feel somewhat both privileged and ashamed.  But that’s not what struck me.

Guns and Hoses

In order for these happy summer events to occur, streets are blocked.   That’s a nightmare for police and fire departments.   In case of an unhappy event such as a fire, they have to race onsite without hitting pedestrians on their way there.  As such, these civil servants have notably stringent requirements of not only setting up the stages in very little time, but also to get the hell out of there ASAP and have the streets clear and clean before the Monday morning rush hour. 

The speaker explained that many of the techniques, materials, or processes used for setting up the festivals were not just chosen to actually do the job: they were designed and done to favor quick dismantling. For having firefighters and cops breathing in your neck is a good incentive.  They’re very serious about it —and they mean it.

That’s when I got struck. 

Building Stone Monuments

I realized that the assets built by your digital teams are never built with dismantling in mind.    The mindset is more something in the lines of building pyramids or century-defying monuments.    Most systems I have dealt with were never designed to be removed.  Neither were they made in order for their constituting parts to be easily replaced by new ones. 

The first explanation that comes to the mind of most IT experts if that it takes more time and effort to design for easy removal. That’s true.

But haven’t we agreed that change is the only certainty?  That any asset created to support your business is bound to be changed or replace, sooner than later?  Then why a whole industry that knows very well that change is inevitable cannot create things that are easily removable and replaceable?

Incentives for Doing It

The rock-bottom reason is simple: there are no incentives to do any better.  Why would this brand new system be built to be easily dismantled?  Isn’t it the newest and best thing, with the hottest technologies ever, that is going to propel the business to new heights for years to come?  Are you asking your IT team to envision removal of their new baby whereas it is not even born yet?  Without strong incentives, it just won’t happen.  That’s why it is rarely the case that special effort and care are put in all these little details that make the difference for rapid dismantlement.

Incentives for Not Doing It

You might think that acquiring third party software creates these situations. But vendors do not create solutions that are easily dismantled.  They lack inducement for putting in place easy to remove solutions. Furthermore they truly have hard cash incentives for doing the opposite.  They are in business to make money. They have no interest in dismantling their very source of income. 

For internal IT, isn’t the maintenance, and the removal of IT assets also a source of income?  In corporate IT, when time comes to pull out something, it often has to be done by the same staff that built it. And you pay them by the hour.

Against the Grain

No, IT builders do not think about dismantlement, and asking for it would be going against the grain.

That is unless there were nervous cops or firefighters breathing in the neck of corporate IT staff about rapid removal and replacement.    For that to happen, radical change in the corporate IT engagement model has to occur.

Do Not Assume Anything From IT Solutions That (Always) Work

This is where we start: an initiatory revelation that will help you understand many of the everlasting issues plaguing corporate IT.  This truth is one of the most important drivers of lower quality in the work products of the corporate IT function.

Business IT solutions are mainly made of software, and software is highly flexible and malleable. These are characteristics that are difficult to find elsewhere. Fundamentally, software is a series of electrical impulses representing numbers.  All a computer does is add numbers – nothing else. The images on your screen, the voice that you hear on your phone and any other seemingly magical digital phenomenon can be reduced to zeroes and ones.  These numbers are then eaten and processed by an immensely powerful number-crunching machine the size of your thumbnail.

Limitless IT Possibilities

Software exists in a virtual world where the laws of physics, as well as most constraints found in other fields, don’t apply. Of course, applications must remain compatible with the physical characteristics of the human beings or machines who will use them. If an IT business solution interacts with production machinery, perhaps opening and closing garage doors, you can expect it to abide by the laws of physics, and probably some standards and regulations.

But apart from these specific cases, it is fair to say that if the IT experts of most businesses are challenged with questions such as “… but is it doable? Can you make it work?” they cannot honestly answer “no”, because there is always a way to make an IT solution work.

Why Does Your IT Team Say “No”?

You may have painful memories of instances where you were told “no” by your IT teams. Let me assure you that, excluding extreme cases, the reasons for these negative answers were probably that the budget was exhausted, the time left was too brief, the compliance to standards was problematic, or the teams in place were busy doing other things, but not that it wasn’t doable.  There is always a way to make it happen when you’re dealing with the intangibles of software and the immense capabilities of computing hardware.

That’s the good news.

Beware of Alternate Solutions That Cut Corners

Often, making programs work just requires doing things differently.  Since software is so workable, the options available are usually numerous.  Unfortunately, doing things differently does not invariably mean finding a totally innovative, out-of-the-box paradigm.

Most of the time, being imaginative means finding ways to cut corners and make it work still.

The range of options can be further extended by the relative inconsequence of errors.  In the virtual world of corporate IT, there is little risk of human injuries or casualties. Thus far in my career, I’ve never seen anyone drawn into a court of law for a botched design.  External bodies will never audit a project down into its technical details. Events of skimping on quality never get published outside the corporation, and not even outside the project team.

Quality Issues That Translate in More Complexity

Your IT team will find a way to make a solution work: I can guarantee it.

They will get it to work, whether it’s with little effort or a heroic tug, and through the use of best practices or with haywire.  But heroism and best practices require more time and labor.

Hence the end result will most probably be subject to more maintenance, or run slower, or have stability issues, or present learning challenges to future employees, or require replacement sooner, or augment costs in other projects, but it will work.

And if the expected quality levels are not achieved at the finish line, it will be called a fix, a patch, or my favorite, a tactical solution, to convey recognition that it could have been designed and built in a better way.   But these idioms don’t express the truth that such solutions increase unnecessary IT complexity which in turn impedes the agility of the team that created it.

Does it mean that the great powers of information technologies, with their almost limitless applications can also be a hindrance?  I’m afraid so. We’re in a case of the archetypical two-edged sword.

Not Proving Much

Your most important takeaway is the following:

The fact that a solution works proves nothing other than the fact that it works. Do not even contemplate for a second the mere idea that it determines anything about the quality of the end product.

Whatever the depth of your sorrow about this depressing statement, you might be tempted to think that, given all the virtual flexibility of IT, sub-optimally designed solutions can be easily corrected in subsequent projects. But that’s not the way it works, so don’t hold your breath for quality issues to be corrected.  In an upcoming article, I will present another unpublicised truth about corporate IT that will lower your expectations about IT’s capacity to realign after sub-optimal solutions are delivered.

Before you do anything hasty, let me reassure you: there is light at the end, and there is a way to get higher levels of quality that promote nimbleness.  The good news is that it has nothing to do with technology and is within the reach of non-IT business executives.  If you’re interested, take a minute to subscribe and you will get automated reminder when new posts are published.

Suspicious About Your Corporate IT’s Speed?

Are you left perplexed when you compare the technological quantum leaps that humanity has witnessed in recent decades to their net effect on the efficiency and speed of your corporate IT function?

Does your mood range from remotely curious to downright fed up when you assess your IT department’s inability to keep up with the pace of your business?

Are you coming to the same conclusion as me: that when it comes to responding to changing business needs, corporate IT has been, at best, steadily mediocre throughout the years?

Do you have the unending impression that your corporate IT continues to show signs of an immature field, even after decades of experience?

Are you suspicious that behind the curtains of technological know-how lies a monstrous amalgamation of old and new technologies, created by the same corporate IT team whom it baffles?

If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions, then I have two pieces of good news for you.

The Good News

Firstly, you’re not paranoid.  After three decades of working in corporate IT, I can assure you that these are matters that you should be concerned about.  Even in different times, amongst different industries, or within different countries, every IT professional I consulted before publishing acknowledged the manifestation of these issues again and again.

Secondly, you will soon have a refreshingly different perspective on the sources of these issues.  The processes that have been used to explain or to deal with corporate IT’s performance issues until now lack a deeper understanding of their non-technological root causes.

Ignore the Technobabble

The answer is not yet another miracle IT solution, vendor, system, or new technology.  You’re probably already under a deluge of technobabble sales pitches, each implying in their own way that big data, disruptive innovation, artificial intelligence, internet of things, machine learning, augmented reality, DevOps, micro-services, or the acronym of the year will propel you into another sphere beyond your current issues.

To get to a new age of corporate IT, a different approach is required: to understand how corporate IT’s underachievement in certain crucial areas — notably, the quality of deliverables — is unrelated to technologies and methods.  You’ll discover the true culprits: basic management and governance issues leading to unwanted behaviors, which, in turn, diminish agility.  We will get to the bottom of a cause-and-effect sequence, and reach a point where everything will look much simpler, for the root causes of it all are areas where non-IT business executives can act upon.

Lead the Next Phase in IT

By changing role distribution, transferring accountability, and reviewing the measures of performance, business leaders can bring about a profound and lasting movement to the next phase in corporate IT maturity.

You can shift the center of mass in your business and then let the technically savvy execs and managers take care of the detailed processes and logistics required to complete the transition  to the next level.  Don’t change the players, change the game.  Don’t engage with the details yourself; change the engagement model.

What’s Coming Up

Over the next weeks, you will learn why your suspicions are far from being groundless.  You will also gain priceless knowledge about how corporate IT operates behind the closed doors of technical expertise. I will provide a fair -and at times brutal- investigation of these concerns, unveiling issues such as the systematic creation of pointless complexity, the over-use of project management principles, the corporate IT “amnesia syndrome”, and many other quality issues that hinder attempts to speedup IT delivery. It should get you primed for a new book available now.