Resilient Obsolescence, In Pictures

At the SunLive 2006 show on Tuesday, I talked through my thoughts on how organisations get into the mess they often seem to end up in, what they look like in that state and some ideas about getting out of the mess. A few people asked me if I could distribute the slides – something I’ve never really done with my slides before, mostly because the graphics tend not to make any sense without the text that goes with them. Plus, the file is 14MB and, as I was sending it around for people to review and comment on, most firewalls blocked it. If your firewall can take it, or if you want a PDF version of the slides (2.2MB), drop me a mail: alanm AT

In the meantime, I thought I’d post a few of the slides here with some of the points I was trying to make – not necessarily the way that I said them the other day but perhaps the way that I wish I’d said them.

I put up this picture:

You’ll recognise many of those photos. They’re people and things – shoes even – from the last 40 years or so. What got me thinking about this was a policy where I work called “the rule of 85” – if your age and your length of service add up to 85, you can retire on full terms, whether you’re 65 or not. Recent history may have resulted in a trend where people swap jobs every few years, but 40 years ago it was common to stay in a single job for decades. There are a surprisingly large number of people who qualify for this rule. I wondered whether that was a good thing or a bad thing – plainly the organisation is going to lose a lot of experience over the next few years, but there’s also a chance to get new blood in or to use the knowledge exit as a driver for delivering change.

The slide was me putting that in a different way. Over the last 40 years, many different influences have touched people in the organisation – musical, changes in technology, changes in family life and so on. On top of that, we’ve had all the management style changes you could think of, new bosses, new processes, new thinking, six sigma, total quality, business process redesign, leadership, 7 habits and whatever. All of these have left their mark on the organisation – and so each of these pictures represents a piece of history, a piece of change for the organisation. I chose music mostly, but Richard Pryor is in there (primarily because of his expressive forehead in this picture) and there are a couple of lava lamps for good measure.

The layers of change – the individual experiences or pictures in this case – create a drag on the organisation. They sit on top of each other like layers in sedimentary rock. Layers at the bottom tend to be strongest and best formed – they’ve been there longest. Your organisation might look a bit like this:

The folks who’ve been there longest are also the ones that you rely on – they’ve seen the crises and know how to handle them, they’ve seen the storms, the day that the marketing campaign was launched without the call centre knowing, the moment that the servers went down on the busiest shopping day of the year, the enormous rain storm that knocked down poles, flooded houses and resulted in 60,000 calls an hour. They’ve seen it all and they’ve dealt with it. That makes them enormously valuable. But, and it’s a big but, it probably also makes them the greatest inhibitor to change – the reason that they can be valuable is because they know how things work now and they’re super-comfortable with things being that way.

I think the IT architecture in an organisation evolves the same kind of way. You start off with something pretty stable and well thought through but new requirements come along and new technologies that can fill those requirements. Sometimes you fall victim to great sales approaches, sometimes you need the new thing, sometimes silos compete with each other and deliver competing solutions, or maybe you acquired a few companies as you went and the hotch-potch of systems that resulted is just the way things are for you. Even if you architected as you went, you’ve probably ended up with the picture below where lots of bits of technology are held together with some kind of integration – maybe yoghurt pots and bits of string, maybe something more advanced. The cut-outs of the bodies/head are from Bill Gates, Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison and Fred Brooks (representing the more photogenic face of IBM) – there’s another slide on those guys that I haven’t included here, maybe in another post.

Between the layers of business capability and change that have created a composite organisation and the puppet like IT architecture held together with string, it’s a wonder how things work. My sense is that things work because there are vital people in the organisation that keep churning out the hits. It’s likely a small number of people that carry the bulk of the organisation. These are the folks who give 120% against the 50% that everyone else gives. You can’t do without either set of people – sack 1 person doing 1/2 a job and there’s still 1/2 a job to fill. You have to get rid of the work that they do to really take the job away. Sack someone doing 120%, or lose them to retirement, and you’ll struggle far more than the implied 70% differential – and it will be far worse on a crisis day. These hit makers – the ones who keep on trucking no matter what is going on around them – seem to let change wash over them. Wave after wave of change attempts come and go and, for the most part, these guys and girls keep their heads down and get on with what they do. They are the true Cliff Richards of the corporate world:

Now I know Dan doesn’t get this, Dan things the right analogy is Madonna. There’s a real and obvious difference between the two: Cliff has kept on doing his thing, oblivious to the changes in music style, playing to his audience and making hits. Madonna has ridden every wave of change, adapted to it and put out music in line with the change – and, for the most part, she’s kept on generating the hits too (with the exception I guess of American Life). Cliff hasn’t changed; Madonna has. Organisations have more Cliffs than they have Madonnas, that’s my point.

This is what I called “Resilient Obsolescence” (actually, it was SimonF that gave me the idea first a couple of weeks ago). It’s the tendency of an organisation to reach a point where despite everything being obsolete – processes, technology, policies etc – it carries on. It gets buffeted by change, by attempts at change, by new methods and processes, but it carries on. It’s resilient and yet obsolescent. It has no right to still be working, yet it carries on.

Change is especially difficult in organisations that have been around a long time, because the sedimentary layers have been in place for so long, they’re embedded, entrenched, enmeshed, whatever. They’re stuck. Any attempt to make change stick has to work all the way through the organisation, leveraging off something that matters to everyone. Finding that thing that matters is half the challenge… more another time.

6 thoughts on “Resilient Obsolescence, In Pictures

  1. Madonna would have been a better analogy than Cliff. I don\’t think Cliff ever really changed; people (some people) just loved him through the ages. Madonna (and Kylie to an extent, although over a shorter period) have constantly re-invented themselves to keep up.Maybe every system should be given an expiry date when it goes live, after which it needs to be replaced. It can be argued that the longer a system has been in place, the more value it has added; at the same time, the older it is, the more likely it is to be \’too expensive to replace\’, with a fear of breaking something else, because so much feeds or is fed by it.

  2. .. another rule of thumb is that legacy systems are usually old enough to vote.They are also like characters from Buffy, nearly impossible to put down. How many change projects fail to take out the legacy systems and the high priests and priestesses that feed them?

  3. Aren\’t you saying that people – individuals – and their fuzzy capabilities & knowledge is what sustains & maintains the organisation, regardless of systems?

  4. Any thoughts as to what motivates someone to do 120% when they are surrounded by 50%ers – especially at senior mgt level?From my experience, the hit makers are able to suss whether the proposed change is the \”right thing to do\” or whether its a fad that will ultimately damage the organisation\’s long term sustainability. Give the hit makers a new vision that they really get and change will happen faster.

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