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The Future of Tidying Up

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The Future of Tidying Up

The most impactful book that I’ve read about business recently is one that’s got nothing to do with business. The...

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The most impactful book that I’ve read about business recently is one that’s got nothing to do with business. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is, as the author puts it, about “the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing”. Kondo’s sleeper hit (I stumbled across it after I noticed it was in the Wall Street Journal’s non-fiction bestseller list week after week during the spring) is both a manifesto and a how to guide for people drowning in “stuff”. The manifesto, put simply, argues that you don’t need 95% of your “stuff”, and the how to guide part gives practical advice on how to decide what “stuff” to keep (ask yourself, does the item give you “joy”?) and how to treat the few things you should keep (“stop torturing your socks”).

At first glance you might rightfully ask “what the expletive does this have to do with business and IT, and the future of work”? But if you slow down and think about it for a moment, the answer increasingly becomes “a lot”. Here’s why …

On my travels, meeting with IT and business executives interested in the future of their work, a constant refrain is (variations of) “we love your ideas Ben; we’d love to build Code Halos … we know we have to migrate to our digital future. But. We have such ingrained, complex, mission-critical systems, that we can’t change them; we daren’t risk cutting “Wire X” because we simply don’t know what will happen if we do”.

In essence, many, many, many large Fortune 500 companies are hampered from pursuing the new code rush because their legacy technology prevents them from doing so. In an era where the competitive advantages of technology have never been greater, these organizations are maintaining (at huge expense) systems that are a terrible competitive disadvantage

And the reason for this? They’ve never tidied up.

Anyone who’s been around corporate IT for a while knows that the concepts of decommissioning systems, sun-setting them, killing them, turning them off, are entirely alien. Even when new systems and apps and processes are developed these typically “sit” on top of their predecessors. System gets built on top of system and before you know it you have a logical architecture that is the proverbial plate of spaghetti.

There has never been a culture in “big boy IT” of throwing things away when they’re past their sell by date. There have never been any brownie points for people to question the value of old systems or for dealing with the often complicated and uncomfortable (potentially career limiting) political issues around “Fred commissioned that app; I don’t want to tell him, an executive VP, that the system’s no good anymore”. 

Vendors, for obvious commercial reasons, have always talked about “forward compatibility” and “roadmaps”, to convey the sense that the systems that their customers buy can support them indefinitely. 

On occasion finance executives have tried to introduce ideas like “zero based budgeting” to get IT to take a hard, cold look at their existing footprint, but to little avail. Y2K proved that old systems never die.

What little glory there is in IT comes from building new stuff, not tidying up.

Kondo’s short, modest, small book has obviously touched a nerve with lots of people who at a personal level feel that the constant treadmill of buying “stuff” is sort of crazy. Who know that they don’t really need a new white T-shirt, but buy it anyway, even when they know they don’t have any room in their cupboard to put it in in the first place.

Over the summer we’re moving house and as we’ve been getting ready to pack up it’s become almost laughable how much “stuff” we have that we don’t use. Thirty dinner plates, 500 DVDs, old bikes, irrelevant financial information etc. etc. etc. … the list goes on and on.

Of course, all of these things (well, most of them) were useful, or meant something, or were entertaining, when we got them. But most of them have served their purpose. Holding on to them serves no purpose now. Very little of this “stuff” gives us “joy” (if we’re honest) now.

A psychological dynamic that makes it difficult to throw joy-less stuff away is the feeling that in doing so, you’re throwing money away. In some ways you are, but, as Kondo outlines, the money you spent on the item was the price of the joy it generated while you used it. If the item no longer gives you joy, there is no need to keep hanging on it. In accounting speak we might say the item is “fully depreciated”.

Much of IT is “fully depreciated” and hardly generates “joy”.

As the great Scottish philosopher Edwyn Collins might say “rip it up and start again”. But few listen ...

Why? Why does corporate IT hang on to the old stuff; why is starting again so difficult? Well, to be fair, tidying up millions of dollars of IT systems is a tad more complicated than cleaning out the sock drawer. Given the mission-critical nature of many IT systems it wouldn’t be advisable to throw them away just like that. I guess we wouldn’t be too happy if American Airlines threw away their flight management software whilst we were up at 35,000 feet.

But unless IT (and business) executives get honest about the need to tidy up, they, and the companies they serve, are going to simply sit and watch the incredible opportunities of this new golden age slip further and further away.

Strategies to deal with this conundrum do exist; Vinnie Mirchandani’s new book about the world of SAP contains a series of ideas about how to build around SAP rather than on top of it. Of course, Cognizant’s “dual mandate” strategy helps clients generate cost savings in existing systems and funnel these savings into investments in new systems.

But perhaps the commentariat needs to be more strident in arguing the merits of throwing stuff away.

Ten years after Professor Collin’s seminal work was first aired Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation hit the top of the charts. The lead single, and perhaps still the most hummable part, was “don’t automate, obliterate”.

Kondo’s book, in its own, quiet, non-revolutionary way, is saying “obliterate”. For IT departments (and budgets) to grow again Kondo’s advice – the vast majority of what you have, what you’re doing, where you’re spending your money … give you no joy … is spot on. Without her knowing it, Kondo, may have given us a new way of thinking about how we chase the most important business opportunity of the next decade. As she puts it this could be “life changing”.


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