The most significant challenge in communicating a new idea is convincing people it isn’t exactly the same as a superficially similar, older idea they’ve already embraced.
A classic example: During the introduction of object-oriented technology, many warhorse programmers were sure they’d been doing that stuff all along in COBOL. They then went on to write 10,000-line C++ objects with no encapsulated logic.
A similar, current example: The object-competent developers who are convinced there’s no difference between services and objects. (Although in their defense, clear, concise explanations of the differences are scarce. The best I’ve found, with help, is an IBM paper titled Service-oriented modeling and architecture by Ali Arsanjani. Recommended.)
This equation of the old with the new also seems to be the case with respect to Steven Spear’s contention, made in his new book Chasing the Rabbit, that continuously improved understanding matters more than continuously improved processes.
Last week’s column discussed how post mortems fit into this subject. My correspondence suggests that many who appear to agree haven’t yet recognized the distinction.
The usual approach to post mortems, also called “debriefing sessions,” is to make decisions: What worked well and should be preserved, what didn’t work well and should be discontinued, and what new ideas should be tried.
At IT Catalysts we’ve promoted this approach for years and it has proven quite useful. Based on Spear’s book, though, we’re rethinking it, because the type of post mortem proposed last week, based on Spear’s research, is quite different. The goal of the new approach is an improved understanding of How Things Work. Without this, decision-makers are guessing … trusting their guts rather than modeling an improved system of operation.
This emphasis on deep understanding runs counter to mainstream American culture. We aren’t a society that tends to value deep understanding. We value decisiveness and get impatient with what we’re pleased to call analysis paralysis.
And yet, a deep understanding of How Things Work is an investment in speed.
Consider three popular business decision-making loops: Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), Deming and Shewhart’s PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) and Six Sigma’s DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). All three depend on the ability to integrate new information into an existing framework of understanding (Observe and Orient in OODA; Study and Act in PDSA; Measure, Analyze and Improve in DMAIC).
Of the three, only OODA is explicit regarding the value of speed: Those whose OODA loops are faster tend to win, by confusing an opponent, thereby creating more opportunities for mistakes.
Yet even OODA depends on the quality of analysis as well as its cycle time. OODA’s Decide is the creation of a “Decision Hypothesis,” and its “Act” constitutes a test of that hypothesis. With only a shallow understanding of How Things Work, the decision hypothesis will be little more than a dressed-up guess, at which point OODA practitioners either lose time to arguing or make fast, bad decisions that will puzzle their opponents more than confusing them.
Take it home to running an IT organization. A deep understanding of How Things Work improves everything IT does. For example:
- Developers with deep knowledge … of how the business operates, and of its supporting systems … can address new business challenges in a tiny fraction of the time required by even the most efficient of formal methodologies, because most of the outputs of business analysis, systems analysis and application engineering will already exist as a conceptual model in the developer’s mind.
- Managers who have deep knowledge of the people who report to them … their individual strengths, aptitudes and career direction, and who works best with whom … will assign responsibilities far more efficiently, and to far better effect, than those who don’t value this knowledge.
- CIOs who have deep knowledge of the company executives they work with … their organizational goals, personal aspirations, need for power or recognition, and political interrelationships … will be far more effective in gaining the time, attention and resources IT needs to get its job done properly.
- IT organizations whose members have a shared understanding of everything that has to happen to properly deliver and manage the enterprise’s information technology will be in a position to do so efficiently and collaboratively instead of wasting time and energy by being at cross purposes.
Investments in deep knowledge are similar to investments in infrastructure. Both add significant overhead to the organization. Both constrain it, too, focusing its energies into known, predictable, highly scalable ways of doing business.
Comparing the two, knowledge has one advantage.
It’s more versatile.