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The root cause of the root causes

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The economy is ugly and will stay ugly for quite awhile to come. The impact on IT will be mixed. Worst of all: The significant and long-lasting pressure to reduce costs will, for many shops, result in the nearly certain deferral of non-discretionary expenses.

If that sounds too much like a consulting mouthful, in PlainSpeak it means putting off preventive maintenance and dodging new releases, even though the consequence will be to spend much more in the future to catch up.

That’s the worst. The best: Superficially attractive ideas that don’t really work thrive during periods of prosperity. Hardship makes them go away. Much of what has been going wrong can be traced back to ideas that look wonderful from high altitudes but fall apart under the close scrutiny they rarely receive.

Puncturing the worst of these bad ideas, and providing alternatives that work, is the reason I wrote Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology. Chapter 12 covers the worst of the worst — it’s titled “Digest with intestines, think with brain.” (Nekkid sales pitch: Don’t delay — if the book helps you avoid just one of the boneheaded so-called “best practices” promoted by self-proclaimed experts who have never had to run IT, your return on investment will be approximately 1,403.58%.)

Where was I? Oh, yes: Intestinal cognition. It’s a rarely mentioned root-cause in discussions regarding our current financial contretemps. It deserves special mention.

A perennially popular myth has it that trusting your gut is a good idea. It’s distinct from, but closely related to a parallel cognitive sin, Intellectual Relativism. The difference: Intellectual relativists consider the use of evidence and logic in making decisions to be futile, where those who trust their guts consider it to be a waste of time.

Checking the archives, it appears KJR first warned about intellectual relativism more than three years ago (“Political science,” 10/3/2005). I took my first shot at trusting one’s gut way back in 2001 (“And the best managers are …” July 16, 2001).

It also appears that with everything I’ve written about these subjects, I failed to warn just how dire the consequences can be.

For the record: Intellectual relativism and gut-based decision-making affect organizations at all levels and sizes, with potentially disastrous results. At the smallest scale they can prevent workgroups from achieving basic competence. At the largest it can drive entire nations to ruin.

Start one level down, with CEOs (this isn’t, after all, a political column). Divide them into two groups — call them Diogeneses and Rumpelstiltskins.

Diogenes spent his life searching for an honest man. Among CEOs, Diogeneses insist on straight talk and clear understanding, so they can make excellent decisions themselves and encourage the entire organization to do likewise.

Rumpelstiltskin, you’ll recall, spun straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskinesque CEOs spin informational straw, and worse, into fool’s gold, so as to earn huge bonuses while helping to sell the company’s most important product … a share of stock.

Were you to start a list with Enron (remember Enron?) and add every subsequent major failed corporate giant to it, I’d bet every one had a Rumpelstiltskin at the helm.

IT leaders need to keep the Rumpelstiltskins out of their organizations, too. It’s a constant challenge.

Project reporting is a good place to start, and sets the tone for everything else. Keep it simple: Every project, every week, is either green (on track), yellow (at risk of slippage), or red (off the rails).

Some CIOs consider Yellow or Red to be unacceptable. Those CIOs hear, every week, that every project is in the Green … until a project suddenly turns Red without warning.

A Diogenes CIO, in contrast, promotes a broad understanding that Yellow status is highly desirable from time to time. Yellow means project managers know risks sometimes turn into realities, recognize problems when they see them, and spend their energy fixing them instead of sweeping them under the carpet.

Project reporting is one example among many. Here’s the broader logic, step by step:

1. Small problems are easier to fix than big ones.

2. Left untended, small problems turn into big ones.

3. Rumpelstiltskins make small problems look like successes instead of fixing them.

Try this: Hang a sign in the entryway to IT that reads, “Rumpelstiltskin isn’t welcome here.”

If nothing else, it should get everyone’s attention.

When first published, the above column erroneously blamed Rapunzel for the sins of Rumpelstiltskin. My thanks to all who pointed out the error.

– Bob

Comments (19)

  • Not Rapunzel, Rumpelstilzchen.

  • Wrong Grimm Tale? Try Rumplestiltskin in place of Rapunzel. But point well made anyway!

  • I love your column. I’m going to have a problem seeing it at work because the site that you are moving to is blocked by our filter – “some of the content may be hosting sites.” I’ve sent in an exemption request but I don’t expect results. Rapunzel had golden hair which she let down so that the prince could climb up. Rumpelstiltskin enabled a poor man’s daughter to spin straw into gold because the father told the king she could. Rumpelstiltskin wanted her first-born child. I’m not sure how to deal with the confusion I feel due to your reference to the wrong fairy tale. Does this mean that other things that you’ve said that I repeated to colleagues to make myself sound smart were … not exactly correct? Gah!

  • Great colum as usual. But I don’t think Rapunzel was the one who spun straw into gold; Rapunzel was the one with the long hair. The girl who spun straw into gold was in the Rumpelstiltskin story. Anyway, she didn’t do it, Rumpelstiltskin did.

    At least that’s the way it went according to Fractured Fairy Tales.

  • Rumpelstiltskin was the guy who spun straw into gold.

    Rapunzel was a girl locked into a tower and the only way in was to climb up her long hair.

    I’m sure you could write a column about IT being locked in a tower or something.

  • This is exactly what caused the automaker’s failure.

  • Greetings Bob,
    My comments are not concerning your latest excellent newsletter. Fortunately Rapunzel doesn’t work in my company.

    I’d like for you to take a look at John Dvorak’s recent columns in PC Magazine. Specifically his observations about how AOL has changed the way PCs have been used. I started working with IBM and computers back in ’65, as a “memory assembler” and worked my way to a position with them as an “applications programmer”, back then we also had “systems programmers”. With the PCs we got away from those distinctions, now every PC owner has to do their own systems programming and I think it is basically too difficult for the average Joe. I include myself in that group; I recently purchased components and built a nice, powerful, machine. Installing and configuring the various pieces of software has proven to be extremely difficult, error-prone, and frustrating. Assembling the hardware was a snap but it still does not work right and it’s my fault. I see this as an indication of why people would want to use online applications, set up is minimal, maintenance is minimal, and the details are left to the “experts” somewhere else. That’s fine as long as you have a reliable, fast, internet to use. If terrorists could shut down the internet we’d be in big trouble.

    On another note, I’ve been watching the financial gyrations of our country experiencing first-hand what has happened to our economy and the economy of the world. The problems we are facing are being experienced with the whole world. Why? Even though we seem to be despised by many, they’re still going through the same problems. Are they so tied to the US that we are causing it or is it that there are multitudes of Rapunzels out there using their spread-sheets for personal gain?

    Thanks again for your excellent newsletter and insight,

  • You have your fairy tales mixed up. Rapunzel had long golden hair. It was Rumpelstiltskin who spun straw into gold.

  • I think the secret of accurate gut instincts is having a lot of expertise in the subject area as not all hunches are the same.

    FYI, Rupunzel was the one with the long hair trapped in the tower, Rumplestilskin was the spinner of straw to Gold.

  • “Rapunzel not welcome here” translates to “princesses with long golden hair not welcome here”. This may inadvertantly apply to IT, for better or worse. But was probably not what you intended.

    Rapunzel was the princess with long golden hair locked in a tower by an evil “enchantress”. Rumpelstiltskin was the dwarf that spun straw into gold. Wikipedia is a wonderful thing.

  • I have seen a version of Rapunzel where she spun straw into gold as a prisoner of a witch, who asked her to let down her hair so she could climb up and get the gold. (Then the prince made a hostile takeover, yada, yada, yada.) I belive the version is Scandinavian.

    The failure of Washington Mutual is a perfect example. The head of lending approved very aggressive (management speak for “stupid”) subprime lending, expecting the bubble to burst but planning on unloading the problem mortgages on Wall Street when the slide started. Unfortunately, his staff reported “All Green” right up to the end, when unloading had ceased to be an option.

    I think you also one wrote about driving off a cliff because no one had the courage to tell the CEO-driver that a cliff was coming . . .

  • Bob: There’s another danger related to the gut-instinct plague, and that is to substitute emotional “analysis” for real analysis when evaluating facts. Emotions are wonderful things, but they are a distraction and a weakness when attempting to conduct any kind of objective analysis. Unfortunately, there is an increasing willingness to substitute emotional “judgement” for the discipline of (a) sifting facts, (b) drawing conclusions from those facts, and (c) being willing to subject the analysis and conclusions to rigorous peer review. This tendency to depend on emotions is even extending itself into the scientific arena, and there are guilty parties and dirty hands on all sides of almost every scientific question. Your citing of discussions around global warming is a good example: I have yet to see any analysis that (a) identifies all potential error sources, (b) creates a probability distribution for each source of error, and (c) provides a summary probability distribution for the potential outcomes. All I can get is the emotional, “All reputable folks believe this…” nonsense. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but you’d think that by now that analysis would be out there for everyone to see, in terms simple enough for even the simplest simpleton among us to appreciate. That’s the way adults do science.

  • You have switched something and for the past few weeks, parts of the newsletter have been unreadable. For this current one, the picture of you is laid over the text at the top and the left side of the first few paragraphs are on top of one another. The first paragraph I can completely read starts with “Diogenes spent”. I am trying to read it via Firefox.

  • Dear Bob, I will miss reading your KJR newsletters. I haven’t received a confirming email and I don’t have my spam filter active. I have re-subscribed on your web site but the latest newsletter again has that warning about this could be my list issue, etc. Is this goodbye?

  • I think you’ve mixed up your fairy tales. Rapunzel did not spin straw into gold. She is the one who was shut up in a tower and had to let down her hair so the witch who had taken her could climb up to see her. In the Rumpelstiltskin story, the girl is simply referred to as the miller’s daughter, and later as the queen. There is no name given in the versions I have read. Google the two stories and see if you find the same result.

  • Sorry to keep complaining, but I don’t recall Rumpelstiltskin doing any spinning.

  • Just a thought. I am not sure we need to jump on every upgrade every time. Skipping a few can save a lot of time and money and not put an organization into obsolecense. The vendors come out with new stuff faster than it can be digested. Are we better off becoming expert users of some functionality or stay right up to date and be chasing excellence?

    The point is, companies need to consciously decide what they will install and what they will skip.

Comments are closed.