Originally written for and posted at blogs@liatrio.
Enterprises look like very busy places. There is a lot of activity – massive programs and projects, long off-sites, strategy sessions, big investment portfolios, a whole lot of people, and a whole lot of action. But is work really getting done? If so, is it getting done the right way and with the right direction and momentum with a flow of ideas from implementation to delivery to customer satisfaction? And is there a culture of continuous learning, along with fast feedback and the optimization and use of that feedback?
The answer is almost always NO.
One of the biggest things that leads to enterprise delivery problems is the inability to see work flowing from ideation to customers across an organization’s various teams/functional units. If enterprises were manufacturing plants, then we could witness the transformation from raw materials to finished goods, along with all of the roles, responsibilities, touch points, milestones, and roadblocks along the way. Unfortunately, however, many of these key details are hidden – or at least difficult to identify – in technology organizations, especially large enterprises. This lack of visibility is chronic and is present at all levels – people, process, and technology.
Hidden Ways of Working
The hidden ways of working I’m talking about include how hiring decisions are made, why some teams are overstaffed or understaffed, why some underperforming teams continue to receive patronage, and why some strong performers are maligned even after doing good work. Understanding these hidden details and pinpointing their root causes is one of the first things we do when we start working with an organization. Without this information, it’s nearly impossible to capture the current reality and develop and implement a meaningful, forward-thinking strategy that will bring long-term value to the entire enterprise.
An enterprise’s hidden ways of working point to a much larger problem that permeates our industry – overestimating the level of performance or value of a certain team, functional unit, technology selection, project, etc. Enterprise delivery problems result when enterprises overvalue the contribution of this individual or that supposedly “successful initiative” or “successful team.” This tendency is usually the result of not looking under the hood to identify the true cost of projects and programs, including waste accrued through delays and rework; quality of people in a team (those who do and do not add value); the true quality of code; automation that solves problems vs. obstructs flow, etc. Discovering these kinds of details is an art, and because there is little incentive to do the hard work, it’s easier to take the talking points at face value and a lot of issues remain hidden.
For example, if we were to ask the leading contributors of 95% of the IT teams we work with what performance issues they see, the top three issues almost always are: “Business does not know requirements,” “test data is bad or does not exist,” and “our environment doesn’t work.”Does that sound familiar? Next time you hear these kinds of statements, probe a bit deeper instead of taking them for granted, and you may notice how no one can articulate what’s really going on or provide any additional details. The details and the quantification of those details are so hidden that these kinds of statements just become accepted as fact without problem.
So what causes the work in enterprises to be hidden? Let’s dig in to some enterprise delivery problems.
One of the largest (time and money) enterprise delivery problems involves senior leaders who have their own agendas and who attempt to solve the same problems in fundamentally conflicting or divergent ways without sufficient dialogue or collaboration. For example, one team may be building an internal cloud platform with a large vendor that gives them some features of a cloud platform but mirrors the current datacenter solutions (and its problems). Another team may actively try to push the envelope to build some services on a public cloud without much regard to operationalizing it. And in this process, another group might invest millions of dollars in a system that cannot ever be ported to a public or private cloud platform!
This kind of scenario happens all the time, even when there are massive yearly planning meetings and documented project rationalizations. This kind of scenario happens because the intent of the projects is so generic that unless one digs in it’s hard to really understand. And at the senior leadership level, few people have the time to do the digging. (An argument could be made that this scenario is really a clever ploy by senior enterprise leadership to drive competition between teams to see who achieves a particular goal faster. While that’s possible in some instances, I believe teams get away with it because their work is so invisible!)
Outsourcing is a touchy subject in enterprise IT, but it’s one we can’t ignore. Outsourcing and overuse of contracting firms are prevalent across enterprises, and the resulting enterprise delivery problems are often extensive.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with enterprise use of contracting firms, at least on the surface. After all, these firms are in the business of providing services that enterprises need. That said, problems often arise in one or more of three areas: (1) lack of quality in contracting resources (in comparison with enterprise FTEs), (2) enterprise leaders’ unwillingness to let contracting firms deliver value without excessive oversight, and (3) the never-ending cycle of problem firms being hired to solve the quality or speed issues that they themselves created.
One of the things that hurts enterprises the most is local optimization of teams over the greater benefits derived from enterprise-wide process and productivity optimization. Some teams and leaders look to make the cost/barriers of entry of work into their teams so high that the purpose of the team is negated. These teams and leaders damage the productivity of the whole enterprise. When teams tend to focus more on enforcement vs. enablement, it’s the enterprise that loses its ability to operate effectively. (Unfortunately, the optics of “my team is doing well” often trumps that of “the entire organization/enterprise is doing well.”)
Not surprisingly, uncovering local optimization issues is extremely difficult, as local optimization “successes” are often veiled in jargon that tends to appeal to senior management (think terms like “full automation,” “metrics,” “dashboards,” and “ROI”).
Shortage of Leaders Who Can Uplift Skills
Enterprise delivery problems result when teams lack leaders who have people skills and who excel at skills growth and skills management. The reason’s simple: Few folks with the actual skills to do the work raise to the top. Instead, team leaders are often project and program managers who focus exclusively on managing people and delegating work without fully understanding the work being done. As a result, the quality of work suffers, leading to the death spiral of competing solutions, outsourcing, and local optimization.
In many corporate cultures, skills management and uplift are seen as performance improvement activities – tasks involving one or more people not doing a good job. The thing is, all skills require practice and constant improvement and re-education. Enterprises often ask us how they can hire DevOps experts or great DevOps leaders. From what we have seen, the answer is clear: Enterprises that want better tech leads, better automation engineers, and more highly skilled technical managers and leaders must first get better at delivery by hiring people with strong technical and communication skills and focusing on continuous learning and improvement.
Eliminate Enterprise Delivery Problems and Become an Efficient Delivery Organization
While the list above is by no means exhaustive, it highlights important (and extremely complex) issues that we often find hidden in enterprises. Interestingly enough, many organizations think their issues are unique. The truth is that, at a macro level, the same types of issues cause almost all enterprise delivery problems. The real challenge involves getting to the root of these issues and creating a roadmap to resolving them.
In upcoming posts, we’ll talk in greater depth about how to identify hidden institutional knowledge and overcome organizational obstacles in order to accelerate innovation and enterprise transformation.