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Which mode does your technology organization operate: yesterday, today, or tomorrow?

April 8, 2012 1 comment

Long flights can have unexpected benefits:  the person sitting next to you and how much you can learn from this person.

While in transit over the Atlantic some time ago, my neighbor was a CEO of a high technology company.   Twenty minutes into our conversation, he asked me, “as a CTO, what is the single most important concern that keeps me up at night”.

I paused for a moment and answered,

… whether my technology organization operates in yesterday, today, or tomorrow mode.

He smiled, signaling that he understood exactly what it meant.

The question of operating in yesterday, today, or tomorrow is everywhere – not just in software or high technology market alone.   Everyone heard of the expression, “do not delay until tomorrow what can be done today”.

I will illustrate several helpful examples – very familiar to all CTOs:

– The competitor unexpectedly launches a new product which instantly places your own product about 9 months behind
– Your technology organization does not have the skills to refactor the product prior to accelerating the delivery of new features
– Your budget has been set 10 months ago and the conversation about incremental funding is moving too slowly
– The team is clearly stressed and very reluctant to work even harder, despite working at a breaking point for quite some time

By this point, it is clear that something is wrong.   If the CTO does not respond to these alarms, the technology organization will fail to execute – reasons no longer being important after the failure – and equally fail to support the change needed to reposition the business towards a position of competitive parity or – better yet – a clear position of strength.

In my experience, a small percentage of technology organizations operate in ‘tomorrow’ mode:  for some reason, everything that needs to happen today, happens tomorrow.   The product management organization produces requirements late.  Designs are not completed on time, or worse – poor designs still become the norm in subsequent releases creating or expanding technical debt.   Critical releases miss dates.   These organizations do not survive for too long and the right change in leadership will move the organization to operate in ‘today’ mode.

The vast majority of technology organizations operate in ‘today’ mode and spend too much time celebrating the fact that a release planned 6 months ago has been delivered on time.   What if a competitor launches a market-breaking, disruptive solution offering and the technology organization now has to deliver the current release 3 months earlier and deliver a new product at the same time?   Suddenly, being very good at tactical execution of a release planned 6 months ago is no longer the reason to celebrate.

High performance technology organization always – always – operate in ‘yesterday’ mode.   These organizations deliberately plan and execute critical initiatives many months ago in order to get ahead of the competition.

Examples:

– Planning a complex refactoring effort well in advance in order to create more flexibility in the architecture or component model and be well positioned to accelerate the delivery of important features.
– Creating a succession plan for critical skills and proactively hiring ahead.   It takes at least 12 months of deliberate organizational transformation focus to upgrade the skill profile of a technology organization, while managing the natural disruption of under performers leaving and new stars arriving.
– Creating a global development organization with 4 teams working in 4 global locations and accelerating product development velocity by at least 60%.    This typically takes 18-24 months.

So what did I learn from the CEO sitting next to me on a long flight?

“Today is meaningless because today is mainly influenced by what happened yesterday.   If we are lucky, we may spend some time today to plan a better tomorrow”

“Yesterday is therefore the most important day.   If we do the right things yesterday, today and tomorrow will automatically benefit”

There is a lot of truth in what I learned from this CEO.

High performance technology organizations are fanatical about operating in an anticipatory mode (yesterday) and are better than their closest competitor in responding quickly to changes in business  climate.

Which mode does your technology organization operate?

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