The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon thrived for a thousand years. Their economy depended on wood harvested from the extensive forests that grew in the canyon and the surrounding hillsides.
The population grew, they cleared, first the local forests, then an expanding radius. The soil, without trees to hold it in place, eroded. Chaco Canyon became a desert, and the Anasazi were gone.
Jared Diamond’s Collapse is about sustainability, and about societies whose customs and habits — the behaviors that seemed to be the sources of their success — were, without their knowing it, creating damage that accumulated until it became irreparable. It led me to wonder what practices CIOs commonly engage in that might, in some analogous fashion, make their IT organizations unsustainable. To categorize the possibilities, I turned to IT Catalysts’ IT Effectiveness Framework, which divides the factors needed to sustain IT organizations into business alignment, process maturity, technical architecture, and human performance. In order:
IT aligns with its business collaborators through both formal governance and informal relationships. Correct governance is the centerpiece of IT sustainability, because that’s where the company decides its investments in information technology. Whether IT governance results in sustainability or decline depends on a key decision: Whether each project approval also approves the staffing increase needed to maintain the newly implemented functionality.
It’s a simple equation: Build or integrate a new application and you need staff to maintain it. If the CIO can’t hire them, IT will experience increased demand without increasing supply. And as even first-year students in economics know, the only possible outcomes are price increases or shortages, and price increases are politically unpalatable at best.
Eventually it does become clear that IT is seriously understaffed. By then, the staff increases needed to recover exceed what the business can afford, because businesses won’t stash these savings. They’ll spend the money that should be added to the IT budget elsewhere.
IT’s network of informal relationships can also result in unsustainable decisions — mostly by creating a governance bypass channel that approves favored projects while ignoring the requirements of good governance.
Too little process breeds Chaos. It’s fun and imposes very little overhead, so it can create the impression of very high productivity. Among its many drawbacks is that when work becomes idiosyncratic, the loss of a single employee can be crippling. Another, very popular one is that with chaos generally comes poor testing and worse change control, leading to occasionally serious business disruption.
The damage from chaos, though, is generally small in scale — it isn’t wonderful, but is sustainable. Even better, chaos usually leads to overstaffing, creating an opportunity to compensate for bad governance by instituting stronger processes.
Too much process breeds the opposite of chaos — stifling, choking bureaucracy. Bureaucracy reproduces mitotically — once you have any, you’ll inevitably end up with more. It can turn IT into an environment where productive employees have to wade through a vastly larger population of approvers and reviewers whose sole purpose is to prevent anything creative from ever taking place. Too much process quickly leads to unsustainable IT.
Bad architecture is easily achieved and difficult to repair. It can include reliance on obsolete platforms, undisciplined data design that doesn’t clearly establish a single “source of truth,” and a failure to decommission old applications following implementation of their replacements … so now you have two of them.
The single biggest architectural cause of unsustainability, though, is bad integration — the sloppy creation of ad hoc interfaces between overlapping applications and databases. The result: Not a mere spiderweb, but (as one client described it) a hairball. Once you’ve built a hairball you have to maintain it, leading to an ever-decreasing portion of project effort going to anything useful.
Put the right people with the right skills and the right attitudes in the right roles. Give them flexible processes to help get their work done when they fit the situation, and to ignore or improve when they don’t. Make decisions quickly and remove whatever barriers management has accidentally imposed. The results: Amazing. Also, rare.
More often, non-performers accumulate, mediocre managers hire worse supervisors, training counts as expense rather than investment, and employees are locked away in “job jail,” where they either Retire In Place or leave for better opportunities. Ineffective employees and bad habits accumulate, and your best employees depart. The results: Crippling.
Collapse is always the story of chain reactions — of bad situations making themselves worse at an accelerating pace. Smart CIOs are constantly on the lookout for the factors that lead to it, for the same reason as your loyal author:
They’re the enemy of our shared goal — to keep the joint running.