The toxic production line

Part 6 of a series on toxic technology.

Large organisations can feel like out-of-control production lines. Everyone is doing their best to keep up, but the demand keeps coming. This feeling comes from a lack of mastery and empowerment. It is caused by command and control culture, and reinforced by traditional governance. Where technology is involved, the production line experience is more common. This is because technology is a particularly counter-intuitive and unpredictable medium. Delivering technology exposes the false certainty of established ways of working.

When you’re on this production line, and have no control, your decisions become focused on the short term only, such as:

  • how to deliver the next feature
  • what to do about an expiring contract
  • how to handle a live incident

This relentless focus on the short term only creates the conditions for accumulating risk, and toxic technology.

The threat of not keeping up

The production line is sometimes at full speed, because the existence of a team or organisation is threatened. People find themselves fighting for funding, skills or a mandate to deliver. There could be a direct threat to employment. The organisation could fail entirely.

In these conditions, continuing to exist will be the top priority. Maintaining cash-flow, obtaining new investment, or renewing spending allocations, forces teams to focus on survival at the expense of longer term strategy. In some circumstances these conditions are unavoidable, where driven by market pressures or major strategic change. But in stable organisations existential threats remain commonplace (even though they’re avoidable). They are concocted by command-and-control managers, or are the side effects of bad governance.

Corporate sci-fi

Traditional business cases create the conditions for an out-of-control production line. Prior to business cases being approved, activity is focused on writing the case, and convincing the powerful to invest. A sense of peril is created as teams await the thumbs-up or thumbs-down from above. Teams face successive demands for more detail and false certainty. They must write elaborate, highly convincing works of speculative fiction.

Throughout this period, strategic delivery is suppressed. This means that some teams must solve problems which can’t wait for the business case to be approved. This ‘business-as-usual’ is often very unusual – the world changes fast, not least in times of pandemics. Prior to signing-off a major business case, maintenance and improvement become squeezed, and toxic technology accumulates.

When business case sign-off is finally achieved, the conditions are very different. Focus can return to delivery, and often longer-term thinking. Some organisations move on quickly from the business case – adapting the plan, priorities and approaches in response to research and delivery. In many cases however, culture and established ways-of-working treat the plan as a series of commitments. A new production line emerges – teams must work unsustainably to make their reality match the fiction of the business case. This happens because leaders see business cases as a contract – money and priority in exchange for outputs. This is intractable – a work of fiction cannot be a contract.

Compounding the issue, the authors of business cases are incentivised to be optimistic – this is how they convince people to give them money! Optimism in planning sets the most challenging conditions for those who must honour the fictional contract. Again, maintenance and continuous improvement are where the squeeze happens. The easiest way to maintain the fiction, is to focus on what’s visible, and hide away the growing risk.

Digital technology isn’t made in factories

Teams don’t need to be on an out-of-control production line. Delivering and sustaining good technology looks nothing like a factory. Good governance finds a balance between sustainable delivery and achieving the organisation’s mission.

Conversely, bad governance is the result of mistrust between leaders – demanding proof of future success before they will permit each other to act. These leaders must recognise that the cycle of business cases and failure to deliver will never allow trust to be built. Trust should be by default, based on the idea that someone is capable in their role. From a position of trust, leaders can collaborate on complex things – such as how to improve the governance of digital delivery.

A significant relationship, where bad governance frequently emerges, is between the CIO and CFO. Mark Schwatz in his book ‘A Seat at the Table’ explores this relationship and argues that:

“Any IT leader who spends their time demonstrating value is simply wasting company resources; IT leaders should direct all their focus to delivering value. […] Is the CFO preparing slide shows demonstrating how drafting the annual financial statements is valuable?”

Mark Schwartz, ‘A Seat at the Table’, 2017

This idea is widely applicable in technology, digital and design. CFOs should not be imposing financial governance. Instead, they should co-design governance with other expert leaders, such as CIOs, CDOs and CPOs (and the brilliant professional leaders who don’t have ‘Chief’ in their job title). Governance for digital technology needs to look very different to governance for construction, logistics or HR. The traditional business case is not fit-for-purpose in the era of continuous delivery.

Traditional governance, such as business cases, prevent IT/digital leaders from being value-focused – it becomes more important to deliver to the plan than deliver what users need. Commonly, these leaders do not have a seat at the table to challenge how they are governed.

Digital leaders must demand change to how they are governed. It won’t be easy – traditional governance inherits its language and structure from long-established accountancy practices. But good accountancy is not at odds with more flexible, continuous and adaptive governance – it’s just an uncomfortable fit right now.

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