In Praise of Stasis(II): Why a Change is Nowhere Near as Good as a Rest

So. Where were we ? Ah yes – Big. A modern-day IT Transformation Programme must always be Massive. No-one ever sets off to do a spot of light transforming. Oh no. In Transformation World, everything is Supersize.

Ceausescu's Casa Poporului, Bucharest. This is the sort of thing you want to be shooting for. Sod the expense, who cares if the whole country's going to rack and ruin, look ! Look ! LOOK ! IT'S HUGE !

Ceausescu’s Casa Poporului, Bucharest. This is the sort of thing you want to be shooting for. Sod the expense, who cares if the whole country’s going to rack and ruin, look ! Look ! LOOK ! IT’S HUGE !

Everything must be Big. Market Leading. Top of the Range. Rolls Royce Standard. The software you buy. The wires and boxes. The consultants you hire to munge them all together. The managers you hire to oversee the consultants. The other managers you hire to oversee the first lot because you can’t altogether trust them. But why, precisely ? In a word, Hubris. You and the CFO and the CEO and the COO and the C-any-other-frigging-letter-of-the-alphabet-O and all your other pals / rivals / enemies on the Board self-consciously consider yourselves to be Big Shots. Heavy Hitters. Top Dogs. Made Men. Players. Thought Leaders. Everything and everyone in the organisation reinforces that narcissistic self-description absolutely all of the time. You are referred to in corporate communiqués as the Senior Leadership Team, the High Level Stakeholders, the Corporate Executive Board. You are deferred to cringingly, your opinion and favours are humbly solicited by courtiers, your name and potential for Mighty Wrath are invoked by underlings as bargaining chips. You may start off lowly enough, drinking machine coffee from a polystyrene cup and gassing with blue-collar pals on the shop floor in your old baggy cardy, but you would need oceanic-trench-depths of Gandhiesque humility to avoid monumental head expansion. So even if you didn’t start as a preening self-regarding pompous ninny, that is exactly what you will rapidly become, completely dependent on your daily diet of sycophancy, up-suckery and flattery, laid on with a massive plastering trowel(*) by your myriad minions. Like any dependency, the only way to maintain the kick is to increase the dose. You will find yourself making decisions on appointments, suppliers, kit, systems and pretty much everything else solely upon the basis of how heavily your ego has been massaged by the relevant candidates, vendors and consultants. Lower down the food chain, your henchmen will do the same for you. What would the boss like ? they will ask themselves. What’s going to make him look good ? What most obsequiously underscores his (i.e. your) original witless word-dribble that is now serving as our mission statement ? Which option can I choose that will flannel the old fool in such an obscene and gratuitous fashion that I’ll get noticed, patted on the head and maybe later promoted ?

The ever-growing and still apparently star-spangled transformation programme is seen as the physical, organisational, systematic and financial manifestation of your genius. You are self-evidently Great and All-Encompassing; clearly it must reflect your Magnificence. As your majesty and wisdom flourish, so must its girth, scope, ambition and, above all, monthly burn rate of the old spondulicks.

Burn a fiver, you're an idiot. Burn a million quid, and you're a go-getting maverick iconoclast. Or maybe just a bigger idiot. One of the two.

Burn a fiver, you’re an idiot. Burn a million quid, and you’re a go-getting maverick iconoclast. Or maybe just a bigger idiot. One of the two.

And Lo!, because you believe yourself to be an infallible visionary colossus bestriding the narrow world, and because all your petty minions have to act like they believe that too if they want to get ahead in the diseased hierarchy of arslikhan you have created, and because the corporate PR machine is pumping out non-stop cheerleading nonsense about you and your vision and your blessed now-visible-from-space transformation programme, the only way left is up. More projects, more stages, more people, more time, more spend, more ceaseless revolutionary upheaval. By this point, your IT juggernaut has lumbered well beyond theorising, planning, workshopping and consulting and got stuck into making stuff. Quake, tremble, quiver in your boots, it has entered its Build Phase. The bottom storeys of the first software skyscraper in your streamlined City of the Future are taking shape. It was supposed to be all chrome, brushed aluminium, marble and pristine plate glass but somehow it’s come out as piss-stained lumps of grey concrete with rusting lengths of reinforcing bar protruding out at all angles. If it were an actual building, it would be a 1960s car park in Gdansk. Nothing is slick, nothing is flexible, nothing is fast, nothing quite works. Even at this early juncture the much maligned spaghetti-and-meatballs hodgepodge of legacy systems is looking pretty tasty. None of the old kit is dead yet, but people are already rueing its passing with tearful eyes.

What you imagined you would be building, figuratively speaking.

What you imagined you would be building, figuratively speaking.

What you are actually building, figuratively speaking. Excepting that a desperately ugly 1960s brutalist concrete car park would be functional, in so far as you could (a) park cars in it and (b) get it to look really menacing in an early 70s British gangster film.

What you are actually building, figuratively speaking. Excepting that a desperately ugly 1960s brutalist concrete car park would be functional, in so far as you could (a) park cars in it and (b) get it to look really menacing in an early 70s British gangster film.

No matter. You can’t make an enterprise-scale IT omelette without breaking a few million eggs. There will be teething problems. Early deliverables will have minor quality issues, for sure. Arguably two hours is a long time to spend typing a purchase order into your blue-chip-standard, 24-carat, 3rd-party-consultant-procured ERP package. And it is unfortunate, and one could justifiably be a tad irritated when after those two hours the aforesaid top-drawer diamond-sharp toolkit as used, endorsed and validated by 73% of the Fortune 500 rejects the transaction on the grounds that it will only accept those denominated in Zambian Kwacha.

But only the little people get stopped by little obstacles. With more tuning, more training, more self-belief and above all more spending, potholes will be filled, black spots bypassed and bottlenecks cracked wide open as you drive forward toward Mythical e-Digital Utopia at 110 mph with the top down and Brucie Springsteen blazing away out of your eight-track. Sadly, several more rounds of gung-ho panic-stricken cheque-book hole-filling later and little has improved apart from the bank balances of your preferred suppliers. Your gleaming Fritz Lang Metropolis of a target platform is nowhere in sight outside of a few faded Powerpoint slides from the early weeks of optimism and hope. The old despised legacy systems are still doing all the donkey work while the fabled Next Generation kit has only a parasitic existence on the back of the old. It is the feckless 30-something man-child who has all the new gadgets but hasn’t yet moved out of mum and dad’s or got a job. It’s always there, in the bleeding way, it doesn’t contribute anything but it must always be considered, pandered to and appeased. For example, everyone over the years had become accustomed to submitting weekly timesheets on the old 80 x 24 green screen emulator, albeit with varying degrees of grumbling. The curmudgeonliness will increase markedly when they all have to do that and then repeat the exercise in the Integrated Resource, Task, Budget and Project Planning Suite. Which naturally requires work to be sub-divided down into 15 minute units and each such morsel of work individually allocated, reviewed and approved by a resource pool owner, a practice lead, a project manager, a programme co-ordinator and a domain administrator. Laborious duplication, some might say, but how much effort is too much in the quest for perfect project oversight. Remember, All Governance Is Good Governance (**).

Now you’re really in the shit up to your neck. Any more and you’ll be tasting it, so it’s time for some drastic action: find and offer up scapegoats before the Board come after you. For starters, pick a couple of the more unlikable, truculent and / or useless of your senior lieutenants and strategically reorganise their asses out of the building. For extra points, while offing the first crop of victims, neatly line up the next batch of patsies. The inevitable second round of nuttings will surely be no more than six months down the line. It might even be worthwhile specifically recruiting a minibus load of malleable, upbeat, shiny, gormless idiots into high-falutin’ but ultimately cursed positions, purely to be used as sacrificial lambs as and when the need arises. Given that you’ll be paying top whack for these chumps, there doesn’t even need to be any hard feelings. At the extreme, you could level with them when they sign up – look lads, the job won’t be for ever, you’ll get bashed on the back of the head with a pickaxe handle by HR at some point but it should be good for at least nine months of light duties on 850 quid a day before I have to whack you. Pitched like so, I’d take that job.

By this point you are squarely in Phase Six of the classical Transformation Programme Lifecycle. Terminologies vary but the industry-standard polysyllabic gobbledegook has it more or less as follows:

Nice bit of Powerpoint. Loving the rays of sunshine beaming down from top left. Classy.

Nice bit of Powerpoint. Loving the rays of sunshine beaming down from top left. Classy.

If you’ve worked with Accenture or any other similar posse of five-star shysters, conmen and spivs you’ll instantly recognise these distinct epochs within the overall timeline of a total systems refresh, OK, yah. Without the necessary grounding in high-ticket baloney and bamboozlement, you might find it hard to equate these lofty descriptions with the chaos and misery whirling around you. But I can offer a handy key to assist decryption from sludgy consultantese into brutally plain English:

A bracingly honest PowerPoint slide. A very creature. Flying pink unicorns are ubiquitous by comparison.

A bracingly honest PowerPoint slide. A very rare creature. Flying pink unicorns are ubiquitous by comparison.

So. Purges and Terror it is. You’ll find that once you’ve starting purging, it’s hard to stop. Just like hiccups, popping bubblewrap, Pringles, Maltesers or crystal meth, it’s irresistibly moreish. Having plugged away a few times at your top layer of sidekicks, your trigger finger will start to itch in the direction of troublesome middle-management. Then the shop floor, then, what the hell, why not the cleaners, the security guards and the receptionists as well. No-one is immune, no-one is innocent – the only minion who can be guaranteed not to let you down is an ex-minion. To simultaneously paraphrase and misquote the Godfather of Endless Strategic Purging, “Termination solves all problems – no man, no problem.”(***) You may find in time that the Urge To Purge extends to members of your family, children even. Perhaps we could get rid of the ungrateful, spoilt little beasts and import some leaner, keener, more grateful ones from abroad ? At this point, perhaps best to start having qualms. Have a lie down in a darkened room for a while. If the notion still seems perfectly reasonable to you after half an hour, maybe go see if they need a new top guy in North Korea or the Serbian Mafia.

But even having bemused drones frog-marched off the premises on a bi-monthly basis pales after a while. Thus, weary from the many, long months of pain and suffering, you limp into the final stretches of your transformative journey. Your workforce is demoralised, fearful and confused. The bright sunlit uplands promised a year or two ago turn out to be blasted tracts of peat bog, lashed by wind and endless dirty horizontal drizzle. Some of the new kit works. Most of it doesn’t. Some of it is bought and paid for but has never actually been taken out of the cellophane packaging as nobody could work out why it was shelled out for in the first place. What were we planning to use the retinal scanners for, and why did we pitch in for the whole bloody biometric identification solution as well ? Was it a BOGOF deal from the supplier ? Did we cash-in some nectar points for an upgrade ? Did we get to do a software supermarket sweep ? Or was someone slipped a brown paper bag full of fivers for signing on the dotted line for the whole kit and caboodle ? Strangely, due to the bizarre and unnatural machinations of large-scale IT procurement, it may well be all of the above. Very little makes sense in huge IT projects, but in a shambolic world of utter senselessness, purchasing stands out as the most deranged, contra-logical, tortured and baffling activity of all.

Procurement in the jumbo IT catastrophe is so monumentally insane and destructive that it requires, nay demands, separate and extensive analysis. Suffice it to say that it will always turn a drama into a crisis and extend what might have been six months of pain and a few thousand quid down the hole into years of agony and a multi-million pound haemorrhage.  Let us then close this instalment with a brief public information film outlining the dangers facing the naive and ill-informed when they set out to do some technology shopping.

Caveat emptor. He went in for a gramophone, he’s come out with woofers, tweeters, slimline salad dressing and a bag on his head.

(*) “Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” Apocryphally attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, referring to his tried and tested means of playing Old Queen Vic.

Disraeli and Victoria. A masterclass in senior stakeholder management.

Disraeli and Victoria. A masterclass in senior stakeholder management.

(**) In the classical IT Shambles, All Governance Is Always Good Governance. Therefore, trivially, More Governance Is Better Governance. Same applies for Control, Process, Oversight, Bureaucracy, Documentation, Checkpoints, Change Control, Reporting etc etc ad nauseum into the abyss of Project Management Theology. The more the merrier. It’s All Good.

(***) Stalin never actually said “Death solves all problems — no man, no problem” or even “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” These quotes were attributed to him by critics – without doubt, reactionary running dog lackeys of the capitalist-military-industrial complex. But to be absolutely fair to both the lickspittle bourgeois revisionist scribblers and the lad from Gori himself, these sound just like things he would have said had he thought of them, and both are entirely consistent with many of Uncle Joe’s fully attributed sayings, deeds and worldview.

There are a number of striking, farcical and worrying parallels between political totalitarianism and large-scale technology endeavours of the grandiose and doomed variety. The banal, nonsensical ideology presented as scientific fact. The ludicrously ambitious but arbitrary deadlines, targets and quotas. The hedging, spin and verbal gymnastics which accompany their inevitable failure to be met. The gulf between lofty high-minded rhetoric in public and bitter, self-interested cynicism in private. The Emperor’s-New-Clothes-style blotting out of inconvenient truths which do not accord with the vision or the plan. The paranoiac insistence on the central control and standardisation of absolutely bloody everything down to the finest level of idiotic nitpickery. The rampant neophilia and attendant contempt for anything pre-existing. The vast hierarchies of governance, control, audit and oversight which continually increase, eventually to swamp those few souls still left doing any useful work. The obsession with the mammoth, the large-scale and the gargantuan at the expense of manageability, efficiency, value for money or common sense. The waves of purges and replacements, where in under a year a new broom can complete the trajectory from feted Golden Boy to trusted right hand man to unreliable oldthinker to saboteur and wrecker, and finally to unemployed unperson. There is an MBA dissertation, maybe even a PhD thesis or book to be written on the arresting correspondences between 20th century dictatorships and 21st century shambolic IT disasters. Perhaps another time.

Iosif Vissarionovich enjoys his pipe while signing a few death warrants and approving the enforced relocation of a couple of nationalities to Siberia. A man fully in control of his remit, unphased by the ruthless necessities of power, and never shy of a purge or two. In many ways, The Ultimate Transformation Programme Director.

Iosif Vissarionovich enjoys his pipe while signing a few death warrants and approving the enforced relocation of a couple of nationalities to Siberia. A man fully in control of his remit, unphased by the ruthless necessities of power, and never shy of a purge or two. In many ways, The Ultimate Transformation Programme Director.

 

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2 Responses to In Praise of Stasis(II): Why a Change is Nowhere Near as Good as a Rest

  1. Pingback: In Praise of Stasis(III): If You Don’t Need It, Don’t Bloody Buy It | IT Shambles

  2. Pingback: In Praise of Stasis(IV): If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again. Then Give Up. No Use Being A Damn Fool About It.(*) | IT Shambles

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