3 simple strategic questions to master IT chaos

If you don't keep moving, you're roadkill.  Early in our careers, we learned that standing still is not an option if we want to survive and succeed. It is a true cliché that in IT, as in life in general, the only constant is change. As far as we know, that sentiment was first penned by Heraclitus of Ephesus roughly 2500 years ago. He wrote, among other things, that “all is flux, nothing stands still.”  Well, no kidding. 

One could be disheartened by the fact that this vexing condition is not a modern invention -- throughout human history, change has been the universal constant. Put another way, it looks like none of us gets a break any time soon.

However, Heraclitus also wrote of an underlying principle of order in the midst of chaos and change, eternal patterns that flow like a river under the turbulent surfaces, creating a kind of dynamic balance through strife and opposition. Ah, now, that’s more like it.

Anyone who has been in the business long enough has experienced this:  as a strategist or a decision-maker, success depends upon seeing the patterns and perceiving the order beneath the chaos. Where there is strife, there is truth, if you can find it. During the coming weeks, I’ll bring up some of the patterns I’ve personally seen, but I would love to hear yours. I’ll share what I learn from you, because as another true, but much more recent cliché (a quote from Douglas Merrill) puts it: “all of us are smarter than any of us.”

The first and highest of the high-level questions is always "why are we doing this?" (mission and vision) -- that helps assure that solutions actully align with the overall strategies and goals of the orgzanization. I'll be the first to admit that in many organizations this can be a dismal failure, and more of a feel-good buzzword-generator or marketing tool than the critically important strategic asset that it should be. That's an enormous topic on its own, but for now, I'm going to optimistically assume that the first layer is in place, and drop down a level in the stack. This is the bread and butter, where most systems are planned and built.

Almost all problems and circumstances we encounter here tend to fall naturally into three basic high-level categories. The first area is governance, the second is policy and process, and the third is technology.  Another way of looking at it is that almost all issues at this level come down to the questions of:

1.     Who Does It

2.     How Do We Do It

3.     With What?

I would argue that list is in rough order of importance, in terms of impact on long-term success. For instance, if governance is unclear, even if a particular solution is well-conceived and wonderfully executed, sooner or later the whole house of cards falls to the ground through confusion, infighting, resource contention, or competing, incompatible approaches and solutions. It’s not that choices of tools and technology aren’t important, for they most certainly are, but those choices generally need to be made after “who” and “how” are at least somewhat nailed down. 

Of course, we do not live in a neat, clean, “waterfall world,” where everything can be done in clear sequential steps, and being nimble sometimes means running with your shoelaces untied. Each of those three areas above affects and is significantly impacted by both of the others -- but as much as it seems to be a human tendency to tackle problems and projects by jumping immediately into the “what” and then perhaps the “how,” I would argue that working in the order above typically leads to better success. I’ll plan to dive into this idea in more detail over the coming weeks.

What has your experience been? What patterns have you seen, and what strategies have you developed out of your own war stories and challenges?  I’m happy to share what I know, and even more eager to hear what you have to say.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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