The Best Laid Schemes Of Mice And Men

I have always loved the contrast between companies that are quick and light, focused on doing the right thing, and are nimble in execution and change on the one hand, and those that must plan everything down to the minutest detail before beginning, execute on their plans precisely… and are thrown off balance by change.

In my Wall Street days, I worked for two such companies. Both could be defined by “jobs in boxes.” Every job at every company has a box that defines it, and every company has lots of space between the boxes, opportunities that have not yet been grasped.

One company I worked for defined the minimal job you did as the box you were in. You were expected to look for the spaces between the boxes and take ownership of them. The other defined the maximal job you did as the box you were in. Stepping outside of the lines into those empty spaces frightened them terribly.

Several conversations recently brought to light the difference between the mindsets. In technology, we call it Waterfall vs. Agile; in business, it is Detailed Plan Driven vs. Nimble or Open.

Technology Change

Agile is a methodology wherein you make short, quick, well-defined, small-risk changes to your product or service, learn from the impact (and the mistakes) and readjust. It is defined by the willingness to make small mistakes to prevent big ones. Waterfall is a more traditional methodology. Lay out detailed multi-month (or multi-year) plans and follow them through.

The problems with waterfall are many, but at heart it boils down to the ability to manage (inevitable) change. By the time you are finished your multi-year project, the market and requirements usually change so significantly that your successful delivery of the project as originally defined is no longer quite so useful to the business. Who in technology – or any business – has not had the experience of finishing a long project to discover it isn’t quite needed any more the way you originally planned?

Peter Drucker called this the difference between “doing things right” and “doing the right things.”

Agile, by contrast, accepts that things will change, focusing on incremental deliverables to the customer and adjusting on the way. You make lots of small mistakes and correct them quickly. In the end, you will get a result that fits the market at that time, although it is hard to see it up front unless you have experienced it. Ironically, you also will get better quality than with the waterfall process. It turns out lots of small correct mistakes leads to better quality than “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.”

One cloud company that has always operated in a more waterfall fashion is planning a project to change its deployment methodology. Rather than planning out all of the details, it is, instead, planning an 8 week series of small 1-2 week changes to get it to a new methodology. It will have real deliverables very quickly that can be touched, felt, used.

The executive team knows that it is means quick, risky changes. It also knows that those changes will be small, the risks easy to manage and repair, and the result will be more in those 8 weeks than it could get with a detailed, planned, long-term project. Watch them succeed.

Following Your Instinct

Earlier in the week, I had coffee with a smart founder and CEO of a cloud firm. He told me how earlier in his career, he was hired by a very old-school company to “use technology to find a way to make it better.” The owner of the company didn’t know what technology could do for him, didn’t have detailed plans and ROIs. He simply knew, with years of business acumen and a well-honed instinct, that a great technologist could bring benefit. Unsurprisingly, he presented several major areas to invest in just a few short weeks… and put percentages straight to the bottom line.

Other companies with whom I have worked need to know in detail, up front, how we are going to improve their situation, with detailed plans and returns on investment. While I always estimate ROIs, the smartest of them know that there is an area of the business – or even the whole shop – that can run better, and set us loose for a short period with a goal to improve that area.

As a recent client discovered, when they tasked us in one area, we identified options for solving the issues in those areas…. and identified risks and provided recommendations that were well beyond the original scoping.

Summary

The best way to keep a project successful in business terms and delivery terms is to make it very flexible, with lots of short-term deliverables, and open to lots of interim mistakes and even failures that can be corrected while in process.

Of course, it is very very hard to change the mindset of a Board, executives, and even the people at the company to “take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

The best way to bring real change to your company, especially in processes and technology, is not to focus on fixing one area, but to cut people loose to find ways to improve the business as whole… providing they have a real understanding of what the business is trying to accomplish.

Every client with whom we have engaged, we have delivered what we contracted, and then the areas where we see real business value. Do you know how much better you could run, and what it could bring to your top and bottom lines? Ask us to tell you.

About Avi Deitcher

Avi Deitcher is a technology business consultant who lives to dramatically improve fast-moving and fast-growing companies. He writes regularly on this blog, and can be reached via Facebook, Twitter and avi@atomicinc.com.
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