Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Cost Center Trap

In the 1960’s, IT was largely an in-house back-office function focused on process automation and cost reduction. Today, IT plays a significant strategic and revenue role in most companies, and is deeply integrated with business functions. By 2010, over 50% of firms’ capital spending was going to IT, up from 10-15% in the 1960’s.[1] But one thing hasn't changed since the 1960’s: IT has always been considered a cost center. You are probably thinking "Why does this matter?" Trust me, cost center accounting can be a big trap.

Back in the mid 1980’s Just-in-Time (JIT) was gaining traction in manufacturing companies. JIT always drove inventories down sharply, giving companies a much faster response time when demand changed. However, accounting systems count inventory as an asset, so and any significant reduction in inventory had a negative impact on the balance sheet. Balance sheet metrics made their way into senior management metrics, so successful JIT efforts tended to make senior managers look bad. Often senior management metrics made their way down into the metrics of manufacturing organizations, and when they did, efforts to reduce inventory were half-hearted at best. A generation of accountants had to retire before serious inventory reduction was widely accepted as a good thing.[2] 

Returning to the present, being a cost center means that IT performance is judged – from an accounting perspective – solely on cost management. Frequently these accounting metrics make their way into the performance metrics of senior managers, while contributions to business performance tend to be deemphasized or absent. As the metrics of senior managers make their way down through the organization, a culture of cost control develops, with scant attention paid to improving overall business performance. Help in delivering business results is appreciated, of course, but rarely is it rewarded, and rarer still is the cost center that voluntarily accepts responsibility for business results.

Now let’s add an Agile transformation to this cost center culture. Let’s assume that the transformation is supposed to bring benefits such as faster time to market, more relevant products, better customer experiences. And let’s assume that the cost center metrics do not change, or if they do change, process metrics such as number of agile teams and speed of deployment are added. I’ll wager that very few of those agile teams are likely to focus on improving overall business performance. The incentives send a clear message: business performance is not the responsibility of a cost center.

Being in a cost center can be demoralizing. You aren’t on the A team that brings in revenue, you’re on the B team that consumes resources. No matter how well the business performs, you’ll never get credit. Your budget is unlikely to increase when times are good, but when times are tight, it will be the first to be cut. Should you have a good idea, it had better not cost anything, because you can’t spend money to make money. If you think that a bigger monitor would make you more efficient, good luck making your case. Yet if your colleagues in trading suggest larger monitors will help them generate more revenue, the big screens will show up in a flash.[3]

Let’s face it, unless there are mitigating circumstances, IT departments that started out as cost centers are going to remain cost centers even when the company attempts a digital transformation. What kind of mitigating circumstances might help IT escape the cost center trap?
  1. There is serious competition from startups.
    Startups develop their software in profit centers; they haven’t learned about cost centers yet. And in a competitive battle, a profit center will beat a cost center every time.
  2. IT is recognized as a strategic business driver.
    You would think that a digital transformation would be undertaken only after a company has come to realize the strategic value of digital technology, but this is not the case. IT has been treated as if it were an outside contractor for so long that it is difficult for company leaders to think of IT as a strategic business driver, integral to the company's success going forward.
  3. A serious IT failure has had a huge impact on business results.
    When it becomes clear exactly how dependent a profit center is on a so-called cost center, people in the profit center are often motivated to share their pain with IT. Smart IT departments will use this opportunity to share the gain also.
Many people in the Agile movement preach that teams should have responsibility for the outcomes they produce and the impact of those outcomes. But responsibility starts at the top and is passed down to teams. When IT is managed as a cost center with cost objectives passed down through the hierarchy, it is almost impossible for team members from IT to assume responsibility for the business outcomes of their work. When IT metrics focus on cost control, digital transformations tend to stall.

Every ‘full stack team’ working on a digital problem should have ‘full stack responsibility’ for results, and that responsibility should percolate up to the highest managers of every person on the team.  Business results, not cost, should receive the focused attention of every member of the team, and every incentive that matters should be aimed at reinforcing this focus.

The Capitalization Dilemma

Let’s return to the surprising assertion that in 2010, over 50% of firms’ capital spending was going to IT.[1] One has to wonder what was being capitalized. Yes, there were plenty of big data centers that were no doubt capitalized, since the movement to the cloud was just beginning. But in addition to that, a whole lot of spending on software development was also being capitalized. And herein lies the seeds of another undue influence of accounting policies over IT practices.

Software development projects are normally capitalized until they are “done” – that is they reach "final operating capability" and are turned over to production and maintenance.[1] But when an organization adopts continuous delivery practices, the concept of final operating capability – not to mention maintenance – disappears. This creates a big dilemma because it's no longer clear when, or even if, software development should be capitalized. Moving expenditures from capitalized to expensed not only changes whose budget the money comes from, it can have tax consequences as well. And what happens when all that capitalized software (which, by the way, is an asset) vanishes? Just as in the days when JIT was young, continuous delivery has introduced a paradigm shift that messes up the balance sheet.

But the balance sheet problem is not the only issue; depreciation of capitalized software can wreck havoc as well. In manufacturing, the depreciation of a piece of process equipment is charged against the unit cost of products made on that equipment. The more products that are made on the equipment, the less cost each product has to bear. So there is strong incentive to keep machines running, flooding the plant with inventory that is not currently needed. In a similar manner, the depreciation of software makes it almost impossible to ignore its sunk cost, which often drives sub-optimal usage, maintenance and replacement decisions.

Capitalization of development creates a hidden bias toward large projects over incremental delivery, making it difficult to look favorably upon agile practices. Hopefully we don't have to wait for another generation of accountants to retire before delivering software rapidly, in small increments, is considered a good thing.

To summarize, the cost center trap and the capitalization dilemma both create a chain reaction:
  1. Accounting drives metrics.
  2. Metrics drive culture.
  3. Culture eats process for lunch.
The best way to avoid this is to break the chain at the top – in step 1. Stop letting accounting drive metrics. Alternatively, if accounting metrics persist at the senior management level, then break the chain at step 2 – do not pass accounting metrics down the reporting chain; do not let them drive culture. When teams focus on improving the performance of the overall business, accounting metrics should move in the right direction on their own; if they don't then clearly something is wrong with the accounting metrics.

Beware of Proxies

This year Jeff Bezos's annual letter to Amazon shareholders[4] listed four essentials that help big companies preserve the vitality of a startup: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making. These seem pretty clear, except maybe the second one: a skeptical view of proxies. Just what are proxies? Bezos explains:
“A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp.”
“Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products.”
Here are some common proxies we find in software development:
Accounting metrics are proxies, and not very good ones at that, because they encourage local sub-optimization. 
Project metrics – cost, schedule, and scope – are proxies. Worse, these proxies are rarely validated against actual outcomes.  
“The Business” is a proxy for customers. Generally speaking, so is the product owner.
Proxies should be resisted, Bezos argues, if you want a vibrant startup culture in your company. But without proxies, how do you manage the dynamic and increasingly important IT organization? You make a habit of measuring what really matters - skip the proxies and focus on outcomes and impact.

In his excellent book, “a Seat at the Table,”[5]  Mark Schwartz proposes that IT governance and oversight should begin with strategic business objectives and produce investment themes that accomplish these objectives. IT leaders fund teams to produce desirable outcomes that will have impact on the strategic objectives. Note that these outcomes are not proxies, they are real, measurable progress toward the strategic objective. Regular reviews of teams’ progress -- quantified by these measurable outcomes -- provides leaders with insight, flexibility and an appropriate level of control. At the same time, detailed decisions are made by the people closest to customers after careful investigation, experimentation and learning.

Schwartz concludes: "this approach can focus IT planning, reduce risk, eliminate waste, and provide a supportive environment for teams engaged in creating value."[5] What's not to like?


[1] From “What is Digital Intelligence” by Sunil Mithas and F. Warren McFarlan, IEEE Computing Edge, November 2017. Pg.9.

[2] The 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn discussed how significant paradigm shifts in science do not take hold until a generation of scientists brought up with the old paradigm finally retire.

[3] Thanks to Nick Larsen. Does Your Employer See Software Development as a Cost Center or a Profit Center?

[4] Jeff Bezos - Letter to Shareholders - April 12, 2017

[5] "A Seat at the Table" by Mark Schwartz

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Only Country in the World

Software systems that interact with people speak volumes about the people who designed them. In particular, software systems used by travelers often send a clear message: “This is the only country in the world. If you are an outsider, you are not welcome.”

Let’s start with the US. If you want to buy gas at the pump – as almost anyone who travels by car needs to do occasionally – and you don’t have a US zip code, you are out of luck. The gas pumps will require a five digit zip code that matches your home zip code, which, of course, you don’t have. US software systems for purchasing gas are very clear: If you don’t live in the US, you can’t buy gas here.

Not that it’s easy for me to buy gas in Europe, because there I need a chip-and-pin card. But credit card companies in the US have settled on chip-and-signature cards, effectively preventing me from purchasing gas at a pump in Europe. My European friends have no sympathy, since they can’t purchase gas in the US either.

Of course, the problems with my chip-and-signature card do not lie in the gas pump software, but in the choice made by US credit card issuers to use signature as the authentication method. We all know that signature authentication is a joke which leads to a far less secure credit card, but in addition, it prevents me from using the pin authentication systems that are common outside the US. My credit card company has issued me a chip-and-signature card that they claim is a “travel card” – which would be true if the US were the only country in the world. But should I happen to travel to another country, not only are gas pumps off limits to my chip-and-signature card, but I can’t purchase train or bus tickets – or anything sold at a kiosk.

There are other countries where software systems used by travelers are limited to residents. For example, in the Netherlands, train tickets are typically purchased through a bank account which – you guessed it – must be at a Netherlands bank. Earlier this year, I was unable to purchase NS train tickets online with a credit card; I had to get a colleague in the Netherlands to purchase online tickets and email them to me. I didn't want to chance getting tickets once I arrived, since I understand there are very few NS ticket kiosks usable by outsiders.

In the UK, there are very nice train discount schemes; for example, two people traveling together can get serious discounts. The catch is that they must first purchase a discount card with pictures of the two travelers, which can easily be obtained online, but must be mailed to a UK address. True, it is possible to obtain a discount card at a train station, but not at Heathrow – and where do you suppose most travelers arrive? Unlucky travelers without a UK address must pay full price for (expensive) Heathrow Express tickets, and then stand in line at Paddington with the proper paper applications and photographs to get a discount card.

Attention UK software designers: did it occur to you that some people don’t have a UK address? How hard would it be to charge a bit more for shipping to addresses outside the UK?

You would not think that Sweden would belong to the club of countries with software systems designed as if it were the only country in the world. But when we arrived at Arlanda airport on a Friday night and tried to buy the special weekend two-for-one ticket on the Arlanda Express, it was not on the kiosk menu. (Yep, I was using a chip-and-pin card – my debit card!). I searched and searched and finally saw the message stuck to the kiosk below the screen: A recent change had been made: now the special discount ticket could only be purchased through the Arlanda Express app or online, not at the kiosk.

Reading between the lines, this is clearly an attempt to limit the best Arlanda Express ticket pricing to Swedish residents. "Not so!" the software designers probably argued. "Anyone can load the app and buy a ticket." How am I supposed to load an app, validate my payment method, and buy a ticket before the train leaves – all without internet access? I complained to the train conductor, who said he thought the scheme was terrible – he has listened to complaints from countless deeply annoyed visitors to Sweden – would I please complain directly to customer service? As I was composing my complaint email on the train, I had to listen to messages about how hard Arlanda Express was working to make our experience wonderful. Yes, but only if you happen to live in Sweden.

We took a taxi to our Stockholm hotel from the train station and tried to pay the driver in cash, only to learn that our Swedish money was out of date and no longer legal tender. So I asked at the hotel desk how to change the old notes into new ones. The person at reception was very helpful – she told me that I could mail the cash in with an on-line form and the money would be deposited in my bank account, even if it were a “foreign” account. I was skeptical. And sure enough, when we looked at the form (which was in Swedish) we found that only bank accounts with IBAN numbers would work. Those of us from countries without IBAN numbers are apparently too foreign to merit a convenient way to get our money back, even though we are the most likely people to have the old currency.

Clearly there are far too many software systems in the travel industry that are built as if the local country were the only country in the world. This is a plea to all the software teams designing systems that might be used by travelers from another country – or might be used by your customers when they travel to another country – have you built your system as if your country were the only country in the world? Why not try a few use cases for travelers from / and to / other countries? We exist, you know, and we’re getting tired of arrogance embedded in software.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The End of Enterprise IT

In 2015, the employees at ING Netherlands headquarters – over 3,000 people from marketing, product management, channel management, and IT development – were told that their jobs had disappeared.  Their old departments would no longer exist; small squads would replace them, each with end-to-end responsibility for making an impact on a focused area of the business. Existing employees would fill the new jobs, but they needed to apply for the positions.[1]

It was a bold move for the Netherlands bank. The leaders were giving up their traditional hierarchy, detailed planning and “input steering” (giving directions). Instead they would trust empowered teams, informal networks, and “output steering” (responding to feedback) to move the bank forward. The bank was not in trouble; it did not really need to go through such a dramatic change. What prompted this bet-your-company experiment?

The change had been years in the making. After initial experiments in 2010, the IT organization put aside waterfall development in favor of agile teams. As successful as this change was, it did not make much difference to the bank, so Continuous Delivery and DevOps teams were added to increase feedback and stability. But still, there was not enough impact on business results. Although there were ample opportunities for business involvement on the agile teams and input into development priorities, the businesses were not organized to take full advantage of the agile IT organization. Eventually, according to CIO Ron van Kemenade (CIO of ING Netherlands from 2010 until he became CIO of ING Bank in 2013):[2]
The business took it upon itself to reorganize in ways that broke down silos and fostered the necessary end-to-end ownership and accountability. Making this transition … proved highly challenging for our business colleagues, especially culturally. But I tip my hat to them. They had the guts to do it.
The leadership team at ING Netherlands had examined its business model and come to an interesting conclusion: their bank was no longer a financial services company, it was a technology company in the financial services business. The days of segmenting customers by channel were over. The days of push marketing were over. Thinking forward, they understood that winning companies would use technology to provide simple, attractive customer journeys across multiple channels. This was true for companies in the media business, the search business, most retail businesses, and it was certainly true for companies in the financial services business. Moreover, expectations for engaging customer interactions were not being set by banks – they were being set by media and search and retail companies. Banks had to meet these expectations just to stay in the online game.

ING Netherlands’ leadership team decided to look to other technology companies, rather than banks, for inspiration. For example, on a trip to the Google IO developers conference Ron van Kemenade was impressed by the amazing number of enthusiastic, engaged engineers at Google. He realized that such enthusiasm could not surface in his company, because the culture did not value good engineering.

Let’s be clear, engineering is about using technology to solve tough problems; problems like how can we process a mortgage with a minimum of hassle for customers? How can we reduce the cost of currency exchange and still make a profit?  How might we leverage Europe’s movement to open API’s for our customers’ advantage? These are the kinds of questions that are best answered by a small team of crack engineers working closely with people who deeply understand the customer journey. But at ING Netherlands, technology improvements were being worked out by people in the commercial business who would then tell the engineers what to develop. Not only is this a poor way to attract top engineers, it is the wrong way to create innovative solutions inspired by the latest technology.

The leaders at ING Netherlands decided to investigate how top technology companies attract talented people and come up with engaging products. Through concentrated visits to some of the most attractive technology companies, they saw a common theme – these companies did not have traditional enterprise IT departments even though they were much bigger than any bank. Nor did they have much of a hierarchical structure. Instead, they were organized in teams – or squads – that had a common purpose, worked closely with customers, and decided for themselves how they would accomplish their purpose.

ING Netherlands decided that if it was going to be a successful technology company and attract talented engineers, it had to be organized like a technology company. Studying the best technology companies convinced them that they needed to change – and the change had to include the whole company, not just IT. The bank had already modularized its architecture, streamlined and automated provisioning and deployment, moved to frequent deployments, and formed agile teams. But this was done within the IT department rather than across the organization, and the results were not exceptional. Now it was time to create a digital company across all functions.

They chose to adopt an organizational structure in which small teams – ING calls them squads – accept end-to-end responsibility for a consumer-focused mission. Squads are expected to make their own decisions based on a shared purpose, the insight of their members, and rapid feedback from their work. Squads are grouped into tribes of perhaps 150 people that share a value stream (e.g. mortgages), and within each tribe, chapter leads provide functional leadership. Along with the new organizational structure, ING’s leadership team worked to create a culture that values technical excellence, experimentation, and customer-centricity.

So how well did this major organizational change work? Certainly, it was not without problems. Some people did not want to work in the new environment, and there was not necessarily a role for everyone. So there were layoffs. But the people who stayed were intrigued by the new way of working and quickly became acclimated to their new jobs.

Another problem involved answering the question “What makes a ‘good’ engineer?” For this the bank adopted the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert). It set up an internal ‘academy’ of classes – usually taught by senior engineers – to help everyone develop the skills needed for a future in a technology company.

Perhaps the biggest issue is one that anyone with a background in organizational development would expect – creating alignment across the many autonomous teams has been a formidable challenge. The bank needs to make major changes and develop breakthrough innovations; but these require coordinated action across multiple, supposedly autonomous, teams. Even the top technology companies ING bank studied have not really solved this problem. Ron van Kemenade summarized the problem this way:[2]
We had assumed that alignment would occur naturally because teams would view things from an enterprise-wide perspective rather than solely through the lens of their own team. But we’ve learned that this only happens in a mature organization, which we’re still in the process of becoming.
Centrally driven program management is now used to arbitrate priority conflicts and create alignment, while standardization of back end systems (e.g. data centers) and support functions helps maintain the operational excellence and regulatory compliance necessary at a large bank.

Despite the challenges, ING Netherlands views its new organizational structure as a significant success with sizable benefits to the company. The strategy adopted by ING Netherlands – an organizational structure composed of small, integrated teams, along with an emphasis on simple customer journeys, automated processes, and highly skilled engineers – is expected to spread to other parts of ING Bank.

The moral of this story is simple: agile transformations are not about transforming IT, they are about transforming organizations. If you are going through an agile transformation in your IT department, you are thinking too narrowly. Digitization must be an organization-wide experience.

[1] From: ING’s agile transformation, an interview with Peter Jacobs, CIO of ING Netherlands, and Bart Schlatmann, former COO of ING Netherlands, in McKinsey Quarterly, January 2017. See also: Software Circus Cloudnative Conference keynote by Peter Jacobs. (Peter Jacobs, replaced Ron van Kemenade as CIO of ING Netherlands in 2013.)

[2] From: Building a Cutting-Edge Banking IT Function, An Interview with Ron van Kemenade, CIO ING Bank, by Boston Consulting Group. See also talks by Ron van Kemenade: Nothing Beats Engineering Talent…The AGILE Transformation at ING and The End of Traditional IT.