Some time ago, shortly after accepting my first CIO role at an insurance carrier, I had a chance to spend some quality time with one of my several new bosses, the President of one of our operating companies. He was a gregarious guy with a personality as big as all outdoors. He also had a way of sneaking up on issues, then landing the “money shot” square between the eyes. I quickly learned to be a very active listener in his presence since there was always meaning, beyond the words, in what he said.
As we were discussing the state of multiple aging record keeping platforms, funding constraints for the New Year and some of the challenges related to hiring / retaining key skill sets, he suddenly leaned back with one of those very far away looks on his face. That’s when he popped the question.
“So, what is the fastest way from Point A to Point B?” he asked. Armed with advanced math skills but somewhat naive to his style I quickly offered the text book response: “a straight line”.
Smiling fleetingly, he shared his reaction which was, paraphrased, “that **** never works”. It sounds good but as a practical matter was exactly the wrong answer to the posed question.
The correct response, he shared, was to take a page from the sailing captain’s guide and always be prepared to tack. Look at the waves, the sails, the clouds and other environmental factors, always being prepared to adjust to circumstances. Being properly positioned and flexible enough to pick up the power of the wind and take advantage of “flows” can be the critical difference between a successful journey and something that ends with Titanic-like results (i.e., a scuttled ship, limited survivors). This wasn’t an argument for variable project objectives but rather recognition of the realities of organizational dynamics, an awareness of time management considerations and realization that unexpected things will always happen on a journey. More specifically, it supports the premise that these deviations from set assumptions can alter circumstances a lot. Of course the irony is that the Titanic was, sadly, on a straight line course when things went horribly, tragically, wrong for just these reasons. A blind faith that advanced technology and willpower will somehow overcome certain types of surprise events fails to recognize reality. Charging into an icepack at high speed has predictable results; the defense that it wasn’t supposed to be there is interesting, but of little practical value.
The wisdom of that bit of advice has significant implications for IT organizations today. Certainly knowing where one is going is absolutely vital for CIO’s and IT managers if they are going to provide effective organizational leadership. In order for CIO’s to be constructive contributors to strategic discussions they need to aware of both technical and business issues so that effective tradeoffs can be made which enable the pursuit of specific, tangible, goals. The achievement of those goals will, by definition, be about hard work that will require unflinching navigation skills to get through the political and cultural landmines that mark every organization. At the same time, however, an unbending, contextually unaware, overly zealous pursuit of a specific long term goal that is based on a beeline between two fixed points is more than likely headed for disappointment if not outright disaster. The insurance industry is littered with examples of large scale project failures that tried to execute on the shortest line model, uninformed by the need to factor in the practical realities of both organizational and technical change.
In reality, today’s agile development philosophy is completely in synch with the sailing captain model. Going in sprints, course correcting frequently, taking advantage of lessons learned along the way and being prepared to deliver real value throughout a journey rather than focusing on singular Big Bang event at a terminal point, all suggests an incredibly valuable circumstantial awareness. These elements sharply increase the probability of organizational success for delivering on big projects while concurrently improving the odds that the delivered capabilities will meet the business needs of the enterprise. The opportunity that this methodology offers for appropriately recognizing the importance of changing environmental factors also improves project economics, by maximizing the upside potential (while minimizing the tendency to throw good money after bad). The reality is that delivering a project that matches the requirements developed years earlier, while effectively missing the current state business needs, represents a pretty hollow victory for any IT organization.
Sometimes when we hear things it takes a while for the true meaning of a conversation to be illuminated. That was certainly true of this bit of insight. The more time I spend in the insurance technology world, the greater my appreciation for the wisdom of sailing captains.