Breaking the paradox, the IT paradox

Tangled ethernet cables image CC by Bruno Girin

Tangled ethernet cables image CC by Bruno Girin

Whenever you work in IT or any other high-tech related business, you might have encountered inherently conflicting nature of the work. Opposite directed forces that drive decisions or conflicted goals of the stakeholders may be your everyday struggle. Those may be categorised as paradoxes, because they may apparently contradict themselves, yet to some extent still remain true.

This post looks  at various paradoxes from IT world.

At first I need to give a credit for inspiring this post to the author of the book I have read lately. It’s “Breaking the CIO paradox” by Martha Heller, I really enjoyed the read and to be honest it made me laugh on couple occasions as Martha pretty much nailed my every day struggles.

I decided to follow the line of though from the book and use the paradoxes outlined by Martha that resonated with me the most to give you some of my own insights.

Strategy vs operations

It’s probably the best know paradox and easiest to observe . You have to take care of the long term strategy, plans and at the same time take care of all the operational matters and preferably put out all the immediate fires. What that would mean in everyday work is to focus on hot stuff projects in jeopardy instead on the cool(taken from”The marshmallow test” book by Walter Mischel), next year actions.

The situation is best described by the weed metaphore: when you are fully focused on picking weeds now you have no time to plant trees and flowers that bloom next season. Even if you devote full attention to picking the weeds this year it will still be there the next year. However if your trees and flowers bloom the weeds may not be that visible or get suffocated and your garden may be worthy of admiration.

Martha nicely phrases it as “operational excellence is strategical”, which I couldn’t agree more with.

Futurist vs archivist

Looking into the future yet retaining and changing the past. This might be best illustrated as introducing the new systems while still improving on the old, legacy systems.This paradox may be connected to the risk as well. Futurist has more appetite for risk while the archivist is very risk averse. Futurist is more eager to try different things and even shut it down at certain point while the archivist is not interested in anything new and looks only into the past. Now you cannot favour any of the two, because each has it’s rightful place in the business.

The term bi-modal IT fits nicely into that paradox schema, which I picked it up somewhere on the web somewhere.  Multi modality allows one to split the IT into parts with different drivers. It is about IT having two flavours: one agile, nimble and quick to adapt (so the futurist part), take a lot of risks and innovate  and the other  is retaining the olden ways.

Cost vs innovation

Keep the budget under control, yet innovate and provide new tools for the business at the same time

Historically the IT was considered as the stewards of the budget. This stands in clear opposition to innovation which is now one of the expectations toward IT. Not only IT needs to keep the budget in check but also provide a driving force for the innovation, as Martha puts it “the IT may flip the coin for the bussiness” and “any business is an IT bussiness today”. the Innovation part is about giving the organization the competitve edge, be it by right utilization of the shipping or erp software as the easiest or the right implementation and usage of big data.

Again the bi-modality, which I mentioned in the previous section, may fit nicely into this paradox.

Breaking the paradox

So how do you know you have defeated the paradox? Well, I think(and apparently Martha in her book agrees) it’s not about defeating or breaking but rather about balancing in the long-term. You cannot have one obscure the view on another even if short term one has the highest priority. Martha considers this to be the advice best for CIOs, but I think most of us would benefit from it.

The book

I decided to change the CIO into IT in the title of the book on purpose. In my opinion most of the book should be addressed to anyone working in IT, not only the soon-to-be or want-to-be CIO. Although the book was released in 2012 which in IT terms is ages ago, all of the contents of the book still remain relevant and I strongly encourage that everyone, even slightly, involved in IT management roles to read the book.

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