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DOES London: Mark Schwartz on War & Peace & IT

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Mark Schwartz, former CIO and self-described iconoclast, spoke recently at DevOps Enterprise Summit London. Schwartz is the author of three books published by IT Revolution: 'The Art of Business Value', 'A Seat at the Table' and 'War & Peace & IT,' and is currently an enterprise strategist at Amazon Web Services.

InfoQ had the opportunity to speak with Schwartz about his work. Schwartz explained that his three books are not sequels as such, but that each led naturally to the next as he continued to build on models for organisational agility.

InfoQ: What are the biggest challenges facing the organisations you are working with today?

Mark Schwartz: Cultural change, organisational structure, people skills, financing models, governance, what to work on, measuring success, perceptions of risk that are off target and stimulating innovation. The impediments faced are just part of the story; the process of transforming is overcoming these impediments.

InfoQ: Why isn't IT often considered to be part of 'the business'?

Schwartz: History - and IT made it worse by saying we can't do anything without requirements. We locked everyone into that way of thinking; we built that mental model and neural network. But success used to mean delivering requirements cost-effectively and on time; now it means delivering the business outcome and the requirements themselves no longer matter.

InfoQ: What is it about the old approach that causes problems with risk and governance?

Schwartz: The older way of thinking about risk is by planning and thinking through things in great detail. This will work well in a situation where things don't change much, but that just isn't the situation we have. Every day I walk into work, something surprises me. Even in government, in immigration, things changed all the time. Technology changes all the time and new things become possible and demanded by users. Relying on a plan to mitigate risk is not going to work.

As Schwartz says in War & Peace & IT:

Risk is the possible negative consequences of the uncertain future, while opportunity is the possible positive consequence of the uncertain future. Agility is the organisational characteristic that determines whether the uncertain future becomes one or the other - or simply the benign passage of time.

InfoQ: How do we see organisations transition these behaviours in reality?

Schwartz: People used to bring someone in when the project was broken. Then they said let's do this differently and have these people in checking more regularly allowing them control at all times. Each team is ideally autonomous and empowered - that doesn't mean that there isn't leadership that has accountability for the team's results. In the old way the team has a plan that the overseers keep checking. But in an uncertain world, we decided to do this by having objectives: the team is accountable for achieving business outcomes. Ultimately, the organisation as a whole is looking for business outcomes and the team as a whole is looking for outcomes quickly and regularly and wants to see what they are delivering. They are working with the business operators to make changes and deploy things very quickly and with small increments and get rapid feedback.

InfoQ: What are the new management models organisations should look to?

Schwartz: As a leader, you are concerned with investing capital effectively and you are concerned about risk; you have a choice between making an upfront decision or continuous decisions. The name doesn't matter. Saying, "We are going to move to this management model!" sounds like a big and risky thing. Saying things like, "You know how we are usually too busy to do work for you - would it be ok for us to do some work for you?" and, "You know how it usually takes us a year to write a requirements document and then deliver something? How about this time we review next week what we've done?" and, "You know how you usually hand off the requirements - would it be ok if your people worked with ours to agree them more frequently?" is language people understand and outcomes they want.

As Schwartz says in War & Peace & IT:

Given an uncertain future, anything that increases your cost of change also increases your risk. Anything that decreases the former also decreases the latter. Reducing the cost of change is the definition of agility. To put it bluntly, risk is lack of agility.

InfoQ: How do you overcome a common objection: that 'the business' cannot spare the people needed to play a product owner role in a typical agile environment?

Schwartz: Simply, if you can't invest your people, then what you say you want to do is not worthwhile.

InfoQ: What are the barriers to business and technology teams working together? Is there any room for wagile or having a long "fuzzy front end"?

Schwartz: We need to lead the conversation outside of technology about risk. You can choose to spend a lot of money and not know what you are going to get. But you should know how much you're going to spend in the end - because you decide at the start. You need to decide how much you are willing to spend to get a particular business result and by using rapid feedback you get quick results.

In Schwartz's most recent publication, War & Peace & IT, he explains how we should apply continuous thinking to all work, including the overarching DevOps evolution:

You can control a DevOps initiative through continuous involvement and feedback, rather than by simply approving a plan at the beginning of an effort. Instead of checking on the project through periodic status reviews, you get to see and use completed work throughout - a much better way to gauge progress. You can continually adjust priorities and reallocate resources, as well as evaluate the quality of the work by seeing business results, rather than through a few weeks of user acceptance testing at the last minute. In short, you trade perceived control for actual control.


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