The Anti-Strategy

For you cynics out there who think strategy is nothing but BS, take heart. You have a point.

There’s something missing. Strategy, as a practice, is so hopeful, so assured, so quixotic that it’s easy to dismiss it as pure hyperbole.

Strategy needs a counterpoint, a yang to its indomitable yin. I’d like to submit the concept of inertia.

Just as a company or IT department should understand its strategy, it should also understand its inertia, the peculiar characteristics of the company that, combined together, affect its ability to get moving or change course. Things like:

  • Risk Tolerance--Consider all the companies you’ve worked for and you can rank them in order of their appetite for risk
  • Job Preservation--Some companies have a hard time firing people and others do it all the time
  • Secrecy--All companies keep secrets, but some are really serious about it
  • Decision Making--Some companies have that old-time, top-down style and others have the collaborative, flat thing going
  • Ethics--You know whether your company handles ethical issues with the following: "Whatever we’re told to do, we do--or else."
  • Cost--It can color every decision a company makes, or it can be frighteningly irrelevant.

There are other characteristics that determine a company’s inertia. Give us your suggestions.

Here’s why I bring up the inertia theory. I found a really scary posting on Slashdot the other day. I was looking into the problems that caused Comair’s systems to crash just before Christmas, stranding thousands in the Mid-West. Press reports and the posters on Slashdot speculated that the problems were caused by a very old application used to assign crews to planes.

In its own statements, Comair does not get into specifics, but says bad weather and the holiday rush combined to overwhelm its computer systems. There was also speculation that Comair planned to replace the ancient system early this year.

But then the Slashdot discussion took its scary turn. People began speculating why a company defers replacing a system that lacks necessary capacity that is critical to its business performance.

We need to reserve that judgment in Comair’s case. The Department of Transportation has said it is conducting an investigation into what happened. But whenever I do stories about problematic systems, the question inevitably arises: Why didn’t they do something about this sooner?

That’s when someone on Slashdot, seemingly a consultant, offered this:

"Occasionally, however, the head IT guy gets over-ridden by management or by available finances. I’ve been there, saying, ’We need to spend money on this’ and having to make do with much less money, or even with a cut in funding. You need to document the problem in advance to cover your ass, and get it in print and saved offsite to protect yourself from that kind of mistake. I’ve done that, too. It helped protect me from a nasty lawsuit because I demonstrated where I had told a consulting client, in print, when the systems would start failing and the resulting legal liabilities, and gotten it signed by the company notary."

Yikes. Again, we don’t know what went on at Comair, but the discussion exposes the real dangers of inertia. More importantly, it shows how people can make themselves comfortable with it--even create the illusion of safety--while the company teeters on the precipice that dooms everyone.

Have you experienced a situation where you had to sit on a tinderbox of a system, waiting for it to explode for lack of money or interest?

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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