Sunday, April 13, 2008

Columbus, I'd like a detailed plan before you go ...

When it come to managing an activity, there are three wise sayings that I always keep in mind. The first and second are:-

  • proper planning prevents poor performance.
  • an imperfect plan executed today is a better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.

The former simply tells you to make enough of a plan. Obviously for a commodity-like activity, which is well defined and ubiquitous, such a plan can (and should) be quite detailed. For a genuine innovation that plan becomes more of a fuzzy haze of intentions; it's an undefined activity which will change.

The latter wise saying simply advises against missing an opportunity because you've spent all your time planning. Opportunity, as in a genuine competitive advantage, is often fleeting.

Now what is true of planning, is also true of mapping. When mapping a business, it is worth remembering that some are commodity-like activities that can (and should) be mapped in detail, whilst other processes are innovations which tend to be more of a shifting smudge.

For me, the purpose of mapping out activities, beyond process re-engineering and the normal operations, is to enable the organisation to build a framework of services on which future innovations can be built. However, embarking on a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) without some form of map is like saying "we're going to build common services but we don't know what we do" (see wise saying No. 1).

However you can't wait until you finished a perfect map before you start, because within any commercial ecosystem activities constantly change (see wise saying No. 2) and to be honest, you've got those smudges. So you'll have to do some exploration.

The reason why most organisations adopt a service oriented approach to design is because componentisation of business activities as services is a powerful enabler of innovation (part of the theory of hierarchy). Columbus needed the resources, organisation, infrastructure and might of Venice before he could embark on his exploration of the unknown. Though certain activities (such a ship building) can be planned in detail, the discovery of a new territory cannot. If Columbus had been required to create a detailed map before he left, then he'd never have left.

In business, the discovery of a new territory, such as a new product or service to sell, is essential for the survival of company. This brings me onto the third wise saying:-

  • innovation requires organisation to survive and vice versa.