Failing to communicate technology issues to business decision makers or business concerns to technologists costs money. Often, a lot: for Southwest airlines, it cost $825 million.
At the end of 2022, IT systems handling Southwest airlines’ critical business functions collapsed. This wasn’t, it should be noted, the first time — the outdated systems had failed before, leading to parts of the organization to rely on manual methods. However, this incident was particularly catastrophic thanks to a combination of severe weather and a holiday season in which millions of people were simultaneously trying to change flights. This ultimately led to an overload that the system was simply not equipped to handle. Inclement weather and peak travel season notwithstanding, the root cause could be traced to one thing: underinvestment in critical technology systems.
Despite investing $2 billion (US) into visible aspects of the business — such as upgrading aircraft and improving customer-facing websites — the aging systems were expected to handle increasing innovation layered on top of them.
It's hard to imagine any board willing to accept a $825 million business liability, but in the case of the technical debt in these systems, they did just that. For an industry that is so good at recognizing and mitigating risks in aviation safety, how did they miss something so crucial? The answer is really a question of communication and translation: the board never understood the business liability so they unknowingly accepted it.
Although not every organization will be faced with a catastrophe on the scale of Southwest Airlines, this state of affairs is commonplace. Thousands of businesses are putting themselves at risk without even realizing it.
Language is at the core of the problem
Language is an imprecise tool. While it allows us to communicate within and across different groups, the concepts and ideas it allows us to describe and articulate can sometimes lose their nuance and clarity as they are communicated. It’s all too easy to think that we’re speaking the same language when in fact we have completely different ideas about what things mean. We can miscommunicate and misunderstand each other without realizing it.
This can have fatal consequences. Take, for example, the Space Shuttle Colombia disaster. During launch, a piece of the insulating foam broke off from the shuttle’s external tank and struck the thermal protection system tiles on the orbiter's left wing. Engineers suspected the damage was more serious than previous launches where this had happened before. However, the Mission Management Team was less concerned about the potential risk of a debris strike. A space walk would be needed to assess the true extent of the damage. But space walks were expensive to do and management decided the business case for a space walk was not justified. When Columbia reentered the atmosphere of Earth, the damaged tile allowed hot atmospheric gasses to penetrate the heat shield and destroy the internal wing structure, causing the orbiter to become unstable and break apart.
Among the experts that NASA brought in to investigate the disaster was Edward Tufte, a design and product thinker. He found that the organizational convention of using Powerpoint slides containing highly condensed information led to a lack of clarity and rigor — it prevented engineers from communicating the intricacies of a complex system. As a result, decision-makers lacked a deep understanding of the decision they had to make which cost seven astronauts their lives.
Technology is complex
Today, many managers leading teams no longer have a full understanding of how their products are made. In the past, people like Henry Ford could see how cars were made on a factory floor. Given the complexity and modern digital technology’s apparent lack of materiality, it's incredibly difficult for business leaders to understand how technology is created. The creation of ones and zeros isn’t, after all, something to which you can just bear witness, like manufacturing a car.
How did we end up here?
It goes back to school days when we formed tribes and cliques, like the jocks, musos, artists, and goths. These smaller groups had their own language, fashion, and way of doing things; they didn't easily mix. Today, these tribes persist in our workplaces, such as technology, business, and finance teams, each with their own language and way of working. Unlike at school, where you were forced to mix within the classrooms, workplace tribes don’t often have the institutionalized reason to mix. This leads to communication breakdowns, which can cause disasters like the Southwest IT system collapse or NASA Colombia space shuttle disaster. To avoid such fiascos, we must make an effort to learn each other's language and work together.
What can we do?
We need to not only recognize that different groups coexist within our organizations, we must also strive to understand each other's perspectives and terminologies. This requires us to be vulnerable, admit to not knowing everything and to foster a psychologically safe environment that allows us to learn, experiment and evolve. We need to cultivate a culture where it's acceptable to be a leader and not have all the answers.
In her book Fearless Organization, Amy Edmonston outlines a recipe to create psychology safety:
- Publicize a sense of meaning/purpose and set a common goal — for example, 100% safety when creating stakes.
- Set the stage for candor. When Leaders display vulnerability and situational humility it can reduce “voice-silence asymmetry”.
- Frame the work as a complex, error-prone system, and use new language to reframe failure in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. For example: preventable failure, complex failure, intelligent failure - and celebrate the latter.
- Understand and frame around uncertainty, interdependence and the stakes.
- Learn fast, don’t fail fast. Reduce the feared ‘smart boss’ default frame.
- Invite participation by asking questions: was everything as safe as you’d like it to be with your patients? Invoke curiosity to counter fight/freeze/flight.
- Welcome bad news as valuable information to action. Use blameless retrospectives and focus groups.
- Respond productively. Identify system factors, not people to blame.
Developing common ground and language
Many organizations claim to work towards a common goal but often it's only surface-level alignment. What's necessary is deep and trusted alignment, where tribes advocate for each other and come together to serve the same purpose. It's taking the time to challenge each other and align towards a shared goal. A deeply-aligned team has tribes who advocate for each other, learn to speak each other's language and make decisions that aren't about satisfying individual agendas.
The solution to this problem is to shift from a binary relationship to a ternary relationship. This means it's no longer just a question of you vs. me, but rather you and me vs. the problem. Adding a third party to the equation breaks the 1:1 dynamic. In the technology industry, the binary relationship is typically between business and technology. Adding the problem or goal as the third party shifts the focus to the value you are creating for your customer. A shared understanding of that value is key.
At Thoughtworks we’ve observed organizations with challenging alignment problems in the field find common ground through shared beliefs. For IT and Business people this can be:
- We hate making things people don’t use
- We love being able to measure progress
- We serve the customer
Harnessing those common factors and a shared belief is the secret to success. It’s all about communication.
For more, watch the live recording of our recent By Thoughtworks tech-talk on bringing business and IT closer together.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.