Can we prevent the next generation of IT disasters with core learning of some key principles by would-be CIOs?

Today I’ve been re-reading and reflecting on The Phoenix Project, and connecting it with direct and reported experiences in a number of organisations.

I went through the following thought process

  1. Nearly all large commercial organisations are becoming highly software-intensive – a bank is increasingly just a software company with a banking license.
  2. Nearly all such organisations share higher order goals – understanding customer needs, product portfolio market fit, time to market, R&D effectiveness, customer conversion & retention and so on.
  3. Nearly all those goals have software inextricably entwined.
  4. Nearly all such organisations are in a world of pain in achieving those goals.
  5. Nearly all such organisations share similar pain points – delivery takes too long and costs too much, delivered by demoralised people, and is highly fragile to business operations.
  1. Nearly all those pain points are traceable to the system of work – process, environment and so on – rather than the individuals or specific items being worked on.
  2. The causes are all management decisions that – in isolation – are extremely attractive local optimisations, taken by well meaning managers at all levels, as perfectly logical responses to the way they are driven and core assumptions about the nature of work in software-intensive environments.
  3. The countermeasures to the most common, most impactful problems are principles that are well known by Lean/Agile practitioners, but not by those defining the constraints, systems & environments of work.
  1. That these problems will continue to recur until we more effectively attack the root cause: the embedded assumptions and principles that drive the software-intensive working environment.
  2. That the patience of key stakeholders in large organisations will not last forever: that the example of the few organisations who do it better will start to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be this bad, all the time.
  3. That to attack the root cause requires a learning journey for all aspiring managers and (in particular) senior leaders, up to CIO level, in all large enterprises.
  4. That there is therefore a latent demand for principles-based learning that will show better ways, across a wide range of contexts.


A class of approximately 16 (minimum – could easily be 40) hours of classroom time, covering the following material primarily as a set of principles:

  1. Core systems thinking & complexity
    • Interactions and whole-systems view
    • Whole Organisational purpose & goals (v. local optima)
    • Cynefin – system effects of interaction between the things
  2. Flow
    • Value Streams
    • Reinertsen & Cost of Delay
    • Queues, Batches & Little’s Law
    • Overproduction, Inventory, Waiting
    • Goldratt & Theory of Constraints
    • WiP constraint, Multitasking, Prioritisation
    • DevOps
  3. Quality
    • The impact of defects & time to fix
    • Shift Left
    • BDD basics
  4. Uncertainty, Risk and Learning
    • More Cynefin via Liz Keogh
    • Planning: Horizons, Iterative, Incremental.
    • Estimates, Forecasts, Bets, SWAGs
    • Lean Startup
  5. Governance
    • Metrics, indicators and targets
    • Variation, Statistical Process Control
    • Go and See & Gemba Walks
  6. Leading People
    • Peopleware
    • Turn the Ship Around
    • Dan Pink
    • Recruitment
    • Appraisals & Performance Management
    • Servant Leadership
    • Coaching
    • Focused conversations
  7. Improvement
    • Go and See
    • PDCA & A3
    • Retrospectives
    • Toyota Kata, improvement coached by management
    • Experiments

All of these would be led with the “Why” of business impact, and be backed up with case studies and as much data as possible. And of course, a reading list.

Some of these also require learning behaviours & practises – Gemba Walks, coaching, focused conversations, PDCA/A3, which will likely require separate workshops to develop.

All this learning would be spread over several months, with the assumption that the students would be observing how they operated in their own environments, and reporting back their learning.

If such a curriculum existed, would you sign up for it? Would you sign up people in your organisation? Does my thought process resonate with your experience? Responses in the comments below please!

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