How to build value with technology

Opinion

Keeping up with a rapidly-changing world requires more than just best practice. Building value with technology requires a constant process of removing barriers to action and change, and shortening the distance between an idea and the value that results. It’s time to check your barrier to entry, barrier to change and barrier to exit.

This article was originally published via Medium.

You understand technology is now your business. You’re embarking on digital transformation. You’re building strategy, starting technology projects, trying to keep up with a fast-changing world. You want to be like Netflix, Uber, Amazon. You build out a 2-year plan. You go for accepted best practice. Pretty soon there’s a lot of activity, but not much value.

What happened?

The reality is, the world is changing faster than you can build, much less execute on, a multi-year plan. The future — specifically your future, in your context — is uncertain, a moving target that requires continuous learning and adjustment. When your environment is fluid, traditional best practice is likely do more harm than good. At best, it’s going to struggle to be relevant to you.

Let’s talk about barriers

There’s a subtle but stark mindset shift that marks out high-performing organisations from those fading away in a digital age. Central to the thinking of the former is the distance from idea to value. If you’re not removing barriers to action and change, you’re going to fall further behind.

Complicatedness will find you. It will slow you down. And the value of your ideas is perishable. Before you know it, your lunch is either looking mouldy, or someone else has eaten it.

I’ve been reading Accelerate, which I think is brilliant. It may well be the book of the age. One phrase struck me from the start of the book: “optimise for speed, not cost”. That means low-friction, short feedback loops and incremental steps of delivered change.

Barrier to entry

You need to find the shortest path from here to your first piece of meaningful, practical value, and then try harder.

This is about your zero-to-one. From idea to implementation. Your minimum viable product. How long does it take your organisation to get an idea in front of users and customers? The bigger the idea, the smaller the first step needs to be. The grander the plan for day one, the stronger the guarantee of failure.

The discipline of doing less is hard. It’s vulnerable, it requires thought and it runs counter to ego — and that’s a good thing. If your execution is over complicated, you’re going to suffer. Agile isn’t a management fad, it’s a survival kit for an uncertain world. The longer it takes you to get to value, the more likely it is that that value will be irrelevant by the time you get it delivered. Lao Tzu spoke to agile thinking over 2000 years ago:

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

You need to find the shortest path from here to your first piece of meaningful, practical value, and then try harder. Keep pruning. You won’t get meaningful feedback until it’s being used in anger. The longer that feedback loop is, the more comfortable you’ll feel sailing off course and into the mist. Wandering into the woods blissfully unaware of bears is a great way to get eaten.

Barrier to change

The world moves on. That’s present continuous. It’s not about updating the right answer, it’s about updating the notion that there has ever been a right answer. Right depends on your scale, your mission, the lifecycle stage of what you’re building, the point in time that you observe the technology industry, and any number of factors that are important in your situation.

You don’t build to finish. There is no single, permanent right answer. You keep measuring, learning and adjusting to minimise the distance between your position and the people you’re trying to serve. Any system —be it  technology, team or organisation — must be able to change smoothly, incrementally and with discipline. Discipline comes from honest observation and measurement of your context. Smoothness comes from focusing on doing the right thing, cutting out motivations that don’t add value.

Speed comes from clean, simple, uncomplicated design.

If the intent of a design is to produce one system for all time, set in stone, that system will be legacy — a millstone — from the outset, and will degrade at the rate at which your environment continues to change. Preserving your ability to change is like taking a strong position in a game of chess. Corner yourself into a design dead-end and it’s only a matter of time before you’re out of the game and have to start again from scratch.

Barrier to exit

Think about large banking and government organisations. Weighed down by ageing mainframe technology that was designed in a different era, with the intention that they should be permanent. Optimistically assuming a world that wouldn’t change, these systems are now unable to move on at any meaningful pace, let alone adapt to material, qualitative changes in the world around them.

Who knew in 1974 that there’d be contactless payments and banking apps? It simply isn’t possible to design for an unknown future.

One of my best successes has been, as part of an awesome team, building the ONS public website. Delivering it was hard enough — and a transformative achievement for the organisation — but I’m even more proud of what happened next. The permanent team got rid of our work. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the fact we built something the team were able to exit is one of my proudest achievements in technology design.

Had they not been able to do that, had they been saddled with a system that couldn’t be replaced with different components, languages and technologies as the maturity and life cycle of the system progressed, it would, by definition, have been legacy and would eventually require expensive investment to replace. Instead, they were able to incrementally rework it, continuously delivering value and, as far as I’ve heard, they continue to hold to that discipline.

Challenges have changed, the things the ONS website does have been extended massively and there will no doubt never be a time when it’s finished. Nothing worth doing is easy, but if the team are able to keep changing with their context, that’s the fruit of ongoing good design.

Remove barriers, optimise for speed

You can’t sprint in a suit of armour, but you also can’t balance spinning plates on a moving target.

The digital divide is getting wider. As digital thinking diverges ever more keenly from traditional IT thinking and traditional organisation design, the mismatch between the intentions of permanence and change is creating friction, and sometimes conflict, in organisations.

Those designed for change are increasingly unable to bear the weight and friction of those designed to remain static. It’s a genuinely hard and human issue. The effort and value of each mindset is threatened, hampered and damaged by the other.

You can’t sprint in a suit of armour, but you also can’t balance spinning plates on a moving target.

Both have value, but the accelerating pace of change increasingly favours and demands responsive evolution over a priori answers. Stability needs to find a home within change, because stasis isn’t a viable option.

Fortunately a key finding of the writers of Accelerate is that smaller changes, delivered more frequently, lead to greater, not lesser, stability. That’s really important for harmonising these needs.

Determined investment in low barriers to entry, change and exit, means you can optimise for speed: increase pace of progress and frequency of delivery and shorten feedback loops.

It’s about improving your chances of surviving, thriving — and also improving stability — in a continuously changing world.