Prof. Jan Bosch, 19 October 2020
Last week, we had a strategy workshop at Software Center, the public-private digital transformation acceleration partnership that I lead. During one of the breakout sessions, we had a fun discussion around business agility that illustrated a very recognizable pattern. In a discussion around how to realize business agility, the focus was on who could be considered to be responsible for it. And then more examples of various people and roles abdicating responsibility were shared than you can shake a stick at.
In many ways, it has been the journey of Software Center. We started to work with software engineers around Agile practices, but soon the engineers mentioned that the architects should be involved as agility affects architecture as well. Once we had the architects involved, soon the requests came to involve development managers in the discussion as those are line managers to both engineers and architects. The development managers of course soon asked to involve product managers because they were just telling their teams to build what product management requests. It didn’t take long after we got product managers involved until they started to complain that we needed to involve the salespeople as whatever we were doing on the product development side had to be sold by them. The salespeople immediately remarked that if we wanted to change what we were selling, we had to get the C-suite involved as it would have a material impact on the bottom line. And the C-suite, obviously, responded with the argument that our customers weren’t asking for it and that our suppliers and partners weren’t willing to work with us on realizing these changes.
What’s going on here? Well, it relates to a column that I shared some months ago: to change anything, you have to change everything! And it aligns perfectly with our instinctive desire to keep things as they were and to control our environment to the maximum extent possible.
There’s an additional perspective though: the R&D organization in most companies that I work with considers itself to have the duty to build what the business side of the company asks for. The problem is of course that the business side doesn’t know what it wants until it’s blatantly obvious what’s needed and then they want it immediately. The new requirements from business often come up late and demand an immediate response from R&D.
The reality is that in practice, it’s the R&D organization that sets the business strategy for any organization. The design decisions taken by key people in R&D make certain business opportunities impossibly expensive to pursue, in terms of cost and time, and other business opportunities are easy and fast to realize. For all the talk around agility, realizing any significant architectural change in a large, established system takes a long time, often measured in quarters and years. The consequence is that it’s the responsibility of the R&D organization to predict the most likely business strategy options that the company will pursue a year or more down the line and prepare the system architecture for this.
This means that if you’re in R&D, you need to take responsibility. It’s your job to have a clear idea of what the future may look like and ensure that you’re creating a future for your company while delivering on today’s challenges. It’s critical to be ambidextrous and to balance the short and longer term. Most organizations rapidly build patterns for this, with a tendency to focus on the short term predominantly. It’s your responsibility to not blindly follow the established patterns but to continuously question the status quo. As Andy Grove used to say, only the paranoid survive.
In most organizations, there’s a tendency to use excuses to explain why certain changes aren’t realized. One of the most effective excuses is to abdicate responsibility and to point to others in the organization as being responsible for holding you back. As the saying goes, your comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there. It’s up to each of us to shoulder the heaviest responsibility we can carry and to step into an uncertain, unpredictable future, taking calculated risks and delivering for today and tomorrow. It’s up to you!