Greg Smith, the guest blogger for this post, has been a colleague for a little while. Greg is an ex-CIO and today is a CIO advisor with Capgemini Consulting. I’ve personally found Greg’s insights to be just that – insightful! – and when I saw an email from Greg as part of an internal discussion (one of many!) on ‘agility’, I thought it was too good to just file in an outlook folder, and Greg kindly offered to write this post. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did when I read it.
Something to think about while watching the British GP this weekend…
By guest blogger, Greg Smith
I was recently reading an article on how IT can become a genuine partner to the business and, as is common in such discussions, the focus turned to how IT needs to be more agile and responsive if it is going to truly support the business in its drive for speed and agility. In order to illustrate the point a familiar type of analogy was quoted:
Being an agile business has been described as the ability to “change a wheel on a bus at 60mph”. An agile IT function is the lynchpin in ensuring the business ‘bus’ can continue running and even change direction without having to drop a gear or worse, engage the emergency brake.
I guess we have all heard or read similar analogies many times over the past few years, however, at the risk of appearing overly pedantic, I think the analogy is potentially taking IT down the wrong path. The concept of ‘changing the wheel on a bus at 60 mph’ whilst evocative actually suggests a capability that could be construed as downright dangerous, even if it were possible – similarly changing the engine on a plane mid-flight!
I think a better analogy along the same lines is the ability of a Formula 1 pit crew to change from dry tyres to wet tyres in 10 seconds. Here we have a sophisticated sense and respond mechanism, executed faultlessly, with the ability to directly impact outcomes. If you predict the weather conditions better than your competitors, respond appropriately and carry out the pit stop perfectly you will create a significant opportunity to outperform your rivals. Pushing the analogy further, the opportunity will be short-lived. Your competitors will very quickly change their tyres over to wet weather tyres and put themselves back on a level footing. However, the same finely-honed capability, which could be categorised as business agility, will present another opportunity to out perform the competition if it stops raining, the track dries out and a decision is taken to revert from wet tyres to dry.
To thoroughly flog this analogous horse to death, the skill of the individual driver, which could be mapped onto the CEO or CIO role within a traditional business, is important but not critical. The driver sometimes has to be adept at performing at the margin, for instance being able to drive on a damp track with dry tyres, whilst at other times they have little ability to change the outcome directly through their own skill – driving on a drying track on wet tyres. However, the real competitive advantage lies with the organisation of the pit crew, their ability to choose the appropriate course of action slightly more quickly or more often than their competitors, and most importantly their ability to execute faultlessly.
Personally, this example throws up an interesting additional point with the co-existence of high-agility and strong process rigour. Given that we often think of process rigour as the enemy of agility, which is a view I generally concur with, then we probably need to become more precise in how we define the characteristics of strong process adherence that lead to reduced agility.
Comments and contradictions gratefully received