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How modern IT is like TETRIS and how TOPS makes sense of everything

Many of us are all too familiar with the mantra of going digital — whatever that means — and the supposed benefits that it will bring, the power and the business benefits that will result. But too often, that mantra is trotted out without sufficient thought about the technologies and people that are critical to making it happen. That matters because tech tends to make quantum leaps, where new and rich environments open up that go far beyond traditional enterprise IT — those that made incumbents successful so far. This is a fast paced and very diverse environment, and most individuals struggle to relate to it in the beginning or to keep up with it over time.

Modern IT = playing TETRIS

We believe modern IT feels a bit like playing TETRIS — the game from the 80s. There is only a greenfield for the very first move. After that, you have a legacy to take into consideration. What’s more, new things are always coming at you, and you need to deal with them. Over time you discover two things: some shapes seem familiar, and the game seems to get faster. However, if you manage it well, then everything fits together, and you’re successful as a business. If you don’t get it quite right, then the tiles pile up, and you lose the room to maneuver or shape your business. Of course, if you deal with javascript frameworks, it’s more like playing the advanced mode, and the pace is a lot quicker!

Figure 1: Greenfields don't last long

TOPS is the key to navigate modern IT

TETRIS also yields a way to structure and deal with the pace, and all of the opportunities out there. Let’s use the different colours of the shapes you deal with in TETRIS to group things. There are four colours, each of which represents one of the following topic areas:
 
  • Technology
  • Organisational design
  • Product design
  • Strategy
Every concept in IT, which you come across, can be classified in one of those dimensions. For example:
 
All four make up TOPS — a simple framework that helps to navigate the complex and dynamic domain of modern IT. If you’re a strategist and put strategy first, it can also be STOP, but that doesn’t sound very encouraging!

Figure 2: Piecing together the various components needs to be carefully planned
We learned from the work with our clients, that you can’t focus on one of the dimensions only and still be successful. For instance, working and focussing on a microservices architecture only, won’t yield all the benefits you typically want to achieve.

Instead, you must fit the different concepts — across all dimensions — together, so that they can support each other and unleash the full potential of their combination. While this sounds very cryptic the following case study will bring it to life and emphasise the increased benefits of the right setup.

Modern IT from technology to strategy

When clients (like METRO, Daimler or Scout24) approached us to build their digital product, we apply the following high level concepts to build software in a fast and sustainable pace — with the ability to scale out both the digital product (from a small set of pilot users to a large global user base) and the organisational setup (from local teams to distributed setups across multiple locations and countries).

Technology
  • Cloud infrastructure
  • Continuous delivery
  • Test-driven development
  • Feature toggles
Organisational Design
  • Cross-functional teams
  • Extreme / pair programming
  • Kanban
  • Autonomous teams
  • Distributed locations
Product design
  • Discoveries and inceptions
  • Hypothesis-driven development
  • User-centric design
  • XD nodes
  • AI first
Strategy
  • Lean Value Tree
  • Value-driven portfolio management
  • Global access to talent pools
  • Culture of experimentation
Culture

While the above sounds like a checklist, that you can copy and apply in your next quality gate to measure compliance (you can do that), there’s another powerful aspect influencing your business success: culture.

It’s hard to describe culture as a concept. As a starting point, think about the following questions, which can’t be addressed by the typical concepts in IT. There must be a very individual and distinguishing approach to these:
  • How do you attract talent to your company in your specific location?
  • How do you foster diversity and inclusivity for your people?
  • How do you enable and empower your staff to work on and create business outcomes and communities?
While it’s hard to describe culture, it’s really easy to experience it. Visit a company that invests in culture and observe the teams there for a while, talk to their people about values and beliefs and relate your impressions back to their business outcome. While it sounds hard to get a sneak peek at a different company, you’ll find leaders in these places fairly approachable and open for an exchange of ideas.

For example, at ThoughtWorks, we facilitate a culture of open knowledge exchange. We moderate platforms for our clients to exchange ideas and discuss them among each other because having a global peer group to compare against is invaluable. We do that with Paradigm/Shift (our yearly global executive conference), Thoughtworks Live (local platform for relationships), XConf (technology focused conference) and for a while now with the InnovationTour where we visit six to eight different companies, from start-ups to large enterprises, over two days in locations like Silicon Valley or New York.

Summary

Modern IT is sometimes hard to related to and especially hard to keep up with. It features new concepts that seem to be in contradiction to what we learned — Share-nothing architecture, decoupling is more important that re-use; fit-for-purpose is more important than standardization. Like TETRIS, more and more concepts hit you at an ever faster rate.

To make sense of it, use TOPS — the four dimensions technology, org design, product design and strategy —  to help you structure this fast paced domain. Keep in mind — next to TOPS is culture. This will influence your environment and you can’t establish culture through a checklist!

Have fun playing IT.