Frankly Speaking: It's simply politics

Simplify to innovate

Simplify to innovate. If you walk away from this year's Premier 100 issue of Computerworld with one idea, make it this one: We can rethink everything we do in IT to make it simpler and then leverage that simplicity to make both IT and users more innovative.

In fact, these 100 IT leaders say there's no other way to do it.

We're accustomed to thinking that we can't really reduce complexity -- just move it around. If we make things simpler for users, our operations and development have to be more complex, so we'll get less done. If we keep things simple for programmers or IT operations, users will face more complications, so they'll be less effective.

But this "shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic" approach can't work any longer. And as Julia King reports, it doesn't have to. Premier 100 honorees are simplifying what both IT people and users do -- and freeing everyone up for innovation.

How? By pushing complexity not to users, not to developers or IT operations, but all the way back to politics.

To get working applications to users fast, we have to fight scope creep. That means getting business project sponsors to buy into 90% solutions that we can deliver in weeks, not years. And keeping projects on track using the simplest, cleanest technology and designs we can. And staying focused on the reality that we can't empower users until we deliver working systems.

That requires lots of political work: glad-handing and horse-trading, compromise, and leadership. It's not technical. It's hard, maybe unfamiliar, certainly complex.

It's also what IT -- and business users -- need.

Extra features? Whiz-bang technology? We can push those things to future versions as enhancements. In the meantime, IT gets the project done, and users can actually do business with it.

We can reduce hardware variety, which makes life simpler for IT. Better still, we can reduce the variety of systems that users are forced to use, giving the business much more flexibility -- transferred users don't have to be retrained, while fixes and work-arounds are universal.

Is that hard to sell to the business side? Sure. Those managers think they want customization. They believe "that's the way we've always done it" is the best possible business case. They fear the cost and effort of new training. Maybe they just fear change.

But users can grasp new technology. Most of them learn new tech every day. And users can handle new 90% solutions, especially when the old systems are filled with kludges and ugly hacks to squeeze out the last few percentage points of functionality.

The hard part is the politics.

By pushing the complexity into the negotiation of projects, IT's productive work is simpler. That means developers and IT operations people can focus on making users' work simpler. And it means everyone has more elbow room in which to find better, more profitable ways to do business.

That's the IT-based innovation we've trumpeted for decades but generally haven't succeeded at delivering -- not just cutting costs, but transforming the business.

Technical staffers have to be part of this. But the heavy lifting will fall to IT leaders: the CIOs and IT VPs who must drive the complexity into the politics -- and then do the hard, delicate, on-the-ground work to keep it there.

Think you're up to it? You'd better be. Because that's the only way IT can simplify to innovate.

And it's the very definition of what it now means to be an IT leader.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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