IT Transformation is like a Lobster Crate Race
For those who don’t live in New England, let’s first define some terms. What is a lobster crate race?
This is a common feature of summertime harbor festivals here. I saw one in Camden, Maine. Lobster crates are tethered together and strung across a section of the harbor. Contestants have to run across the crates without tipping over or falling into the drink. And of course it’s timed. Successful contestants, often children, are fleet of foot and carefully plan their strides to hit the middle of each crate, while keeping their vision ahead to consider the position of the next crate. Unsuccessful contestants spend too much time on one crate, which causes the crate to sink under their weight, or they hit the edge of a crate as they run, causing the crate to tip and spilling the contestant into the water.
What does this have to do with IT transformation?
First of all, there’s a temptation for many IT organizations to think of their transformation initiative along the lines of a large multi-year software deployment: define requirements, design the architecture, implement the design, and then train your operations team. Such a heavy footprint will cause your transformation initiative to sink at the first crate. Instead, the question is what minimum functions you can get up and running in the first few months to get the valuable feedback from the target consumers and the valuable experience of the architecture and operations teams learning how to work in this new model.
IT folks are also tempted to try to get everything right before releasing anything. While this made sense in former times when even small mistakes could bring down a major application, in today’s fast-paced world of digital business, it bogs down the pace of innovation and learning from the marketplace. You have to make a quick step, keep your feet up and aim for the next milestone. What’s more important than a perfect release is a rapid series of releases with improved functionality and capability with each release. Keep your vision focused on planning a few “crates” (releases) ahead so that you can manage a consistent stride from create to crate.
Finally, IT has traditionally tried to meet the different needs of every application and business consumer, often with elaborate customization for each particular need. It’s hard to achieve economies of scale when you’re worried about meeting every requirement. In the terms of the lobster crate race, you run the risk of veering too far from the straight, middle course, and you and your initiative can topple off to one side or the other. Instead, think hard about how well different parts of your application portfolio and business unit partners align with the capabilities of your evolving transformation architecture so that you can weave them in at the right time with a minimum of alteration and disruption.
The biggest challenge for many IT organizations in achieving their transformation objectives is not a shortage of technical talent, nor a lack of desire to change to a new model, but rather a lack of understanding of how the traditional IT technical assumptions and mental models are ill-suited for the pace demanded by digital business, and what mental models they now need to embrace to meet these heightened business expectations.
With the arrival of spring, we in New England, even IT types, are spending more time outdoors. Anyone ready for a lobster crate race?