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LEAN, Agile and DevOps: A vaccine for stalled digital transformation

LEAN, Agile and DevOps

By Jonty Sidney, Synthesis Cloud and DevOps Engineer

Starting in July 1916, the British Expeditionary Force, under the leadership of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, began the battle of the Somme – a battle remembered as one of the deadliest of the first world war. Hundreds of thousands of men – British and German alike – perished so that less than 10 kilometres of territory would swap hands. The British planned the battle for months and some of the best minds in the British military establishment believed that this push forward would win the war. How is it that professionals with decades of military experience got it so wrong?

The military hierarchy in Europe was caught in an old-fashioned and outdated way of thinking. Field Marshall Haig believed that a frontal charge of tens of thousands of soldiers would break a wide-enough hole in the German lines for the British cavalry to charge through the trench system and overrun the German positions. He used 19th century thinking in the 20th century.

As the infantry marched through no-man’s land, they were cut down by efficient, modern machine guns and artillery. When one mixes old fashioned thinking with new technology – the only outcome is chaos.

How often have we seen big enterprises fail to implement a digital transformation? The phrase “digital transformation” has almost become a clichéd buzzword with no real meaning. Is it even possible for enterprises to implement a meaningful digital transformation? The critical question at this point is: “Why does this happen?” Without oversimplifying too much, it is because businesses are using old, outdated strategies with the latest and greatest of technology.

In his book A Seat at the Table, AWS Enterprise Strategist Mark Schwartz explains the phenomenon by tracing the history of the relationship between “IT” and “the business” over the past three decades. In this time, both IT and “the business” have created a distant relationship that is focused on controlling the other party – the business attempts to controls what IT does and IT works at controlling how the business utilises IT assets. As IT technology has exploded and become as ubiquitous as it is, this working relationship has become more harmful and more toxic by the year, and it needs to be thrown out for a better way of working.

In a single sentence, Mark Schwartz’s solution to this problem is simple: Remove the fictitious barrier that has been created between IT and “the business”. This barrier simply is not real and serves no real benefit. However, as with everything in life, the devil is in the detail.

It is impossible to create a “one size fits all” model for this process. Yet, there a few guiding principles that need to be highlighted.

Focus on delivering business value

In the past, IT was always seen as the “consultant” that was responsible for delivering the technical capabilities that supported the business’s strategic plans. However, as IT and technology in general have become more and more central to the business, it is imperative that IT teams are more closely involved with the business’s strategic direction.

On the one hand, this means that IT professionals must be included in these decision-making processes. To paraphrase Mark Schwartz: It is time for IT to take its seat at the table. On the other hand, this is not simply a blank cheque for IT teams to go wild and try every new technology out there. Both IT and the rest of the business should be focused on a single goal: Adding value to the business. This is not the easiest goal, but it needs to be the core focus. The rest of the business must let IT in to the strategic decision-making process and, simultaneously, IT must pivot and focus on how their skills and expertise can be a part of this process.

Experiment and learn

One of the ideas that has taken hold in both startups, as well as most IT teams, is that of the short feedback loop. In startups this takes the form of the LEAN startup model – popularised by Eric Reiss – and in software development, agile techniques such as Kanban and SCRUM are the de-facto ways to deliver high quality software. What all these techniques have in common is that they all focus on short-lived iterations that allow teams to fine-tune their assumptions and value propositions so that projects and products deliver the maximum value to the envisioned end-users (or customers). This “Build-Measure-Learn” feedback loop is not just for tech wizards and brave startups. Large enterprises should also start adopting these decision-making processes to incubate a culture of experimentation and transformation. When combined with tools and methodologies such as the cloud and DevOps, the rate of innovation that LEAN thinking can support is unparalleled.

Create a ‘T-shaped’ organisation

In another of Mark Schwartz’s books – War and Peace and IT – he illustrates how one of the core tenants of DevOps teams can be used to revolutionise an organisation’s highest level of decision making. Each member of a DevOps team has a speciality – coding, testing, security, etc. – but is also expected to be competent enough in other areas to contribute and assist.

The metaphor of a ‘T’ shaped team member relates to this: Deep and intimate knowledge in a specific domain with broad and sufficient knowledge in others. Schwartz poses the following question – why not adopt the same thinking with high level strategy? As was noted earlier in this article, IT and the rest of the business should be focused on delivering business value. That being the case, why should a specific executive be solely responsible for their area’s strategy? It makes far more sense for an executive to be T-shaped. Responsible for his/her specific area of expertise but simultaneously competent enough to voice an opinion and help their colleagues.

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has brought several serious scientific concepts to the attention of a much larger percentage of the global population. One of these concepts is that a vaccine does not mean that someone is 100% immune from a disease. Often, a vaccine simply prevents more extreme symptoms. It is not always a ‘silver bullet’ that fixes everything in a moment. In a similar fashion, modern battlefield tactics do not prevent death and injury. As sobering as it may be, any military strategist would admit that there is no perfect strategy. As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the elder said: “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. New strategies, however, make use of new technology. They enable militaries to push the boundaries and to be more effective.

The ideas illustrated above do not guarantee a successful digital transformation; nor do they ensure an easy, pain-free transition to this new digital age. However, what they do is assist in creating strategies. Not those associated with old technologies, but new ways of working that extract the most value from new technologies. In the spirit of Mark Schwartz and strategists the world over: It is time for IT and the business to sit down at the same table and start strategising.