Boiling Frogs can’t build Death Stars.

Jun 23, 2016 · 7 min read
Image for post
Image for post

The technological environment is now moving too quickly for us to take years building big solutions. If we try we’ll get blown up.

We recently came across an excellent think-piece on the way organisations — large and small — need to rethink how they design, build, develop and use technology, and it came from a surprising source. GCHQ is the UK Government’s intelligence and information gathering service — our equivalent of the NSA. They are the covert listening and code-breaking spooks that cracked the Enigma code and upset Edward Snowden, so it perhaps should be no surprise that their analysis of the current state of technology is so sharp and analytical. It’s good to see that such a large and important government organisation is thinking so radically.

Much of what is discussed and proposed goes well beyond the established principles of Agile that we at Dootrix use, but what makes it really interesting is the way they are suggesting large organisations can change their methodologies. We share their thinking that to build huge but essential ‘Death Star’ projects it’s far more efficient to outsource complexity to cloud technology. Spin-up the little droids that will build it faster and more cost-effectively.

It’s easy for relatively small and nimble younger companies to embrace innovative working patterns and structures, but it’s much harder for older and larger organisations with management cultures that have been formed by years of success (and often stasis).

The overriding theme is not just a Darwinian ‘innovate or die’, but that complex structures can be quickly simplified and improved while continuing to do important work. Which is a methodology we wholeheartedly embrace.

The tone is of course a bit dry, but an official report from the Director General Technology of a national security agency referencing Star Wars, Andreessen Horowitz, Mark Zuckerberg and even Lou Adler has got to be an interesting read. Especially since the authors have Bond-like code names (Russ B, Mike M, Steve H). Or maybe they’re an intelligence hip hop crew?

It’s a 60-page document that you can download [here], but these are some of the heavily edited highlights that we’ve picked out. They are just snapshots and soundbites to encourage you to read more of a very well thought-out report. Be warned, the word ‘disruption’ and all is variants features a lot. Now read on.

Boiling Frogs

The story goes that if a frog is placed in a saucepan of cold water, which is slowly heated, the frog adapts its body temperature to the changing heat of the water and gradually goes to sleep and dies. However, if the frog is placed in already boiling water it immediately jumps out to safety.

Although humans think they are very clever at adapting to the changing world, they don’t necessarily recognise the need to jump out of that world and take charge of it, not just adapt to it.

The pace of disruption is accelerating, and as it does so focussing on efficiency and predictability actually becomes detrimental to an organisation’s health. Business agility and delivering new business value become the only game in town.

During stable times organisations are tempted to build big systems — multi-year projects of brain melting complexity, like the Death Star. Despite these large programmes and projects rarely working they’ve become the standard approach in many organisations.

The technological environment is now moving too quickly for us to take years building big solutions. If we try we’ll get blown up.

The “Big planning” approach to building a Death Star just isn’t relevant to speculative exploratory work. In fact, it’s wasteful. Instead, technology organisations need a number of flexible, small solutions that can be easily combined in different ways. To survive we need to incubate ideas quickly, failing fast and learning from the experience.

“We need different ways of working to build an astromech droid rather than a Death Star and it’ll be a lot more useful.”

However, it isn’t that easy of course. Years of success in taking the same business approach deters people from trying new methods. Change itself becomes something upsetting, to be resisted or worse, denied (like the frogs slowly coming to the boil).

While it can seem counter-intuitive, when our primary focus is to manage the way we provide value our workload goes up simply because there’s more “management activity”.

When we learn to manage value, our workload and costs reduce because we’re managing the output of our processes, not the processes themselves.

In times of rapid technological and business change, organisations need faster decision making, fostering greater innovation for survival and growth. As the pace of technology disruption increases organisations need to innovate to survive and so the types of work that many technology organisations do is changing.

There is an increasing proportion of complex work, new types of problem, which are rare, unpredictable, speculative, undefined, and constantly changing. Consequently, there is a reduction in the proportion of simple complicated work that is predictable, stable and large.

If an organisation primarily works in the Specialist space then it is building unique products to solve specific business problems, in this situation, it does not make sense to build utility or commodity components, systems or products, they can simply be bought/acquired from suppliers or open source communities. For example, an organisation building public service websites would not build a software source code management system for itself, this is a commodity capability that is best served by well-established tools such as the open source Git.

Alternatively, if an organisation is primarily focussed on utilities or commodities (e.g. power supply) then working on innovation and specialist products is most likely to be either as part of an efficiency improvement or a long term strategic play as it’s not part of the (current) core business.

However, there are many complex organisations, which work on solutions that are distributed across the commoditisation scale; these organisations have complex value streams internally and with supplier ecosystems. For these organisations, no single method is applicable across work of such variation, indeed the methods and cultures at the extremes of the commoditisation scale will be very different potentially causing conflict.

“To survive rapid disruption technical businesses and organisations need to do less of some of the “old” ways of working and move towards doing more of the “new” ways of working to become more reactive, more innovative — better, healthier and happier organisations.”

This is not a binary change; instead it’s a collective shift in emphasis of these characteristics.

The key is keeping these changes moving together in the same direction and ensuring that changes force-multiply, moving organisations into the best possible shape for the future.

As with all change, there will be pockets of enthusiasm but also there are pockets of resistance and indifference. Of course, there are also a fair number of boiling frogs.

“in many organisations users/customers are calling out to be more involved in delivery and many development teams are similarly calling out for user involvement. Businesses may feel that they cannot afford for their operational business personnel to be spending a good proportion of their time involved in software development. In reality these organisations cannot afford not to spend time ensuring their software investment is directed properly, resulting in real business value.”

The IT industry is in a period of disruption and organisations that respond positively, innovatively and radically will be in the best position to succeed. Many of the old ways of working aren’t suitable for tackling the pace of disruptive change.

To be in the best possible place for the future, organisations need to take a holistic view of how to change towards flexible, efficient businesses, not just improving a small part or single characteristic in isolation but with an understanding of the big picture. They need less structure, not more; existing structures need rationalising to become flatter.

“Organisations must strive to be as lean as possible, without sacrificing learning and creativity, to enable the people to work together to solve tomorrow’s problems.”

There’s no point in improving architecture without improving the provision of support. There’s no point adding more structure and management when the need is to be more flexible and responsive to changing strategies and market conditions.

Caution must be exercised so that local optimisations are not made at the expense of the entire system. Many processes, structure and methods that were used previously made sense at the time of adoption, but the world has changed, the challenges have changed and the nature of responses must change.

“It’s not what isn’t known that should be scary. It’s knowing that current practices are no longer effective that should be frightening.”

Organisations mustn’t be scared of radical change, or of removing processes, systems and structure that are no longer as beneficial due to the environment changing around them, clinging onto ineffective methods further delays necessary change.

Effective response to disruption requires making many changes across multiple aspects affecting people, process and technical concerns. Traditional sequential change programmes to transform the way of conducting business will be inadequate and too slow to implement.

To keep pace with the rapid advances in technology organisations need to achieve faster decision-making, foster greater innovation for growth and smoother, more direct, communication.

Organisations need to change their structure, culture and methods so that they can absorb and adapt to change rather than being destroyed by it.

A popular quote often misattributed to Darwin and the “Origin of Species” is:

“It’s not the strongest, fittest or most intelligent that survive, it’s the ones that are best able to adapt to change.”

Thanks to Tim Edwards for bringing this article to our attention. You can (and should) read it here in full.

[Footnote: since we published this we’ve seen that the Co-op Digital have redesigned the GCHQ article to make it easier to read. Props to them — it’s here, and you can read Tom Loosemore’s thoughts on it here.]

If you need to build a death star, we have the droids to do it.

Image for post
Image for post

The Reading Room

Stimulating writing for both sides of your brain by the…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store