One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the past decade has been the successful shift toward the commercialization of spaceflight. While space exploration began as a limited government enterprise, it has now been intentionally expanded to include commercial enterprises that are eager to compete for their share of this newly emerging market. The key to the success of commercial spaceflight lies in its ability to evolve and innovate at the speed of technology and to leverage the incentive of profit to take technological risks — two things that government agencies continually struggle to do.
The central theme of making spaceflight more successful is centered around lowering the cost of launching people and things into space, and one of the defining challenges of lowering this cost is the reusability of rocket boosters. It was for this reason that space aficionados from around the world watched in amazement as a Blue Origin booster rocket came careening down from over 62 miles above the earth only to engage thrusters and land on its feet as expertly as a gymnast executing a backflip.
As an organization that helps clients tackle the incredibly complex task of digital transformation, we look to these moments of accomplishment for lessons we can learn about what it takes to make seemingly impossible things possible. In the case of landing booster rockets, there are some particularly poignant lessons about the value of agility and adaptability over carefully creating and following a plan.
The Value of Agility
It is no secret that Agile is steadily taking over as the primary operational model for most businesses involved in software development or digital modernization. There are many reasons for this paradigm shift, but one of the foremost is that command and control style operations are not adaptable and flexible enough to keep pace with rapidly shifting consumer attitudes and the even more rapidly shifting technology landscape. The age-old facade of carefully laid plans and highly controlled execution has begun to crumble under the weight of unpredictable market forces, and as the winds of digital transformation begin to pick up speed, we’re seeing that the willow is indeed stronger than the oak.
Despite this well-documented reality, well-meaning executives continue to struggle with projects that don’t have a fixed plan, a pre-determined price, and a fully defined scope. Executives often lean into Agile concepts that promise higher functional alignment, customer delight, built-in quality, and the rapid delivery of operational products to market. But when these improvements come at the price of a rigid plan and a fixed up-front cost, executives are often the first to cry foul and demand a return to the standard command and control style practices that have continually proven to be ineffective in the modern marketplace.
At this point, you might find yourself wondering what any of this has to do with landing a booster rocket. It turns out the common factor between managing digital change and landing booster rockets lies in how to effectively deal with complexity and uncertainty. There are two general approaches that a team of engineers could use to land a rocket.
They could choose the command and control approach and try to define all the variables upfront:
- What will the exact time and location of reentry be?
- What will the weather be?
- Can we calculate the wind speed and map that against the gravitational forces at play during the various angles of re-entry?
- Can we pre-program the fins and thrusters with such precision that the rocket stays within just a few centimeters of the appropriate angle?
The problem with this approach is that no matter how carefully the engineering team plans, the complexity, and variability involved in landing a booster rocket are too great to fully plan for.
The second approach is to plan for uncertainty by planning to not have a plan. In this case, the answer lies in three important principles that are just as common to landing a rocket as they are to navigating digital transformation in a business:
- rapid adjustment
- feedback loops
This approach provides a business with the inherent capability to automatically navigate complex and uncertain environments.
1. Measurement: Understanding and Tracking Key Metrics
The first thing that engineers must account for when navigating the uncertainty and complexity of the reentry environment is the ability to accurately measure the environment around the rocket. To this end they load the rocket with sensors that give them a second-by-second measurement of all the critical variables they will need to respond to. The sensors constantly track and report on variables such as wind speed, angle of re-entry, ambient temperature, and altitude of the rocket. To carry out the complex task of landing the rocket, they will need to guide the rocket in a way that accounts for all these variables; thus the first step in “planning to not have a plan” is measurement.
This is just as true when guiding a business through the complexities of digital transformation. Many well-meaning business leaders rush into a new technology project based on a set of hypotheses about how it will create meaningful business value, without first establishing accurate measurement systems for the critical variables they are trying to affect. Maybe the business needs to increase customer satisfaction, reduce time to market for new products or lower response times for a call center. Before you can attempt to respond to environmental conditions for a rocket or improve a business, you must have the ability to measure those variables, or you are simply shooting at a target blindfolded. Thus, measurement is critical at both the outset of and during a project to provide constant visibility to and awareness of the status of the operational environment. Of course, it does no good to measure the changes if you don’t have the flexibility to rapidly adjust and respond to those changes.
2. Rapid Adjustment: Identifying Changing Realities and Making Real-Time Decisions
It takes more than just sensors on a rocket to navigate the complex environmental conditions and bring it to a safe landing. The rocket must be able to adjust its speed, re-entry angle, and location based on the measurements of its environment, and given the speed at which things are moving, it must make these adjustments quickly. To this end, the engineers equip the rocket with guidance fins and multi-angle thrusters, and they use the rocket engine at a critical point to slow the booster down in preparation for landing.
Many businesses are still attempting to undertake complex and dynamic digital modernization efforts using waterfall methods of command and control that are overly reliant on predictable budgeting and planning. What they really need, however, are project models that allow them to rapidly adjust to changing realities and make real-time decisions to respond to the changes they are measuring.
Modern operational frameworks based on Agile values and principles put a premium on measurement and rapid adaptability, and these frameworks allow business leaders to more accurately steer their projects through complexity and change. However, this often comes at the expense of fixed plans and fixed budgets. What business leaders continually fail to grasp is that they are no longer charting courses and steering ships; they are in fact taking on the much more complex task of landing rockets.
3. Feedback Loops: Steering Digital Modernization Efforts
Once a rocket can make accurate and real-time measurements of critical environmental variables and rapidly adjust its positioning, all that’s left is to connect these two systems into a feedback loop. A feedback loop is merely the ability to make a change, measure the impact of the change, and then make more changes in an infinite loop. It is this simple system of feedback that allows accurate navigation through complex environments, and this very simple concept produces the seemingly miraculous result of a rocket careening down from space and landing on its feet.
Many businesses have key measures in place for the critical variables of their business environment, and many also have the good sense to make quick decisions. The surprising failure in many digital transformation projects is that leaders fail to connect their product development efforts to their key measurements in a system of rapid feedback. Without rapid feedback, you lose the ability to effectively steer digital modernization efforts, and navigating today’s complex business and technology environment requires frequent and intentional steering. Modern operational frameworks based on Agile values and principles focus on rapid delivery of small increments of functionality that allow for quick assessments and measurements that continuously feedback into the next rapid development cycle.
Guiding Your Projects to Success with Agility
As mentioned above, many modern business leaders are operating their businesses like large ships that are moving through a calm and largely predictable ocean. The current pace of change in the marketplace coupled with the complexity of digital modernization makes running a business today more like landing a rocket than steering a ship. Business leaders need to think more like rocket scientists than ship captains. Instead of standing at the helm, charting a course, and guiding the ship with a steady hand, today’s business leaders must focus on creating a guidance system for their enterprise that relies on rapid measurement, response, and feedback.
Simply put, if you focus on creating the right guidance systems, you no longer need to constantly steer the ship. A guidance system composed of measurement, rapid adjustment, and feedback loops provides a business with the inherent capability to automatically navigate complex and uncertain environments. For most business leaders, this feels counterintuitive, but the lesson is clear: the key to success in the modern marketplace is not to fixate on having a plan; rather it is to establish the right systems that allow the business to effectively operate without one.
If you find that your business is struggling to match the pace of market change and effect the digital transformation required to stay competitive, you may need a partner. At Sense Corp, we recognize the challenge that teams face when scaling and embracing Agile practices and welcome you to contact us.