We can be our own worst enemy

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, or so we’ve been told on numerous occasions. I’d like to add “change” to the list. Change, be it business change or change in our personal lives, has accelerated to the point that we can expect the environment we inhabit to change significantly in the immediate future, let along over the length of our careers. If we want our business to remain competitive in this ever evolving landscape, then overcoming our (and our team’s) own resistance to change is our biggest challenge.

The rules we have built our careers on, rules forged back in the industrial revolution, are starting to come apart. Most folk—from the Baby Boomers through to Gen Y—expect the skills they acquired in their formative years to support them well through to retirement. How we conduct business might change radically, driven by technological and societal change, but what we did in business could be assumed to change at a slower than generational pace. We might order over the internet rather than via a physical catalogue, or call a person via a mobile rather than call a place via a landline, but skills we learnt in our formative years would still serve us well. For example, project managers manage ever increasingly complex projects over the length of their career, even though how they manage projects has migrated from paper GANTT charts to MS Project, and now onto BaseCamp.

Which is interesting, as it is this what, the doctrine, which most people use to define themselves. A project manager manages projects, and has (most likely) built their career by managing increasingly larger projects and, eventually, programs. Enterprise architects work their way toward managing ever larger transformation programs. Consultants work to become stream leads, team leaders, finally running large teams across entire sectors or geographies. An so on. The length of someones career sees them narrowing their focus to specialise in a particular doctrine, while expanding their management responsibilities. It is this doctrine which most people define themselves by, and their career is an constant investment in doctrine to enhance their skills, increasing their value with respect to the doctrine they chose to focus on.

This is fine in a world when the doctrines a business needs to operate change slower than the duration of a typical career. But what happens if the pace of change accelerates? When the length of the average career becomes significantly longer than the useful life of the doctrines the business requires.

We’ve reached an interesting technological inflection point. Information technology to date could be characterized as the race for automation. The vast bulk of enterprise applications have been focused on automating a previously manual task. This might be data management (general ledger, CRM, et al) or transforming data (SAP APO). The applications we developed were designed as bolt-ons to existing business models. Much like adding an after-market turbo charger to your faithful steed. Most (if not all) of the doctrines in the technology profession have grown to support this model: the development and deployment of large IT assets to support an existing business.

However, the role of technology in business is changing. The market of enterprise applications has matured to the point where a range of vendors can supply you with applications to automate any area of the business you care to name, making these applications ubiquitous and commoditized.The new, emerging, model has us looking beyond business technology alignment, trying and identify new business models which can exploit synergies between the two. A trend Forrester has termed, Business-Technology.

The focus has shifted from asset to outcome, changing the rules we built our careers on. Our tendency to define ourselves by the doctrine we learnt/developed yesterday has become a liability. We focus on how we do something, not why we do it, making it hard to change our habits when the assumptions they are founded on no longer apply. With our old doctrines founded on the development and management of large IT assets, we’re ill-equipped to adapt to the new engagement models Business-Technology requires.

The shift to an outcome focus is part of the acceleration of the pace of business. The winners in this environment are constantly inventing new doctrine as they look for better ways to achieve the same outcome. How we conduct business is changing so rapidly that we can’t expect to be doing the same thing in five years time, let alone for the rest of our career. What we learnt to do in our mid 20’s is no longer (entirely) relevant, and doesn’t deliver the same outcome as it used to. Isn’t the definition of insanity continuing to do something the we know doesn’t work? So why, then, do we continue to launch major transformation programmes when we know they have a low chance of success in the current business and social environment? Doctrine has become dogma.

We need to (re)define ourselves along the lines of “I solve problems”: identifying with the outcomes we deliver, at both personal and departmental levels. This allows us to consider a range of doctrines/options/alternatives and look for the best path forward. If we adopt “I am an TOGAF enterprise architect” (or SixSigma black belt, or Prince2, or …) then they will just crank the handle as the process has become more important than the goal. If we adopt “how can I effectively evolve this IT estate the with tools I have”, then we’ll be more successful.

Rolls-Royce and Craig’s List are good examples of organisations using a focus on outcomes to driver their businesses forward. Bruce Lee might even be the poster child of this problem solving mentality. He studies a wide range of fighting doctrines, and designed some of his own, in an attempt to break his habits and find a better way.

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