Monday, February 22, 2010

Thriving on Chaos?

I live in a very old property and I am reliably advised that once every 100 years or so, a thorough renovation is always going to be necessary. Well that is good news! The bad news is that the house is currently a building site and my wife and I have been required to move out – into a cottage that we fortunately have on the property. One of the traumatic experiences was to empty the house of all our effects. But there was a silver lining as it required me to sort out my books.

I have happily been discarding classics (sic) such as COBOL/CICS Programmers Guide, Understanding COM+ and the MS-DOS Users Guide. However I have spent happy hours reacquainting myself with gems from authors such as Yourdon, Martin and DeMarco which actually never really date in terms of the essential truths they espoused. Similarly I also came across a copy of Tom Peters book – Thriving on Chaos. This book should be required reading today.

I turned to the last chapter titled Building Systems for a World Turned Upside Down. You may remember Tom Peters – he was one of these breathless characters that emitted ideas at a speed that would apply better to a machine gun. Under the heading KEEP IT SIMPLE (AND VISIBLE) I read, An accounting firm executive recalls his surprise at the systems used by a GM-Toyota venture. He had expected state of the art . . .instead he says laughing, “it was flip charts, red and green lights depicting a systems status . . . absurdly simple, but to the point. . . . “. Maybe over the years Toyota allowed the attention to detail to drop a little and forgot the other Peters strictures such as MEASURE WHAT’S IMPORTANT, SET CONSERVATIVE GOALS and DEMAND TOTAL INTEGRITY.

Peters was talking responsiveness and flexibility 22 years ago! But at the same time he was demanding a balanced approach that “while turning the world upside down” also insisted on metrics that provide really appropriate instrumentation.

He provides a sample list of unconventional measures that match Prescription and Measure. Here’s a few of examples:




Ten attributes of customer satisfaction


Speed of response to customer needs; percentage of customers covered by electronic linkages; new links added to product every 90 days


Number of customers called per week


Number of small starts; percentage of R&D budget devoted to small starts

Support Fast Failure

Number of awards for interesting failures, constructive defiance of rules

Which makes me think we should be able to apply similar thinking to today’s business and IT governance. I am frequently reminded that the level of governance commonly exerted is inadequate. Often it’s the absence of clear policy, sometimes it’s politically appointed governance boards that operate by opinion rather than bringing deep experience to bear on key issues and contributing actively to organizational learning.

I always advise effective governance requires a) clarity of principle and policy, b) formal deliverables produced at the right time (that is synchronized with key decisions and allows alternative actions to be taken where necessary) c) published governance criteria against which governance boards can act and d) publication of policy AND governance decisions that avoids reinvention of wheels.

Reading Peters again, I am minded to suggest we also need measures such as:



Business Responsiveness

Actual change performance vs predicted/contracted

Consistent Information

Number of data services vs portfolio target, Number of duplicate data sources; cost of data (correction effort, customer queries)

Process Improvement

Number of proposals for improved pattern/policy approved

Supplier performance

Number of governance waivers requested;

It’s all too easy to think that in today’s fast moving, technology laden world that controls aren’t needed. If you read the Accenture report on Millennials' Use of Technology: Jumping the Boundaries of Corporate IT you might be persuaded also. However I suspect this is typical fluff that eventually ends up in tears – just like Toyota’s braking fiasco. Back in 1988 Peters clearly understood that you need the combination of fast moving, agile practices but backed up by tough controls that ensure your business doesn’t go off the rails. It’s called governance.


Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters, MacMillan, London 1988

Millennials' Use of Technology: Jumping the Boundaries of Corporate IT