The Box Jockey’s Dilemma

Let’s face it. Our Digital children are freakishly fast, but they have all the flexibility of a steel rod dipped in liquid nitrogen. One unexpected tap and things rapidly degenerate into all kinds of unexpected chaos. We’ve been on quite the journey with IT over the last half century or so trying to navigate between these twinned realities, trying to take advantage of the one and avoid the other.

Our first tentative attempts to ride these broncos were in the military and governmental domains, which are more clearly defined or just rigidly bureaucratic depending on one’s perspective. For better or worse, that reality hid, or, at least, diminished the impacts of the steel rod side of this equation. So we happily invited the dervishes into our workplaces.

Ever since then, the folks in IT have been trying to mediate between the boxes and the business. In the glass house and blinking lights days, sufficient distance and control was maintained by steadily chanting the mantra, “Business Drives IT” and the problems we pitched over through the front door of that glass house were sufficiently structured that, by and large, there was an uneasy truce. New capabilities got enabled, business got done, value delivered.

We humans though, we’re a restless bunch, always wanting more. The kinds of problems we wanted to throw into the glass house got more complex, less well defined, understood in only the vaguest of terms. That pretty much shattered the glass walls and forced the two sides to intermingle on an almost daily basis. We still earnestly chanted our mantra, but clearly some other dynamic was at work.

Then, just for fun I guess, we introduced our customers to the boxes. That had lots of consequences, some great, some not so great, but there’s no question that turning the boxes loose in the civilian landscape cast a brighter light on the steel rod nature of the boxes. IT got really busy then, inventing all kinds of props and remedies for the supposed differences between the boxes and the hoi polio, trying to bridge between our ever changing desires and the steel rod.

“Client/Server,” we shouted. “User Friendly,” we intoned. “Agile,” we cried. “Mobile, Web-enabled, and customer centric,” we moaned. All the while, still chanting the mantra of “Business drives IT.”

We’ve now arrived at point where it’s clear the boxes aren’t the only entity with a freakishly fast, steel rod dilemma. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and our dear Digital children, like all children, are really just clunky manifestations of our own attributes. In the best cases, our flesh and blood children pretty rapidly evolve through their childhood and adolescence, and having rounded the corners and smoothed the sharp edges of their clunkieness, become adults.

The boxes and we as box jockeys, on the other hand, while we’ve gotten better, aren’t quite ready, AI, Robotics, and self driving cars or not, to be treated as fully autonomous adults. Oh sure, we’ve gotten better, but better in the way that a teenager is better than a two year old. And like any parent, we tend to rush between the two ends of a continuum flipping between control and autonomy based on some poorly defined sense of what we and our charges can handle.
In IT speak, we think of those poles as Agile and Waterfall. When we’re leaning towards the autonomy end of things we tend to begin talking, somewhat giddily, in terms of agile. When control seems required we sternly begin to manifest much more of a structured waterfall approach. The problem is that we, as organizations and as societies, are just figuring this out. In our aspirations for autonomy we sometimes choose agility when structure is more appropriate, and in our fear of the unknown we sometimes choose structure when agility is the only viable answer.

In a nutshell, that’s the box jockey’s dilemma: When to choose structure and when to choose agility in guiding the boxes across our ever evolving finish lines. When we’re not mid-race, it’s a little easier to see that the best outcomes will probably blend a little bit of both. It can’t be an either/or kind of choice. It must be both/and.

For more on those choices, those decisions and frameworks that can help guide them head over to our Analog Underground partners at Working Human and browse two posts on decision making: “Guided Judgment” and “When RACI isn’t Enough”

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