Simplicity as guiding principle


Co Van Leeuwen

November 3, 2015

Article by Karin Blum and Co van Leeuwen

Many organizations are hard at work improving their IT operation. No simple task, since both external customer wishes and internal business operations requirements mean constant adjustments. In the meantime, the greatest enemy is slowly emerging from the inside out: a mounting up of complexity.

Partial aspects that are already difficult to implement individually accumulate in processes and systems and consequently result in a pile-up of implementation bottlenecks. As a result, the cohesion and interaction between all partial facets becomes unpredictable and the effects of complexity increase. Changes take longer, budgets are overrun and new applications do not do what they are supposed to do. Simplification is sorely needed. Outsourcing can be part of the solution.

The rule of thumb of complexity

Ten years ago, the degree of complexity was sometimes indicated using a simple rule of thumb. You give a score of 1, 2 or 3 for the factors ‘size of the project’, ‘degree to which the technology is managed’ and ‘the number of stakeholders involved in the decision making’. By multiplying these three scores, you get an indication of the time overrun the project is likely to suffer. Yes, you read that right: the time overrun the project is likely to suffer! Today when it comes to complexity, we think mainly of the enormous volume of applications in the application landscape. However, recent research has taught that even complexity is much more complex than that. It also involves, for instance, the strategy chosen, the decision-making process, the formulated goals, technological architecture, competences and the number of suppliers. Size and variation are still important factors for complexity. This implies, for example, that dividing up projects on the basis of size and the number of interfaces is relevant. It is logical therefore to choose solutions where the ‘work breakdown structure’ provides the smallest work units. That yields more speed, more certainty and lower risk.

Effective IT governance results in lower complexity

But the size of the application or the application landscape is not the only factor driving complexity, therefore. Experience in a recent project for an European agency demonstrated that it is almost impossible to deliver something successfully if the interests of twenty-eight individual countries must be served. Improving and simplifying the decision-making process contributes significantly to simplification. In more mature organizations, for instance, we see a large degree of transparency arising. Goals are clearly formulated and the progress towards these goals is reported unambiguously. The result is that there is no longer any discussion on the figures and attention can be devoted entirely to what must be done to get the results in line with expectations.

If a solution must subsequently be introduced for decision making, it must be simple and comprehensible, so that the only possible answers are ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Too often we see that the decider is presented with half the problem and then expected to come up with a solution. Common sense and good coordination between the business and the IT organization are essential for both performance and for making functional improvements. This requires good dialogue. In order to prevent a Babel of tongues, it is advisable to keep the number of people in demand and supply positions limited. Trying to reach consensus on everything certainly does not help in this context, but rather diffuses the management. Leadership is required. 

Use an end-state strategy as litmus test for what adds value

So there is nothing strange about the fact that ‘simplicity’ is increasingly becoming a strategic starting point for the choices that are being made. Given the lifespan of applications, it is advisable to make a long-term plan. Not for three to five years, but for a time period of ten years or more. And not in order to color in the action plans, but to show the way. This also works well to empower employees, so that they can align their own actions with the strategic goal. In formulating the long-term plan, the starting point must be the business development – and with it the development of the processes. Limit the number of choices for technologies so that the variation in technologies, processes and skills remains manageable. Finally, it is advisable to make the choices for the long term and not change them every three years, simply because a new person who has been appointed wants to make his or her mark. After all, the effects will only be realized in the long term. For instance, one Swedish government institution opted for just two basic technologies, which the organization wants to use to develop everything. After a number of years of perseverance they are now really starting to reap the rewards of this choice.

And one Dutch bank has a policy that if there is deviation, the consequences must be made perceptible for the business. That certainly has a chastening effect.

Safe pruning, what would you keep if you were starting over?

Rationalizing applications seems difficult in practice. It requires clear commitment from leaders, funding and disciplined decommissioning. That helps, but what would happen if we were to start rationalizing radically? What would you keep if you were to start completely from scratch? When asked this, it turns out that companies can easily manage with fewer than a hundred applications. Worldwide we are seeing the first large organizations that even set that as a goal. So why not? A strategy-based rationalization mobilizes and is much easier to accept from the perspective of business operations because you can see the developments coming. Planning on the basis of application lifecycle management therefore is preferable. Then the change is proactively realized in small, manageable steps.

Industrialization and standardization is the first step

Making strategic changes to the application landscape is only worthwhile however if there is an operation that functions well. After years of unstructured growth, we are now seeing a great deal of attention for industrialization and standardization. Correctly aligning methods, tools, techniques and processes results in the combination of the right speed and quality at the lowest costs. Good alignment of processes and systems also simplifies the complexity for the individual employee. And the great thing about standardization is that it results in more flexibility and speed. Also devote plenty of attention to formulating the question adequately. There are too many misinterpretations. Sometimes the right context is lacking and too often we see an attitude of ‘yes, yes, we know’. The solution is a good dialogue, a back and forth in which you return to the question of ‘why’ and ‘what do you mean by …?’. IT people are helped a great deal by learning to ask test questions. That helps bring the envisioned end result in line with expectations. This is already implicitly incorporated in the agile working method.

Outsourcing can help make complexity manageable.

Can outsourcing help simplify complexity? Recommendations from the HEK consultancy agency indicate that is indeed the case. You buy yourself a way out of the complexity and in doing so ensure that the management costs decline. The technical problem then becomes a management issue, a management challenge.

This article was written by Co Van Leeuwen from CapGemini: Capping IT Off and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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