Bimodal IT: Do it Right, or Don’t Do it at All

Bimodal IT_Turtle and Hare with wall-01

Anyone monitoring the voluminous flow of words advising CIOs how to “align with the business”, “deliver more strategic value”, and “implement a modern digital strategy” has witnessed the debate about “bimodal IT”.  Gartner introduced the concept in 2014, recommending that CIOs run two distinct modes of project execution in their corporate IT shops. Mode 1 is deliberately slow, “traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy”.  Mode 2 is fast and responsive, designed to incorporate customer voice, learn and iterate towards better products quickly. Predictably, several large traditional consultancies immediately offered CIOs their off-the-shelf bimodal or “digital” implementation services, promising quick and easy ROI by using value-driven, customer-centric, Agile approaches on a few projects, while conveniently leaving slow legacy structures and processes unchanged for most of the organization.

We can all agree that the need for dramatic improvements in user focus, accelerated time to market, and improved responsiveness is common in Fortune 500 IT organizations. Market-dominant firms tend to become inwardly focused and bureaucratic, less innovative, slow and risk averse. Disengaged from customer voice, IT ships poor products full of unused features. Knowledge workers disengage and become order takers, their work lacking purpose and their mission increasingly obscure. Ideas for new products or business model innovation is stifled in an effort to avoid cannibalizing cash cows.  Organizational performance suffers, revenue growth slows, and emergent threats steal market share.

Bimodal IT, Gartner puts forth, would help address some of these problems, but does it really?

Is Bimodal IT a Breakthrough Insight or a Convenient Half-Truth?

By promising to quickly deliver the benefits of a digital innovation center without having to face the challenge of addressing IT’s legacy organization and processes, bimodal IT almost seems too good to be true.   For technology organizations considering investing in a significant performance improvement initiative, I have prepared a comparison of the relative merits of the siloed bimodal approach typically espoused by consultants with a more holistic enterprise-wide Lean/Agile transformation approach, in which bimodal IT is a transitional state in the journey to becoming a high-performance organization.

First let’s consider the benefits of Bimodal IT. Bimodal IT is attractive to IT organizations facing problems with speed and responsiveness, and the approach can deliver modest benefits, at least for the Mode-2 portion of the portfolio. Those benefits include:

  • Increased focus on incorporating customer/user feedback to deliver better products than IT organizations typically deliver
  • Faster cycle times at all stages of the delivery lifecycle to speed time to market
  • Improved efficiency by delivering more value per dollar invested
  • Reduced risk and increased ROI by breaking large projects into smaller increments that deliver value early and often, and surface problems earlier with less sunk investment
  • Enabling organizations to leverage modern technologies and focus more on innovation through rapid experimentation using validated learning, a “fail fast” mentality, and quickly pivoting in favor of better solutions — like a Lean startup would
  • Enhanced acquisition and retention of top talent — engage employees’ passions by delivering compelling solutions that thrill users and drive markets — in other words, being able to develop software like a real Silicon Valley tech company!

The Problem is Real

The appeal of bimodal IT stems from a problem almost as old as IT itself: older technology systems in “support” or “sustainment” mode typically contain high levels of technical debt, making changes slow, risky, and unpredictable. CIOs know their organizations and legacy applications are devilishly difficult to accelerate and improve, but pressure from line-of-business leaders to support innovation and deliver digital solutions more rapidly is increasing daily. Line-of-business increasingly bypasses IT by outsourcing development directly or building shadow-IT organizations. This threatens corporate IT’s influence and resources.

Unfortunately, the simplistic implementation of creating a new mode 2 silo without organizational integration fails to deliver significant benefits and often produces negative ROI from the collateral damage resulting from significant tension and conflict among the people, processes, and technologies of the larger organization. The problem isn’t simple, and the magnitude of improvement required is large, so the quick, simple, and cheap solutions that consultants propose should be scrutinized carefully.

Bimodal (or better, multi-modal) done right acknowledges that, in an optimized high-performance technology organization, there are a range of project types, technologies, and people that should be supported with appropriate process frameworks focused on minimizing waste, managing risk, and delivering maximum value as early as practical. Moreover, process tailoring must support the effective interoperation and collaboration of the people, processes, and technologies throughout the organization.

Don’t Let Bimodal IT Become a Leadership Cop-Out

Leaders in any industry leveraging technology assets must grasp Lean thinking and embrace modern leadership principles to gain maximum performance from knowledge workers. I say this not for altruistic reasons, but as an avowed capitalist. Modern leadership maximizes the performance of firms in our competitive modern economy.  The path to achieving process maturity and organizational performance starts with a commitment to continuous improvement at the leadership level, paired with an effective organizational learning and change management program sponsored by committed leaders.

“The Toyota Way” is one of the first books to describe the revolutionary new product development and manufacturing processes developed and used at Toyota. In it the author, Jeffrey Liker, says:

“When I first began learning about the Toyota Production System, I was enamoured by the power of one-piece flow, Kanban, and other Lean tools. But along the way, experienced leaders within Toyota kept telling me that these tools and techniques were not the key. The power behind TPS is a company’s management commitment to continuously invest in its people and promote a culture of continuous improvement. After studying for almost 20 years…..this is finally sinking in.”

Given this context, please consider: Is bimodal IT really a strategic path to renewed competitiveness and IT value delivery? If not, what is the optimal path to achieve transformative performance improvements? Are we preserving outmoded legacy processes and behaviors that undermine our business goals out of fear, ignorance, or complacency? Even if transitional bimodal IT is a step along the journey, it surely cannot fully address the strategic need to optimize technology delivery to seize market share, exploit new market segments, and accelerate revenue growth in new products and services.

This blog is an introduction to a larger and more comprehensive treatment of the pros and cons of implementing bimodal IT in a forthcoming white paper. In it, I will provide an overview of a more powerful, integrated, and holistic approach: a full-scale Agile transformation that can address the entire value stream between ideation and delivered customer value.

As Liker discovered in his journey mastering “The Toyota Way”, the long-term success of an organization doesn’t emerge from tactical techniques and quick fixes; it depends on a culture of continuous improvement fostered by engaged and enlightened leaders.

Download the Full White Paper!

This blog is part of the white paper called “Bimodal IT: Do It Right or Not At All”. To learn more about bimodal IT and Agile transformations, download the full white paper here.