We have all encountered traps. Walking through the cereal or cookie aisle at the supermarket with a toddler in tow screams trap. But I'm talking about traps in the digital sense. Not every organization adopts technology and new processes at the same pace. And adoption also varies by department and employee. This blog post focuses on two types of traps (ladder traps and laggard traps) organizations might encounter with current or new digital processes or tools.
The ladder trap
Ladder traps start with good intentions where each rung represents the next step toward achieving a goal. An “education ladder” shows that as you learn and memorize certain facts each year, you can advance to the next grade. Age is another ladder: by 10 years old, you might be old enough to cross the street by yourself, and by 16, you can get your license to drive, and so on. Career growth represents another example that occurs with a series of ladders.
I'm sure you recognize these ladders and can name a few of your own. We often have a complex love-hate relationship to ladders. They hold the promise of progress and advancement while making us wait.
Not all ladders are created equal
Some ladders are beneficial but can be used improperly. Others, often focused on a specific technology, ultimately don't lead anywhere. I experienced this myself in a past role.
In the late eighties, I managed and participated in many software development projects. As a project manager, I was always on the lookout for better ways to develop good solutions. The Software Engineering Institute (SEI) Capability Maturity Model (CMM) seemed like a great way to measure progress toward a goal. Here’s a quick overview of the levels included in the Capability Maturity Model for Software, Version 1.1 CMU/SEI-93-TR-024, February 1993:
- Level 1 – Initial: Few consistent processes. Local heroes.
- Level 2 – Repeatable: Disciplined Processes.
- Level 3 – Defined: Standard consistent processes.
- Level 4 – Managed: Predictable processes.
- Level 5 – Optimized: Continuous process improvement.
Interesting observations about using SEI CMM
As I began to try and use the SEI CMM approach and watched other variations used, I noticed a couple of interesting outcomes.
- Some organizations saw the CMM as a ladder to meet reliability and durability objectives. Others to demonstrate quality to investors or as part of a list of annual organizational objectives.
- Larger organizations had a mix of approaches and 'levels' of maturity. Sometimes within a group, where practices were used from several of the maturity levels. In some cases, the team operated at several different levels, simultaneously.
- Rather than use the tools assigned depending on what the maturity level dictated, teams tended to use the tools that would get the job done. Being forced to 'level-up' and use tools that didn't equate to perceived value commonly produced friction.
Don't get me wrong. The CMM is a powerful way of thinking about improving processes and products if used properly since it doesn't rely on a specific technology and perhaps that is what makes it durable.
The laggard trap
Laggard traps sometimes take an “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach. Systems that are stable and deeply entrained in processes tend to be 'sticky'. That’s ok. Using ‘bleeding edge technology’ isn’t always appropriate. We turn on the tap expecting clean water. We flip a switch expecting light. And you wouldn’t want the bare minimum technology working behind the scenes to run these mission-critical tasks.
However, stickiness also means it can be challenging to swap out an existing system for another system or process. As such, they tend to lag. For example, changing an enterprise-wide accounting system is costly and time-consuming and thus, tends to be sticky.
Unsticking the stickiness
All technology dies at some point. Platforms evolve as do hardware and operating systems. So, it is important to keep your eyes open for the next stable product. Knowing when to change and planning for that change is the biggest challenge.
But lagging in one part of your technology doesn't mean that you can’t deploy, in parallel, advanced technologies. For example, you might have a maintenance system that 'lags' but it can co-exist with a more advanced technology such as predictive maintenance.
Avoiding the ladder and laggard traps
“Now, remember, the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence” - Thufir Hawat, Dune
In many respects, ladder and laggard traps are traps of the mind. The easiest way to recognize these traps is to know they exist and then know which ladders you want to climb, where you must lag a bit in your technology, and where you can more easily experiment and absorb more risk. In the end, you’ll have a better understanding of what technology may be adopted, what technology needs more time to 'bake', and which should be avoided.
The secret weapon: mapping out a digital strategy and digital journey
Digital strategy and journey tools make reviewing a wide variety of technologies easier because any interesting technology can be weighed against the materialized needs of the organization. A digital journey keeps you aligned to your organization’s mission, vision, and objectives and a digital strategy drives the planning and processes to get you to your digital destination.