Bimodal IT: Why the Critics are Wrong

Bimodal IT really isn't a fork in the road

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Gartner’s bimodal IT model has been controversial from the start. The model is a cornerstone of Gartner’s digital business recommendations, but critics say that it’s DOA. I’m far from a Gartner fanboy, but the critics are wrong, and bimodal IT is here to stay. In fact, you’re already doing it.

It’s rare that I find something from another Leverhawk advisor that I disagree with. So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled on this post from June, 2015, “BiModal IT – Crashed Right Out Of The Gate!” by my friend, Mark Thiele. I was even more surprised when I saw quotes from Tim Crawford and Jeff Sussna, IT professionals that I know and admire, in Mark’s post, supporting Mark’s argument.

First, let’s review Gartner’s bimodal IT model. It’s pretty easy. Gartner defines bimodal IT thusly:

Bimodal IT is the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed.

The core of Mark’s argument is that bi-modal IT stands in conflict with the human element of IT. Mark says:

Where and how does the “human equation” fit in to BiModal IT?

Picture yourself as a Cobol programmer sitting at the conference room table in 1999 and the discussion revolves around what language most applications will be using going forward. At the end of the meeting your boss looks at you and the other Cobol programmers and says “you folks are really important and we need you to stay focused on supporting all those old apps that we’re trying to get rid of”. How does that make you feel? Are you sensing that you’re an important part of the future of the organization and the company or are you an afterthought? To make things worse, if you have half a brain you’re thinking to yourself “what job will I get when the last Cobol application in my company dies? Won’t other companies be getting rid of their Cobol based apps as well?”.

It’s not easy, which is why it’s probably important

BiModal IT is the age old quick fire executive answer to solving problems with layoffs and managing people like they’re chaff. This is the answer that short sighted executives use because they can’t be bothered to think long term, to apply loyalty or to consider the “human equation”. Taking the right path as they say, is often the path less traveled. There are myriad ways to solve your move to a modern agile IT organization that don’t involve the wholesale slaughter of ½ or more of your existing team. Will there be struggles, absolutely. Will there be some folks that won’t make it through the change, definitely. Will getting to the other side by doing it the right way be worth it, hell yes.

Essentially, Mark is saying that if you’re pursuing bimodal IT, somebody will get assigned to the “Mode 1 Team,” which will be viewed as a second class IT team. All the “talented” people will be working on “important,” Mode 2 projects. The Mode 1 folks will feel that their contributions aren’t valued very highly and their future career prospects will suffer.

Tim Crawford, reiterating Thiele’s thinking, tweeted:

It creates a two-class culture within an org (IT) that needs more cohesion.

Certainly, Mark’s and Tim’s description is one possible outcome of bimodal IT.

But it isn’t the only one, and smart managers will avoid it. Here’s how…

You’re Already Doing Bimodal IT

I’ll let you in on a secret — bimodal IT isn’t new. If your organization is more than 10 years old, you’ve already got bimodal IT going on at some level. All Gartner did was create a fancy-schmancy name for your current behavior.

Ever since the first minicomputer appeared, a computer that was run by a different group than the group that ran the mainframe, we’ve had bimodal IT. The new group spent lots of time and energy running around showing the benefits of the new technology. IT grew and careers were made.

It happened again when microcomputers and departmental file servers showed up. And client server. And the web. And every other generation of technology since. What once was cutting edge is suddenly… not. That’s just the way the world works. Dig into any decades-old enterprise IT shop and you’ll find multiple generations of IT products, like layers in the fossil record. Nobody completely migrates to the new technology or throws away the old stuff. Ask IBM how much money they’re making on mainframe licenses this year (hint: it’s a lot).

It’s important to note that Gartner’s bimodal IT definition is technology agnostic. You could, for instance, be implementing a hot new Mode 2 application on your mainframe. But you probably aren’t. Mode 2 applications tend to be implemented with whatever the cutting edge technology of the day is, but that’s not always true. Often, however, the hot new application is connected to the old stuff, utilizing data pulled from the mainframe, for instance, even as the application is implemented in a newer technology.

Everything is Bimodal

Indeed, enterprises do this with their own products. The product we sold two years ago is now obsolete, whoever we are, whatever industry we’re in. But we probably still sell it. And even if we’ve replaced it with a newer model, we still support the old one. In the software world, for instance, we sell multi-year maintenance contracts that persist even after a product is removed from the price list.

Take Microsoft, for example. Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001 and finally stopped extended support in 2014. During that time, maintenance and security programmers had to fix bugs and security vulnerabilities. Test engineers had to test those releases. Support engineers had to help resolve customer issues. Everybody had to work with a system that was known to be obsolete and was probably written and managed using vintage compilers and tools. This happened well beyond the releases of Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8.

Again, there are legions of people at IBM, BMC, CA, and Compuware making bank on mainframe solutions of all sorts. In some cases, the huge revenue streams coming out of those old technologies are paying the bills while new technologies are still trying to gain their profitable footing. These old technologies aren’t just important, they’re critical to the firm’s survival.

And that’s true across industries, at companies large and small. It’s just a normal part of life. Lots of people are happily employed working on no-so-cutting-edge stuff all the time.

The fact is, the world is bimodal. You’re either working right on the cutting edge… or you aren’t. And there are a lot of people who aren’t. Far more people aren’t, in fact, than those who are.

Embrace Diversity

So, does that mean that Mark, Tim, and Jeff are completely out to lunch? Nope, these are smart guys and they’ve identified a real issue at some level. Certainly, if IT managers approach the bimodal IT model with a (possibly hidden) mindset that “good people” should be put onto Mode 2 projects and Mode 1 is just a dumping ground for old-timers and dead-enders, then the exact outcome Mark, Tim, and Jeff describe will come to pass. You’ll ruin good people and you’ll have a train wreck.

But here’s the big secret — people aren’t wired the same way. The things that motivate you aren’t the same things that motivate me. There’s a broad spectrum of people.

Some are natural trail blazers. They thrive on the thrill of being on the cutting edge, not knowing what they will find. Folks like that are ideal for Mode 2 projects.

Others prefer the regularity of a well-trod path. They like to build cost-optimized, reliable systems and processes that do the job day after day without drama. These are people who thrive on Mode 1 projects.

Personally, I like to live on the leading edge (though not necessarily the bleeding edge). I’m one of those people who can “see the future” in my head and I want to work to make it a reality. That’s why I co-created Leverhawk, for instance.

In a past life, I was talking to a maintenance programmer who worked for my company about why he did it. Being a leading edge (Mode 2) sort of guy, I couldn’t fathom why anybody would want to work on what I considered lagging edge (Mode 1) technology. He told me something that really opened my eyes. “Dave, I don’t do it for the technology. I don’t know where the technology is going and I don’t care. I like helping customers. When everybody else has moved on to the next product, I’m the guy that our current customers look to when they need help with one of our older products. I enjoy the challenge of understanding code that was written by somebody else who has probably already left the company and then delivering a fix to a customer and helping them out of a jam. You wouldn’t believe the smiles I see on their faces when I deliver a fix in the field and we try it out and it works!”

Suddenly, I got it. Or rather, I didn’t get it, but I respected it. I’m still a Mode 2 guy — that’s just how I’m wired. But I appreciate other people that are wired for Mode 1. They thrive on jobs that I couldn’t do.

Some of them even get paid a lot more than I do. One time, I was on a business flight to New York and got upgraded to first class. I sat next to a guy who specialized in mainframe database performance tuning. His skill set was highly specialized, but he was in great demand. He got paid huge sums of money by the various banks on Wall Street, flying first class as part of his contracts, to work his magic on their obsolete systems. Because the world still runs on Mode 1 systems.

Optimizing Your Workforce in a Bimodal World

As an IT manager, you need to understand exactly what styles and temperaments are shared by the employees at your company. Surely, as Mark points out, if you assign a bleeding-edge-loving trail blazer to a Mode 1 project, he’ll feel marginalized and disrespected. He has all these crazy ideas for leapfrogging the competition with digital transformation strategies, for instance, and here you’ve put him in charge of managing the uptime of the ERP system. Blech! That simply won’t scratch his itch. He’ll become increasingly demotivated and ultimately quit. And he’ll quit even faster if you fawn all over the Mode 2 projects in your strategy review and ignore the Mode 1 projects.

So, don’t do that. Instead, do this:

  1. Recognize that everyone is talented and motivated differently. The things that get you fired up won’t move the needle for somebody else. And that’s okay.
  2. Allow people to self-select. Don’t try to convince a trail blazer to accept Mode 1 work or an optimizer to do Mode 2 work. They won’t like it. Ask people where they fit and try to sense the unspoken signals they give off about what they really want to work on.
  3. When hiring, make sure you’re looking past skills and to temperament. Sure, this person might be very senior, highly qualified, and a great fit from a skills point of view. But are they the right fit for this job as part of your bimodal strategy? If not, move on and keep looking at other candidates. Remember that you can train most skills, but people’s temperaments are for the most part set in stone.
  4. Don’t marginalize the Mode 1 work. This is particularly true if, as a leader, you’ve got a Mode 2 personality. You need to be even-handed about your recognition and rewards. Remember that Gartner doesn’t define Mode 1 systems as unimportant, but merely focused on stability. Indeed, some Mode 1 systems are business critical workhorses (e.g., financials, ERP, email, etc.). If Mode 1 projects bore you to tears and you can’t find a way to remain enthusiastic when discussing them with your team, then find somebody who can get excited and put them in charge of managing the Mode 1 projects while you focus on Mode 2.

Remember, it’s not a question of whether the world is bimodal or not — the world is inherently bimodal and all Gartner did was give it a name so you could think about the concept in a more systematic way. Given that, executing a successful bimodal IT strategy comes down to basic people management skills. Recognize the talents of your employees and match the work with both the skills and temperaments of your people. Shower your love, admiration, and respect on all sides, equally. Do that and you’ll have a well-oiled, bimodal, ass-kicking IT machine!


  1. Victor Volle says:


    Do you have a current (working) link for “BiModal IT – Crashed Right Out Of The Gate!” (

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