Monday, January 25, 2016

When you leave does the company sustain or hurry to change your legacy ?

Step by step, brick by brick, one person at a time, year after year for four decades, the promoters built the business into a large force in the industry, becoming a dominant force in markets where they operated. They were not in the global top 20 but they were number one in their home ground garnering respect of partners and competitors. Their success was a result of investments in people, process and technology well ahead of the curve, and then retaining them; technology played an important role in their profitable scale up.

With the Promoters endorsing investments, they thrived through the transition of IT from monolithic mainframes to client-server, moving to web-based technologies as they evolved. At that stage they hired an experienced IT Manager who was brought into a specialist role to take charge of the future. He rallied the diverse investments across business units and brought in sanity to IT enterprise architecture. He created a technology team which build applications suited to business need and evolving customer expectations.

He was quick to understand the business and participate in discussions on business growth and how IT could help. As the solutions kept increasing in number and complexity, so did the IT team to service the growth in business and IT. At the turn of the century the advent of COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) solutions created a buzz that could not be ignored; so on behest of the business and the Promoters he started evaluating solutions. Vendors lined up to demonstrate their wares anticipating a high value, marquee, and referenceable customer.

Comparisons between handcrafted bespoke solutions which the business used and the evolving though comprehensive solutions from global players followed. Most COTS solutions fared badly on industry functionality out of the box, but scored on flexibility which was declared unimportant by the IT team citing better fit to processes which had withstood the test of time. References to challenged implementations in the market were enough to defend existing set of solutions which had started slowing down the business’ ability to deliver.

The quickening pace of technology change resulted in additional stress on the team that was unable to cope with keeping the lights on and innovation simultaneously; the well-entrenched CIO began feeling the pinch. In the absence of headcount addition being allowed, he partnered with external services vendors to build satellite systems barely sufficient to keep the business satisfied while competitors had started enjoying the benefit of simplicity and agility set on the foundation of evolving and now better COTS solutions.

Business continued to grow on the shoulders of high customer traction to the brand; uneasy calm had occasional ripples due to difference in outcomes that their complex IT enabled. Lead times to deliver new functionality crept north and noise came in random spurts subdued by the personality exuded by the CIO. The Promoters sensed trouble and hired a big name consultant to create a plan and roadmap for the new desired state in a world that had begun embracing Digital and the industry was facing disruption from new business models.

Consultants love situations where recommendations are fairly straightforward and easy to implement; even a fresh management graduate with exposure to technology would have come up with a solution – reaching for the proverbial low hanging fruits – which would have been marked improvement over existing legacy which had now become a weight to carry on with. They went through the song and dance, interviewing people, benchmarking against industry, talking to experts globally to prepare a strategy and lay out the solution to alleviate them from the current state of affairs and regain lost glory.

Coincidentally the superannuation of the CIO neared emboldening the CXOs to seek new ideas and fresh IT leadership. The consultants were tasked with finding a replacement and refresh/replace the technology solutions as appropriate; confidence in the IT team and their legacy had reached an all-time low. The writing was on the wall, it was no longer going to be incremental innovation, rip-and-replace would prevail to get rid of the legacy that may have served well in the past, and it was no longer relevant or useful.

As a CIO barring a few instances, I have always been careful to protect past investments to whatever extent feasible and build on top of whatever technology may have been deployed. At the same time I have also attempted to keep current the landscape in every enterprise to ensure that the company does not lose the innovation race and stays on par if not ahead. Emotional or insecurity led decisions can hurt growth and career aspirations. Stay relevant, keep your ear to the ground, be ready for the next disruption, better create it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Corporate culture drives enterprise performance as much as people !

It is a well-accepted fact that leaders define corporate culture and how teams behave; look around and you will find reflections of influential board members, CEO, other CXOs trickling downwards to their direct reports as well as teams below. The rub off creates interesting interplays between teams and functions where camaraderie or natural antipathy cascades downwards like the flow of water. This naturally occurring phenomenon determines the ability of the company to thrive or strive within industry competitive forces.

The autocratic paternalistic and dictatorial behavior of the CEO created an acquiescent team who tried second guessing what would come next but never took any action until the command was handed down with explicit instructions on execution. Every decision required approval, every direction was set by the Monarch, every one worked to keep Him happy even when they knew better. Profitable growth kept the Board away and the company trundled along overtaking others on the way to prominence.

Information was power; he divided segments such that collaboration depicted only part of the picture; the whole was visible only to him and he wielded that power over everyone. Irrational or good, his word was cast in stone and none challenged him. From the outside it appeared that the company had achieved greatness despite limited investments when compared to industry leaders or the standard benchmarks. It was only when the Great Dictator stepped down that the reality began to come out.

The company had a consistent track record of failed IT projects; these included implementations that were necessary to conduct fair business as well as operational efficiency seekers that would have given the company the real foundation to consistently deliver business performance. Projects would begin with usual fanfare, proclamations of the company having taken steps ahead of competition and then the initiatives faded into oblivion. The low success rate was accepted as normal with a view that the company was “different”.

Different they were indeed; take the instance of a large project that was approved after elongated analysis of local and global solutions. The company finally selected underwent excruciating negotiations; the project started off with an eclectic mix of global subject matter experts and sub-optimal resources allotted by the company who defined the process and workflows, each was discussed and debated for compliance to standards, rarest of rare exception conditions and current way of working.

The corporate culture did not allow individual points of view or decision making; any and all forms of alternative opinions or views were frowned upon, dissent was unheard of. All decisions – critical or otherwise – were referred for a final view and approval of the Monarch. He did take decisions, but in his own time; reminders were forbidden, after all he was so busy running the business. Thus the project saw time overruns, in some cases thrice the time budgeted for certain activities leaving the vendor helpless, threatening to pull off resources.

They never felt the need to hire a CIO; the story repeated itself with every project, the lack of credible leadership at the next level leaving the company at the mercy of the mediocre. In the absence of talent inflow, the microcosm thrived at the lowest levels of incompetence. By accident or providence a few projects that completed or delivered had sycophants calling out results of visionary leadership. Unable to handle the cultural fit and decision making that rendered the project unprofitable with no end in sight, the vendor finally pulled the plug.

Suppressive leadership had created assembly line of workers who did only what they were told to; they stopped thinking or applying their mind to any activity, event or happening. Humiliation, reprimand, and retribution in large doses ensured that everyone adopted a subservient way of working. Those who could not adjust exited to find better working conditions elsewhere; the resultant exodus of high professionals left the company poorer and challenged. It would take arduous effort to steer the ship back.

History repeated itself multiple times as if it left no lessons for the sufferers who continued to toil on both sides; the abrupt exit created a real vacuum leaving people with FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt); the business ran out of steam quickly, the slowdown rang alarm bells across forcing the Board to wake up, take notice and investigate. Loyalists were given the task of arresting the downfall and build a strong team that will bring the company back on track and revive the growth it had enjoyed for more than a decade.

Turnarounds make good stories and that is for another time.

Monday, January 11, 2016

No predictions for the New Year 2016, just a list of unhappenings !

At an event in a large gathering of CIOs and vendors, many were interested in the future, some attempted to predict it, a few thought that they can create it, while the rest barring the uninterested wondered what the New Year holds for them. The debate thus started, took interesting turns with the usual set of trends around SMAC dominating the discussion. Digital was a given with finally convergence of definitions and interpretation. Everyone loves to make predictions, good, bad, they catch attention for whatever they are worth.

When a group approached me, I was caught unawares, but decided to play the game; so I challenged them on the efficacy of making predictions at the beginning of a calendar year. Was it because of convenience so that they can be labeled and catalogued by the year number ? Or did they make sense since the majority probably received new budgets to invest/spend and thus fueled the innovation furnace ? Or that people come back from an extended holiday fresh to get started and thus need some markers.

Either way, everyone has lists of all kinds for the year, resolutions, tips for a better life, predictions and goals they want to achieve. Technology providers push their new products with aggression portraying them as new trends; Consultants attempt to predict what will happen, rarely going back to review whatever brand of snake oil they promoted; Economists and other professionals oscillate between doomsday and optimism while the cautious lot stays non-committal taking a safe path and cynics raise eyebrows at everything.

The first time I attempted to predict the future was in 2004 which I revisited in end 2013; the last time I made technology or technology impact to CIOs and business predictions was almost 4 years back; then in the beginning of last year my participation in many discussions – online, offline, in conferences, with some of the self-proclaimed consulting type futurists – they nudged me hard enough to issue a rebuttal to their claim that the CIO shall perish which was followed by a viewpoint and tips on thriving in the new world.

I am taking a different path and putting my neck out with a contrarian view of the world as I see it. The list is not definitive, but representative of broader trends that I see impacting individuals, IT, CIOs, Enterprises and the ecosystem that supports technology led business outcomes. There are many predictions of what may happen and that is why I choose to create one that attempts to wean people of the hype curve or whichever quadrant or wave enamors business and IT decision makers and influences their actions.

1.      Death of monolithic ERP: it shall survive all attempts of appification sustaining core business
2.      Demise of email: enterprises and individuals will continue to use email for formal communication
3.      Blockchain adoption: interesting use cases, lots of investments, few real life implementations
4.      End of laptops: touch will become standard, tablets aspire to replace them, corporate workforce will not let them go
5.      (Free) Mobile Internet: will continue to struggle with disconnects and seamless, consistent speed of access for meaningful engagement or work.
6.      Cloud domination: remains a desire, enterprises, governments and hardware providers will find ways of retaining data centers
7.      Value versus cost: majority will tilt towards cost rather than value as tactical savings attract pat on the back for a job well done with budgets remaining flat
8.      Talent retention: big challenge for everyone with head hunters going aggressive on anyone who has demonstrated success (real or perceived)
9.      Big Data insights: investments will continue, insights will elude most
10.   Insecure enterprises: Cybersecurity will demand attention and budgets, breaches will increase
11.   BYOD: will be controlled with containers, boundaries, restrictive solutions, employees will accept the new way of working
12.   Internet of Things: keep talking, discussing, debating until internet access (point 5) is solved
13.   Individual privacy: personal data will keep popping up surprising individuals of their vulnerability
14.   Technology treadmill: people and companies will get off and not run after the next new device, release or trend will diminishing returns making it unattractive

That is my list for now, take it for what it is worth; during the year or maybe the end you may turn around and find that none of these happened in your life. That is quite possible though I believe that the trends will play out in a large section of people across geographies. I promise that at the end of the year I will review the reality as it happened. Until then all the best !

Monday, January 04, 2016

Fixed bid or Time & Material contract ? Choices gone awry benefit vendors

This is a continuation from last week, please click here for the earlier part

After prolonged discussions, debate and extensive negotiations, the project was signed off with the final vendor in a proclaimed win-win scenario with a fixed bid for the defined scope. The project was complex, audacious and mammoth in its attempt and intent to deliver functionality with breadth and depth that had never been attempted before. The customer and vendor were equally excited with the casting if successful would leapfrog both into elite league of customer case studies and success stories.

The project got off to a great start with participation from the leadership teams from both sides solemnly offering their unstinted support promising to leave no stone unturned towards success. The team brought together from various business streams as well as different locations represented the able and willing though not necessary the best. They understood the challenge and opportunity in front of them, daunting and exciting, they believed with support from the leadership team they can climb Mount Everest !

First milestone achieved within the defined timeline boosted the morale and charged the team to start believing that they could indeed pull it off. Aside from the congratulatory back slapping there was a renewed energy towards every task and adoration for the CIO who kept the team together with a balance between coaching, mentoring, critiquing decisions and helping find a better solution. The first milestone was important though not critical; they knew it and the journey was about to get tougher and daunting.

Time flew after that with rush of activity taking its toil; they missed the next milestone creating a sense of urgency and pressure to make up time. The vendor started getting edgy as every creeping day added to the cost and reduced profitability for the project. Reports moved from Green to Yellow and then Red quickly with escalations that resulted in frayed and short tempers. The management instead of looking at what needed to be fixed started asking who was at fault thereby undermining team and leadership credibility.

Each decision was challenged and hypothetical exception conditions were cited to demonstrate ineptness of leadership. The noise reached a crescendo demanding change to rescue the project which was critical to the company with large investments committed. The team rallied behind the Project Manager and CIO providing a vote of confidence which was brushed aside; convenient scapegoats, the duo were replaced by a wannabe CIO and dozen experts who visibly formed a coterie.

In the large unparalleled project, the new team out of depth agreed to vendor’s every point turning status from red to green within a fortnight. The vendor seized the opportunity to push in cost escalation due to reasons attributable to the customer; after all they had replaced their team members while the vendor had retained the entire contingent. Some of the business team members sensed an opportunity to prove a point and pushed through large set of customizations to retain existing process.

Score and more programmers descended bringing with them further extension to scope and project timelines. What was thus far a controlled project running to defined specifications and timeline was now a free for all – change this and change that – because other change was accepted. The project bore no resemblance to the disciplined approach that was the hallmark of the earlier team which had a purpose and direction to where they were headed and what would be the outcome at the end of the project.

By the time the original go-live deadline arrived, the project had transformed into a massive custom development factory using the product only as a foundation. The fixed cost model was converted to time and material since no one knew the end point. The management and specific CXOs who had taken a tough stand against the earlier IT leaders accepted the new situation with lame justification that the solution would now be well tailored to enterprise processes though they had lost on best practices, cost and time opportunity.

Business patience elasticity was tested to its limits until opportunity loss started hurting market share and murmurs of dissatisfaction could not be controlled. Additional experience and grey hair was brought to the rescue; with 100% cost overrun, 80% slide in timelines, and 40% reduction in scope the project was eventually declared live. No one celebrated the event, no joy left in the milestone that was a molehill to the aspirational Mount Everest. Life had gone round dishearteningly and disorienting the disappointed expeditioners.

What about the original PM and CIO ? They had quit happily on the suggestion of the management early on around the time of the original go-live milestone !