We live in a world of digital disruption where the ability to move quickly and ship software that delights is now top of everyone’s agenda. It always should have been thus, but there’s nothing like the threat of extinction to focus the mind. Giving users what they want (and sometimes what they don’t know they need) is paramount in the private sector because otherwise they’ll go next door to your competitor who offers a better experience and price point.
Public sector drivers are different, yet closely related. Citizens now demand better experiences from the government services they pay for and expect to be able to transact digitally because they can everywhere else. From the government’s perspective, it’s a question of sustainability and value for money. Citizens interacting through automated digital channels are less expensive overall than providing physical direct contact with expensive personnel (e.g. GPs) in organisations buckling under the workload (e.g. GP practices). Digital experience therefore is about doing more with less, managing failure demand and providing better outcomes to citizens.
Most organisations, however, aren’t start-ups with highly decoupled architectures with super-fine-grained modularity and engineering practices that allow them to release software at a million miles per hour. Ultimately, most organisations will understand that faster cycle times directly result in better business outcomes, but are battling trying to move from 2nd to 3rd gear, let alone charging up the warp cores.
There is a tendency today to want to skip going up through the gears by focusing on ‘shiny things’ or the latest buzzword frameworks as the answer to whatever the problem is. We want to release software faster so let’s spend lots of money on containers, regardless of the fact that our entire organisation is built around a tightly coupled monolithic architecture with slow release cadences, no automated testing and an Ops team that thinks change is the spawn of the devil. We’re rubbish at selecting the right projects, so let’s spend millions on the latest scaled agile framework, confuse everyone with a new job title and still select the wrong projects because we haven’t resolved the underlying issues.
This is an age old problem that pyschoanalysts have been trotting on about for over 100 years – i.e. fixation on things as a mechanism to avoid dealing with the pain that sits beneath. Complex, deep-rooted organisational problems are likely to remain complex, deep-rooted organisational problems after you’ve spent millions on containerisation. Real change only happens when you think systemically and act in an aligned and integrated manner across operating model, culture and technology. One wheel is going nowhere if the other wheels are pointing in a different direction. It takes conscious, deliberate, orchestrated action to align the wheels at scale and you can’t go from inertia to warp factor 9 overnight.
Start small, experiment, focus relentlessly on shortening cycle time and eliminating waste, learn, increasingly decouple and modularise, learn some more, expand the horizons and repeat. There is no silver bullet that can teleport you overnight to IT mastery that has the FAANGs swooning in admiration. It has to be gradual, it will require painful introspection and questioning of organisational values and you have to learn what works for you in your context. Be wary of snake oil salespeople touting the latest ‘shinies’ and be sceptical of anyone promising the world ‘if we could just implement this framework / method / tech’. If you’re going to be a better version of you, you’re going to work through those organisational neuroses – invariably it’s those that are holding you back, not the tech.