Innovation in 30 days – a gameplan for the CIO

Numbed by torrid growth, Indian CIOs are showing poor discipline, says Michael Hugos.

He believes they might be as wasteful as IT leaders were during the heady dotcom days. IT deployments in India tend to be too reactive, time-consuming and expensive, he says.

This apathy is creating an island of traffic as business crawls around IT, honking. It isn’t too late to do something yet, he says. In this interview, on the sidelines of the CIO 100 Symposium, Hugos, former CIO of an $8-billion (Rs 32,000 crore) distribution cooperative in the U.S., innovator, turnaround specialist, author and acclaimed speaker shares a method for swift, cheap and reliable innovation and agility. He calls it the 30-day Blitz and over the last year, he has brought it to Indian companies.

CIO: Can you explain the concept behind the 30-day Blitz?

Michael Hugos: My motto for the 30-day Blitz is: think big, start small, deliver quickly. By think big, I mean lay out the big picture. Make sure you understand what the business people hope to do over the next two to three years. You can figure that out in two days. Really. Everyone knows what’s going on and although no one can predict the future, most people have a good idea of what they think is going to happen.

By start small, I mean look at what can be achieved in 30 days. This forces CIOs to break the problem down to little pieces — but each piece has to have value in its own right. Each piece has to produce a usable production system that people can start to use and that will either lower cost or increase revenue.

Then, deliver quickly. CIOs need to put the first piece in place within 30 days, and then they have to do it again. Subsequently, they build on that first piece and put another chunk over the next 30 days. Let business use it for a couple of weeks after which they will want more things. It’s a game of continuous movement.

Here in India, as business keeps growing, why wait, why study business for six months and then wait another year to put something in place? It will become obsolete. If your competitors can move faster, they will take market share.

CIO: Isn’t 30 days too short for complex operations?

Hugos: IT has become too complex. We are all highly educated people with Master’s degrees if not Ph.Ds, so it is an occupational hazard to come up with solutions that are more complex. CIOs need to step back and say that business is not that complex. Most businesses are about very simple things.

Successful business people have learnt to respond to situations quickly and we, from IT, should be able to do the same.

Say, your company has a new opportunity and suddenly there is a new market. Your product is selling much faster than you ever thought possible and you have to increase production and customer service. A lot of it is about letting people know what’s going on and then ensuring that you automate all the repetitive things in the new business process because these have no value-addition. That’s what computers should do. Yet, strangely enough, in the IT business, we want to automate the really complex things to show how smart we are. Instead, we should automate the simple things and let people do the complex things because they are good at it.

CIO: How can your agility theory help with these complexities?

Hugos: The 30-day Blitz places constraints. Working with these constraints, instead of fighting them, is the basis of the Blitz.

I worked with a global manufacturing company that also produces software and has a development center in Hyderabad. They have a product that is selling at an enormous volume and are trying to get visibility into their supply chain to find out the mistakes in their product. They challenged me to show them how to get things done in very short periods, especially because the holiday season at the end of the year is among their biggest sale times. I said that we should give ourselves 30 days.

Everyone’s attention should be focused in those 30 days. If you ask a business person what they want, they’ll tell you all sorts of things. But you ask them what they want in the next 30 days, then suddenly you’re not the bad guy. When you give them 30 days, they already begin to narrow down their requirements. And then when you get it done in 30 days, they tell themselves that maybe they can trust this IT person. IT people have to earn their trust every month. You need to place constraints.

CIO: But why 30 days? Why not 90? Do you feel that this is the attention span of most organizations?

Hugos: Ninety days is one quarter. Business lives on a quarter-by-quarter basis. A public company has to report earnings every quarter. So, you need to get something developed and in production every quarter that makes a difference to the company’s operating model and its ability to increase revenue.

Business is willing to trust its CIOs for 30 days. And this is why 30 days works. They won’t extend themselves for six months or a year, because they have done that and have already been disappointed.

CIO: What other skills are needed for the 30-day Blitz?

Hugos: The 30-day Blitz requires very specific skills. The Blitz is composed of what I call the six core techniques.

The first is JAD (joint application design) facilitation. I do an intensive two-day workshop with business and IT during which we map out the big picture. This is the ‘think big’ stage.

To record everyone’s ideas, we use a process map. As people chalk out all the things they do, we draw out the process in any graphical specification, so that the business people understand what we are doing and add processes we might have missed.

The third of the six techniques is logical data modeling. We draw boxes for various processes and tell business what different boxes stand for. Each box records an event that we want to collect information about. Business people can look at that and make additions.

The fourth technique is system prototype. This has two aspects. The first is the story-boarded screens that represent a user interface and the other is the technical architecture. Business people love the story-boarded screens because they understand it and can make changes. Then, all we have to do is figure out which technical architecture will support it.

Now, I choose object-oriented design. With a specific data model, a user interface and technical architecture, I want to know what the object model looks like. I tell the programmers not to start programming until we have the object model. This also helps with documentation.

The sixth is system testing and rollout.

If we are building a system object by object, then no object should take more than two to three days to build. If it does, it means that it’s a compound object that needs to be broken down into smaller objects. Every programmer is responsible for unit testing their objects. They unit-test their own code and drop it into the test environment and then the business analyst, who worked earlier with the business to create the storyboard, puts it together in logical sequences. Then they do string testing, assembling the strings and alpha test.

CIO: What are some of the drawbacks of this quick and dirty approach?

Hugos: People say I’m creating throwaway code. I say I’m creating simple but industrial-strength code. It’s like the international space station and the way different countries are building different modules of the station. All those modules fit together. But they are not throwaway. The space station itself can’t be built all at once. But as countries keep adding modules over time, it gets bigger and more functional.

I worked with the commodities exchange in Chicago. They were in the middle of a multiyear, multimillion dollar reporting system that showed how close each company was getting to their risk tolerance value. It was real-time and complex and after a year it bogged down, which is when they called me.

I suggested that we simplified the requirements. Instead of streaming in real time, every 20 minutes we made batch jobs of data, which were pushed out to a stand-alone database that was running a server. We gave them the most important stuff. We created a system in three weeks. And then, we built more modules around that.

CIO: What’s the most common argument you have found against the 30-day Blitz?

Hugos: It seems too simple. Highly-paid and highly-trained CIOs have told me: ‘You mean, I could create a system that could support a multimillion dollar supply-chain by using a relational database, small chunks of code, some Web browser screens, some spreadsheets as the access to my data and some macros on my spreadsheet to produce reports? Are you insulting my intelligence?’

Business doesn’t care about technology. They want a solution and they want it fast. Most of the time, we IT people are creating marvelous, complex systems that don’t work or take too long or cost too much, and the business people hate us for that.

We all, especially early in our careers, want to do resumé building projects. We want to install fancy ERP systems. Because once we’ve done that, the recruiters call us up and we get a 100 percent raise when we leave. So, junior programmers hate doing simple things because it does not advance their careers.

CIO: To ensure success of this process, what needs to change in the broader organizational environment?

Hugos: You need to wed IT with business. In the last six months, I’ve seen a very large gap in a critical skill: the business analyst skill. It’s a person who understands business and technology.

CIOs need to get good business analysts and put them into small development teams. A team of five to seven people: two business analysts, data modeler and two to three really good programmers. This development team should be led by what I call a system builder. This person is totally committed to making things happen in 30 to 60 day increments. A system builder should also understand his seniors and the business and have experience as data modeler or a programmer. Teams like this can produce results that are amazing.

CIO: During your workshop you said that Indian CIOs might be a little undisciplined. What did you mean?

Hugos: Let me draw an analogy. Seven years ago, we had the dotcom bubble in the States. This was when people were throwing money at us. And then all of a sudden, the game changed. It changed so fast we didn’t see it. We had been in a state of euphoria. We were making tons of money and spending millions of dollars — without discipline. We weren’t getting anything done. It wasn’t entirely our fault; business people were just as much at fault. But when the music suddenly stopped, who got blamed? IT.

I don’t think it is going to happen quite so suddenly here in India. But during those heady days, if we had been more disciplined, if we had focused on simpler solutions and delivering more quickly, we would not have had the big downfall we had.

CIO: How can CIOs get around this?

Hugos: It starts with a sense of urgency. Without that, CIOs wind up with a feeling that they can spend more time and more money. Right now, India is going through this growth phase. All the CIOs in America look at India and wish they were here. They wish they had these challenges because now in the States, we’re outsourcing half our operations. We’re not seeing the 20-30 percent growth unlike India.

But in that feeling of infinite growth, Indian CIOs are probably tempted to spend more money and take too long. Unless Indian CIOs discipline themselves to get things done in small increments, they will miss a great opportunity.

CIO: Do you think Indian CIOs innovate enough?

Hugos: It is easy to criticize but I believe that it is hard for Indian CIOs [to innovate] because business is so good. Indian CIOs, like American CIOs, are not subjecting themselves to enough discipline. They are not really innovating because they don’t have to. They are talking about it, they’re thinking about it but they aren’t doing it. They are installing expensive ERPs; there’s nothing innovative there.

Innovation is about doing things quicker and cheaper than anyone thought possible and still producing stable systems. The Indian CIOs and developers that I worked with, spend more time arguing about the constraints, and how they can’t do something in 30 days. They say they need 50 days. I tell them that of course they can do it in 50 days, but the discipline is to do it in 30 days.

It takes innovation to do it in 30 days. Right now, given the business environment, most Indian CIOs don’t want to embrace constraints. The only reason American CIOs are doing this is because we’ve been beaten. The last five to six years, the IT business in America has been really tough.

CIO: Finally, you wear a lot of hats including CIO and business consultant. Yet, you chose to be called CIO-at-large. Why?

Hugos: First, I was a CIO. Once a CIO, always a CIO. I think that the CIO position is a hard one. Also, in many ways, consultants are people who can tell you a hundred ways to do something but they haven’t done it. A lot of people call themselves experts but they haven’t done the work. And when people see my business card, they smile. It’s a good ice breaker.

Sunil Shah is senior copy editor.

Comment: [email protected]

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