Monday, 24 September 2012

What drives IT failure? Ignorance and Greed

It was an interesting question Charles Storm posed the other day: was I saying that solutions are primarily driven by ignorance and greed? I wasn't, but he made me think:

  • Every solution is driven by need, or want, and some lack of knowledge.
  • Every failure is caused by ignorance and greed

Let's see whether I can find good arguments for that, and where the twain meet

If you take Maslow's hierarchy of needs, everything is driven by a need for something, and a lack of knowledge of how to attain it. But if you go up through the pyramid, there's also another lack of knowledge: that of what it is, and looks like

Food, water, sex, sleep - we pretty much all know what that kind of looks like, and how we could get some (yes, not always, nor often).
Friendship, family, sexual intimacy? How to achieve family is an easy one, but the other two are posing problems for a good part of us, if not most.
Morality, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts? Well that seems to be out of the ballpark for most, if you believe conventional belief

The same is applicable to IT. Let's create our own imaginary Maslow pyramid and put consumer IT at the bottom, and Enterprise IT at the top

You yourself need a phone, a laptop, a network device? Those all come in a range and you can go out and compare some, or stay in your chair and surf-pare them at your leisure. Same goes for "single-person Enterprises", e.g. entrepreneurs - not much difference between them and consumers. All these have a want for something, maybe even a need, or a desperate longing.
Hard to compare those to the physiological rock-bottom of Maslow, but I think it's not that far-fetched at all to state that a mobile phone and a laptop (which basically do the same, only mobiles are better for more event-driven tasks, laptops more for batch ones)

Anyway, you have that need, and a lack of knowledge: which one(s) to pick? You compare your needs, or business requirements so to say, to that what they supply, or system limitations so to say. they're all ready-made and you can tweak and tune them, but the basics can't be changed. What I experience, when picking a new phone, is running into features that weren't explicit needs, but get created-as-such on the spot. I don't keep track of every-day phone evolution and development, so sometimes usually new gadgets and gimmicks take me by surprise.
I'd define this whole process as having a basic need, knowing how that could be satisfied by some, but not knowing what "the rest" can offer you. You have a need that you somewhat adjust (like me in my mobile example) and some lack of knowledge which you turn into fairly complete knowledge before "making the buy": achieving the object at last

A few steps up, as e.g. an office department with 30-50 users, the same applies: you need that new administrative system. Either to replace the old, or because manual just doesn't cut it anymore. You go out there, but have a hard time comparing. You watch demos, contact sales people, get an occasional expert across the floor - and have yourself advised, in stead of advising yourself. Well, still cool. When very sensible, you'll end up with three products that might fit your need, have them all prepare a Proof Of Concept and you'll end up with the best, or least bad.
At that point, you have a far larger lack of knowledge than in the previous example, but done your best to "prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that your final choice is a good one. Your lack of knowledge hasn't changed into knowledge, but more of something like basic knowledge. You haven't spelled out the details, and assume that most of what should be there, will be there

Let's go directly to Enterprise level from there. More of the same, and more people involved too. In fact, this will be a combination of the previous example where 20-40 departments go through the same stages, probably managed by a CIO / CTO. The need is very diverse here, and the lack of knowledge widespread. But the main tar pit will be formed by the fact that the solution offered will need to cover for all.
Hence, the bidding begins. Work streams are formed from the company side, to lay down and collect the business requirements. To make matters worse, often a few dozen consultants from an external firm are hired to not only aid there, but sometimes also take charge of the entire bid itself.
Anyway, in the end, a Pandora of needs, wants, and beggings for reassurance gets sent out into the world. After a few weeks, sometimes months, of Q&A going back and forth, strictly moderated, formal responses make it back to the company, at least 100-200 pages a piece, sometimes a tenfold or hundredfold of that

Then, the company gets to answer. Or the system integrator they hired. Or both.
In that process, what happens is what I describe as "getting compromised to death". Not only do the answers get weighted, but also the questions. With e.g. 15 departments involved, usually 5 of those will not nearly get what they asked for, and suffer from the total solution offered. Filling in the blanks for them will be labeled as "future work", and subject to Time & Material, meaning that the happy winner on the supply side gets to best-effort their way towards it

Somewhere in that process, need turns into greed, and lack of knowledge into ignorance. Objectively seen, one should have said at some point that trying to get one overall solution was not feasible. In stead, and by majority vote, it is ruled that the solution presented will satisfy most of demands, and leave big question marks for some - a good minority

What should have been done in stead, if you ask me? Accept the offer / solution for those that really got a solid and satisfying answer to their questions, and start to look for alternative for those who didn't. Put the lucky winner in full charge of integrating with the additional lucky winner(s), at fixed price, and there we'd have it

Of course, the culprit here is on the demand side. We've all learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution on the Enterprise level, regardless of all the vendors that claim to have one (and never offer that at fixed price, by the way). Greed and ignorance start right there - and is met by the supplier

Size matters. It really does. Time also does - things change over time. If you're a smart cookie, you'll know that no Enterprise size project can run longer than a certain period of time before getting severely impacted by changes from the outside. Ignore that fact? That makes you ignorant, as in not wanting to know it. Still persevering your initial want? That would be fairly labeled as greed then

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