Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Why mice get to eat dinosaurs

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Many of us work for a reason. We have something we want to achieve. We want to make change, fix a problem, get stuff done. In the ideal scenario 100% of our efforts are focused on exactly that.

Funnily enough, that's also the reason for every business ever to start. Every start-up is a solution to a problem that someone stumbled on, woke up screaming about or otherwise identified a 'gap on the market'.

So why does it often feel like your ambition to get things done, to make things better, ends up being constrained by the very organisations that were meant to be configured to share in and scale your ability to make that difference?

It's an old conundrum - labelled variously Dis-economies of Scale, career politics, empire building, silo'd thinking etc. Whatever the name the result is immense waste, both for the businesses themselves and for the customers they aim to serve.

This waste gets formalised in structural inertia that constrains the organisation's ability to adapt.
And unless these are understood, acknowledged and a plan for responding to them is drawn up - well that inertia will keep things as they were, stalling the ability to compete.

Of course you don't need to worry if there are no new entrants to your market arriving without all those constraints. But if there are (there always are) then you must address them or try to compete with roughly half your capability and capacity to respond focused on dealing with internal drag instead of focused on meeting market need.

The start-up mentality comes without the brakes. It's little surprise therefore that in case after case the businesses that have succeeded since digital began (you know the examples off by heart by now) have been start-ups built on a different way of working. I'm not saying every start-up will out-compete every incumbent. I am saying that those that survive long enough to emerge to compete come without the inertia of incumbents and are instantly better positioned to perform better.

The inability or unwillingness to identify and deal with their inertia is also why it is so hard to point to a large scale incumbent business in any sector and claim they have pulled off a genuine transformation driven by digital. Orgs that were not born digital have to deal with a heap of internal inertia such as:

Resistance to:

  • Ending old supplier relationships in order to establish new ones. Better the devil you know, right?
  • Admitting you may have backed the wrong horse (eg ending investments you built the case for and/or supported in the past). I haven't got to where I am today without sticking to my guns, right?
  • Moving monoliths of capability and capacity from old to new requirements. What do we do with all these mouths we always fed with the old, while we scramble towards where the market is actually headed?
  • Cannibalising what you do with cheaper alternatives. But that hits my margins! (Sure, wait for someone to eat your business from outside instead then).
  • Anything we aren't absolutely clear about, have little experience in, or isn't core to our strengths. We have no expertise in X. Hint - if it's new, nor does anyone else. The thing to be expert in is learning and responding at speed.
  • New Data. Seriously - how many times have you heard 'we tried this before and it failed' when the whole landscape in which the plan was meant to operate has shifted? New guys don't have your hang-ups (or as you may prefer to call it in the boardroom, your 'corporate memory')
  • Accepting that success in your old model is not what's required to succeed in the new. Proven leaders in the old are just the folk for the new, right?
All of these and several others lead to the most debilitating inertia of all - rabbit-in-headlights syndrome. This is the resistance to making a decision in time to jump.

Of course - not only must you be able to make a decision fast enough, you also need to know which way to jump. That's where real strategy plays, where you ditch the 4x4s to find the insight to really understand the landscape, your opponents, the direction of travel of change/market demand, the wisest places to attack and defend, and the challenges yourselves and your rivals face in implementing the tactics that attack or defence will requireAnd I've shared much on this in recent posts. (eg The Job Of Digital Strategy).

For today, let's focus on how we can remove some of this inertia.

Perhaps its worth taking some lessons from DevOps (and emerging DesOps). It seems odd to me that many incumbent organisations are taking up, or being sold on, the advantages of one or both to make things but rarely getting the hint that perhaps this is how they should be organising themselves to operate for value.

For example, high-level lessons from DevOps:

Measure: Localise accountability.
This requires the redistribution of the power to act - you can't ask for accountability without it. Flattened hierarchies are pretty much inevitable.

Speed: Get to “learn” as quickly as possible.
That demands some Scrum Mastery... driving the notion of server-leaders whose job is to support the makers on their mission, and remove obstacles. If the inertias are your obstacles then, game on. This one organisational focus could save it.

Responsive: Pivot on lessons quickly.
See above. Speed without the power/capacity/capability to respond is just a faster way to crash).

Automate: Use software to do more to help create and manage what can be automated.
See also the idea of Scrum Mastery - as in removing obstacles, accelerating pace, repeating what can be replicated (getting to nuts and bolts you can re-use vs making a new set of nuts and bolts for each piece of work).

Small chunks: Reduce risk through compartmentalisation.
This one large orgs really struggle with. Small teams working at speed, enjoying distributed power with the capacity and capability to act on their own decisions).

There is power in these basic tenets of DevOps, much of it writ-through agile approaches and all of it core to a new way of working.

But let's be clear, this requires a different way of working, different flows of capital, different distributions of power. These come as standard in start-ups. But unless and until you are able to match the freedom to move that a start-up is born with, you will be out-competed, as sure as mammals followed dinosaurs.

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?