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Patterns, Complexity, and your IT Strategy


By Roger Lawrence, Chief Technologist, Stategic Enterprise Services - HP South Pacific


As a CTO I’m passionate about a number of topics:

  • How technology can empower people or businesses for success
  • Technology trends and how these shape our world
  • Influence, both at the macro and individual scale

This week I want to discuss complexity, how it informs, and shapes our IT strategy.


It never ceases to amaze me how really smart people can determine a strategy, even execute on this strategy, yet get it so wrong. And fail dismally while they are at it. Often the plan they put in place was considered “best practice.” Ha. 


Over the years I’ve come to observe a couple of things:


  • There is no such thing as “best practice” (despite what consultants prosetylise)
  • We see patterns that don’t exist
  • Hence, most successes are half chance

Clearly I’m using hyperbole to make a point, but bear with me here.


It’s a given that any system has a myriad of moving parts. As humans our brain is wired to recognise patterns. The whole reason we lay down memories is to make sense of the overwhelming sensory inputs—and recognise patterns.


In fact, the six principles of persuasion that Cialdini postulates [Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion], only work because we short-cut tedious decision making according to patterns we recognise.


What is “Best Practice”?


So when it comes to “best practice”, it is developed over time. We see similarities between our organisation and a competitor in the same industry. It may be  similarities in the systems we’re implementing or our business plan. We then seek to reduce cost or effort by following the same process as the competition. Over time, implementers repeat these and create the “best practice.”


Yet, we can adopt the same strategy as another company, in the same geography, and still fail. Why is that?


Often this is an execution issue. Like a fat smoker, we opt for short-term benefits—a donut—rather than sticking to the strategy—the diet, for the long-term results. But my experience is that this is less common than we believe. It strikes me that smart execs analyse trends, make smart decisions to implement good strategies, are committed to staying “on strategy,” yet still many fail.


Best Practice: Is it the strategy or the implementation?


As with any “best practice” the reasons given for failing are that the company hasn’t implemented the strategy correctly. But the strategies are wrong.


Let’s look at two recent tech successes: Apple and Amazon.  Apple heralded an entirely new way to access information, in an already crowded mobile market. While Amazon redefined a 500-year-old process, the published printed word, not to mention the way we will deliver computing—again in a crowded technology market.


Neither company adopted “best practice,” or the strategies of their competitors.


Not the Same


When you consider the complexity of any organisation, the processes that make the business run, the IT systems that support those processes, there is a lot less in common than meets the eye. This is why what we actually believe, and often act upon is a perception. Every organisation is different, they won’t fit into the same mold.

Of course, every parent knows this.


So the IT strategy for two banks of the same size, in the same geography, will be different. Even if they have the same IT platforms, they will have different networks, office buildings, cultures, resistance to change, governance processes and risk mitigation strategies. Why should we consider integrating a complex system in both companies should be the same.


So rather than seeking “best practice”, I believe we should seek “adaptive strategy.” Whenever we’re confronted by people proposing that something is best practice, check their assumptions. Best practice for whom? Compared to what other practices?


Random Points


There’s a great scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” about John Nash, the brilliant economist and Nobel Laureate, that shows how he saw patterns in newspapers, the stars, everything. Only, the patterns were random points connected in his mind alone.


I don’t believe there’s any getting away from recognising patterns in complexity. As I mentioned earlier, this is how we’re wired. As CTO’s it’s our job to understand complexity and define technical solutions to support and enable this.

Part of the challenge is that we see and fixate on patterns in too few dimensions. For example, we appropriately recognise trends in technology, security and risk mitigation. But then we miss patterns in governance, change management, corporate climate and social trends.


Check Assumptions


So, I’ve argued that the patterns we see could well be random points, and not a pattern at all. That the similarities we cling to, in order to implement the best strategy, are superficial at best. And that nevertheless, it’s our role to implement a successful strategy.


I suggest a three pronged approach:

  • Describe as much of the complexity as possible and never stop adding to your description. Use tools such as PESTLE, RACI, Root Cause Analysis, Visual and Mathematical Models, Intel’s BVI, and the 6 Thinking Hats to describe your business and IT systems as clearly as possible.
  • Check your assumptions (and analysis) with as diverse a group of people as possible. I had lunch with a friend who happens to be the GM of a new client of ours last Sunday. His perspective is that the new helpdesk was “pretty ordinary” and in chatting to him, it turned out that the helpdesk had pretty much nailed their SLA’s, yet as a customer he still felt neglected and dissatisfied. It was a humbling perspective for me, and invaluable feedback. So when you believe you have a handle on the complexity, go and talk to the HR Director, a new employee, and other stakeholders. Ensure that your team has diverse thinkers: process types, creatives, analysts and empathists.
  • Be humble and adaptive, this is not cast in bronze. As you learn more about the complexity of the system, be prepared to hold on to old technologies you felt were outdated, adopt new ones you believed were immature, and iterate. Consider Borders, and more recently, Kodak, both companies that didn’t understand social impacts of changing trends, or couldn’t adapt their strategies to thrive.

It’s almost a given that as CIO or CTO, you will have deep knowledge, strong opinions, and a quick intellect. Consider it almost a personality profile for the role. However, in an increasingly integrated and complex world, I suggest using the collective strength of the team to ensure your strategy is the best one for your business.

There is no difference between theory and practice, in theory....
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About the Author


Roger has been trying to get out of Information Technology since programming COBOL on mainframes in the late '80's. But no matter in which continent he awoke, or whom employed him, his passion to enable people with technology was constant. So now he enables businesses to determine their strategy using the latest technologies like cloud computing, mobility, and big data. HP calls these Strategic Enterprise Services, Roger calls them "another day in the office."

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