I’m sitting in my hotel after a day of work and feeling a bit down. Today, once again, I’ve encountered The Wall—one of the biggest problems businesses face. Once again, it’s left me worn out and struggling to find a meaningful next step.
I’m here working with a great IT organization, and even though we have a real mandate for change, progress is slow and often illusory.
Almost all IT projects I encounter are dogged by substandard products, defects, worker disengagement, and release death marches. This one is no exception. The Wall is the source of these ills, and it’s continued presence means we can only make small changes. Which are great, if incremental improvements are what you’re looking for. But deadly if you’re in a market that’s ripe for disruption.
The word disruption is over-used of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening all around us. In most markets the looming concern is: will we be an agent of disruption, or its victim?
Organizations that are ready for change, are usually both impatient and risk-averse. And it’s tempting to start making small improvements immediately. But this approach usually results in little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And by avoiding the real problem we waste precious resources—particularly team enthusiasm.
A crucial and often overlooked starting point for change, is to create a mandate on both sides of the wall betwen IT and business. Kotter’s model tells us to first create urgency, and then a coalition, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
The stakes are high. Do this well and you create an organization capable of great things. Focus on the incremental while The Wall is still in place, and you’ll go in circles until the competition sweeps you away.
My purpose with this short piece is to share some of the patterns I see and to get you asking the right questions. I hope to help you see The Wall and understand why it’s so destructive. I’ll finish with concrete steps you can take to begin to dismantle it. Sound good?
The challenges raised by The Wall are significant, and part of a much larger narrative than business alone. They are at the heart of our ability to solve tough problems and avoid economic and environmental catastrophe. But right now I encourage you to be selfish. We’ll leave the fate of humanity for future discussions.
The Wall is impacting your speed, quality, and team engagement in measurable ways. It probably also has a real impact on your quality of life as well. So let’s start there.
The good news is very few companies are showing leadership here so it’s easy to stand out. This is my plea for us all to start leading.
Seeing The Wall
If you’re on the business side of things—product, marketing, sales, etc.—you may view your IT department as the enemy at least some of the time.
They lack urgency, insist on more caution (a.k.a. testing and security) than your market windows allow, don’t seem to really get the idea of a Minimum Viable Product. And worst of all, they speak a language that seems designed to confuse and scare you.
If you’re on the IT side, the business probably seems clueless, even reckless. It’s like they just don’t care about quality, stability, or security—and they certainly don’t care about your quality of life.
In this environment blown release dates, blown budgets, and underperforming products seem to be the norm. As are bureaucratic heavy-weight change-managements systems, a mysterious dependency on a few super-star developers, and tons of overtime during and after production releases.
We all recognize there’s a problem, and it’s almost always “over there.” My friend Geoffrey Bourne at Citi points out that blame and the use of the word “they” when speaking of colleagues is a key indicator your organization suffers from this separation.
Welcome to The Wall.
When we notice these patterns we respond by trying to change processes and the tools that accompany them. We also day dream about firing a bunch of people. There are entire industries devoted to these two efforts.
In my work supporting large agile rollouts—meaning process and tool changes for the most part—I’ve come to understand that when it comes to fixing these problems we are usually starting in the wrong place.
Mandates for change, when we are lucky enough to get them, are usually centered on the improvement of a few key efficiency metrics. But what we need is increased effectiveness. And this often requires a fundamental re-thinking of our busienss. In the language of lean, we need kaikaku not kaizen.
Until we address the root of the problem, we’ll keep falling in to the same well-worn ruts and achieving the same mediocre outcomes. And if we don’t change, we run a very real risk of losing our place at the table—most likely to Amazon or Google; or startups run by people who used to work for them.
The problem is not that the Business or IT are clueless, or that our processes are all bad. I find most organizations filled with decent, smart hardworking people, and things work pretty well most of the time.
The problem is that we view IT and Business as two separate organizations and our processes, culture, and tools all reinforce this notion.
Separation is the Problem
Not only do we separate IT and Business, when we do connect them its primarily through contracts and funding models—two things that seemed designed to drive litigation not collaboration.
Complicating things further are two open secrets we rarely acknowledge. First is that IT, like electricity, touches every part of your business. Its not something you can do without for a few days while you figure things out. The responsiveness of IT infrastructure has long-term implications to cost structure and profitabilty of any business, and an outage can cost a company millions in the near term.
The second open secret is that the people who build solutions aren’t building things at all. They are designing things, and design is uncertain and risky.
The modern developer is a knowledge worker, which means—as Drucker aptly defines it—that they know more about their jobs than their managers could ever hope to. They spend their productive work time coming up with unique solutions to unique problems, not assembling things. They are artists not brick layers.
On the business side there is a similar degree of uncertainty. Achieving product/market fit usually means iterating solutions, testing messages and functionality and a lot of guess work. This requires deep creativity as well.
But we consistently separate these two organizations and place a wall of imagined certainty between them. Rather than embracing the uncertainty inherent in creating great stuff, we try to manage it out. Which also means we manage out creativity.
No wonder our results are so often uninspiring.
To complicate things further we place mini walls on either side of the main wall. Between development and testing, sales and marketing, product marketing and product development, etc.
By discouraging conversation we discourage collaboration. And this means we encourage gossip, problem avoidance, and CYA behavior: “I did my job what’s your problem?”
Tear Down this Wall
Changing things requires going deeper than we usually think to go.
The obvious things to change in a business are the processes, the tools, and the players. In order to understand why our approachs so often fail we need to talk about systems. This won’t take long and trust me the payoff is huge.
In systems theory we learn that all systems are a collection elements that connect to fulfill a purpose. Your business is no exception.
If you want to change the outcomes of the system all you’ve got to work with are these three things: elements, connections, and purposes.
In business elements and connections are things like people, tools, processes, and relationships. In other words the most visible parts of a system. And because they are visible they tend to get all the attention.
Purpose is the least visible and usually get’s overlooked.
Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems describes watching a frog turn it’s head left to catch a fly, then right to catch a fly, and points out that most of us when observing the frog notice the head turning but not the flies being caught. That is we see a surface-level function of the system, not the purpose of the system.
Most consulting and organizational change efforts can be reduced to one of few questions: how do we get better people? better tools? or faster processes? The most enlightened only go so far as to ask: how do we create better relationships? But all of these are basic head-turning objectives. They still don’t speak to fly catching (AKA value creation).
The most powerful question you can ask—and one so many of us fail to—is: are our purposes aligned, and if not, how can we align them? In other words are we all working together to catch the same fly at the same time?
In order to begin to align behind a common purpose, the first thing to notice is that purposes are nested. Each person has a purpose, and so does each team, program, product, portfolio, and business unit.
Geoffrey Moore points out in Dealing with Darwin, that when purposes are not aligned we expend a lot of energy and get nowhere. The problem is not in the strength of purpose but in their misalignment.
The more walls you have in your organization the more purposes will align on their repective sides of the wall—and they’ll tend to treat anyone on the other side as an annoyance, insignificant, or an enemy.
In this situation it’s common for IT’s purpose to become something like “keep business partners happy,” which really means “out of our hair.” While the business adopts a purpose of “get the most out of IT we can” and “create a perception of value in the market place.” But no one is focused on real value.
Getting to an organization aligned behind creating real value is almost impossible when the walls are in place.
Systems theory also tells us that in order to change the performance of a system we need to change the system and one of the highest leverage things to change is the purpose.
Think about it. If you have a football team and change out the players, the uniforms, and even the plays, you’ll still basically have a football team. But change the goal of the game and you’ll have a whole new ball game. This is disruption.
We can radically alter the performance of our business by organizing in teams and focusing getting very clear about the purpose and alignment of each team. Interestingly this of often more about a shift in perspective of the individual players than it is in changing any specific tool or practice. While this can be a simple shift, getting there takes effort and skill.
I hope I’ve made my point clear that the single biggest impediment creating value for a customer is the separation of business and IT. But I’m sure it’s also got you asking what can be done?
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Bring together players from all sides and talk about your problems. Use a facilitator to help you take problems up a level or two of abstraction until you find a few common problems—and therefore common purposes.
- Use techniques like 5 Whys or A4s to do some source level analysis.
- Establish a cross functional product team, and release management team, with representatives from both sides of The Wall. Make sure these teams meet on a regular cadence not just when there’s a problem.
- Do value stream mapping and focus change efforts on a single value stream instead of functional departments. Reallocate people so they are focused on only one value stream and create strategies for protecting each group from disfunction in the rest of the organization.
- Get everyone in a value stream in the same room on a regular basis—at least a couple times a year. In addition to doing work, make sure there are ample opportunities for casual connections over meals.
- Commit to developing a Continuous Delivery capability. Start this now.
Just remember while it’s important to run experiments and to get moving quickly, you must focus on creating alignment on both sides of the wall. Keep your efforts focused there and you’ll be light years ahead of most players out there.
The Wall is one of the most insidious and pervasive issues any organization can face. Dismantling it requires courage and persistence. But before you can change it you need to see it—and once you do you’ll see it’s effects everywhere.
This article first appeared on bobgower.com.