Four Bimodal IT Objections You Need to Understand


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Recently, I published an article pushing back on criticism of Gartner’s Bimodal IT model (Bimodal IT: Why the Critics are Wrong). When the article hit Twitter, it generated a lot of froth and discussion. Many folks jumped up to tell me that I was still wrong. Other arguments also came to the fore.

This post summarizes all the (realistic) objections that I’ve heard against bimodal IT and provides my counterpoint. While I don’t think any of these objections are valid as a complete rejection of bimodal IT, they all represent certain mistakes and pitfalls that could result as you execute a bimodal IT strategy. You would do well to understand them and avoid these problems.

Objection 1: Bimodal IT will Create Divisions Within Your IT Team

This was the original argument put forth by Mark Thiele that prompted my original post. Essentially, the argument goes, if you split your IT team into the Mode 1 team and the Mode 2 team, then it will create artificial divisions between the two groups. Ideally, you want a single, unified team, not two teams. Worse if you do this wrong, you could set up a Mode 1 team that is responsible for “old stuff.” This can send a very counter-productive message to some of those team members, signaling that they’re second-class citizens working in dead-end jobs. Motivation then declines and you’re into a downward spiral with people jumping ship or becoming demotivated.

Can that happen? Absolutely. But if it does, it’s a people management failure, not a Gartner Bimodal IT model failure.

The first thing to realize is that Gartner’s model is a model for how to manage systems, not a people management model. Just because there is a system, say an ERP system, that you decide is a Mode 1 system, and there are people that manage that Mode 1 system, that doesn’t mean that the people are “Mode 1 people” or that the ERP system should be managed with your newly-created Mode 1 team. Gartner’s model is completely agnostic as to how you should organize your human resources.

You could, for instance, say “We’re a unified team and we all manage multiple systems. Some of those systems are Mode 1 and some are Mode 2. The Mode 1 systems are being managed to a different set of priorities and outcomes than the Mode 2 systems. But everybody will get a chance to work on the leading edge even as we all help manage our Mode 1 systems.”

You could also recognize that sometimes people like to manage Mode 1 systems for Mode 1 outcomes. I described this in my original post. Some people are just wired differently. And a lot of their motivation comes from whether you as a manager treat them with respect and value their skill sets or whether you don’t, not whether they’re working on the latest and greatest technology or systems. Let those people do what they do best, and what they love.

Or, you could do a combination of the two, where you have a unified team, but if Bob gets his kicks out of the Mode 1 systems, let him manage more of them than Steve, who really gets his kicks out of Mode 2 work. Everybody still works on everything, but you change the bias between the two depending on the character traits of the people on your team.

Regardless, this is totally in your control. Poor management can ruin even a team where everybody is working on Mode 2 stuff. Rule #1: Don’t be a poor people manager.

Objection 2: Bimodal IT is an Excuse to Be Lazy

The argument here is that when IT managers hear that Mode 1 systems are to be managed for stability, they’ll hear that and say, “OK, this system doesn’t get upgraded or touched ever again.” Then, technical debt builds up and soon you find yourself in a horrible place where your Mode 1 systems are in crisis.

Again, this is a possible outcome, but it’s a misreading of Gartner’s model. Specifically, Gartner doesn’t say that Mode 1 systems are “hands-off!” when it comes to maintenance, upgrades, etc. It merely says that stability is favored over agility. Mode 1 systems still need regular maintenance, upgrades, and ongoing, active management.

Again, this is totally in your control. Bimodal IT doesn’t give you license to mismanage your IT assets. Rule #2: Don’t be a poor IT manager.

Objection 3: Two is the Wrong Number

Honestly, this argument caught me completely off guard. “Yes, Dave,” the proponents said, “There are multiple modes for IT, but the right answer is three, not two!” This seemed to be mostly motivated by those buying into Simon Wardley’s idea of IT being composed of three types of people: Pioneers, Settlers, and Town Planners.

The Pioneers are folks that are comfortable working on the leading edge. They blaze new trails, sometimes into nowhere (they fail a lot). They’re the “crazy but brilliant” people we all know.

The Settlers follow the Pioneers, taking the half-baked prototypes thrown over the Pioneer’s shoulders and making them into real product. These are people that are equally brilliant, but have skills that figure out the business model. They get real businesses going.

The Town Planners are folks that help you hit industrial scale. They make it bester, faster, cheaper, and more profitable.

If you want to read more about this model (and you should), you can do it here: On Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners and Theft

I don’t have a quarrel with this model in the least, but I think it’s wrong to compare it to Gartners Bimodal IT model. They aren’t the same. Bimodal IT is about categorizing the objectives for IT systems, not people. The Pioneer, Settler, Town Planner model is specifically about categorizing different personality types.

Now, you might say, “Gee, it’s it logical that Pioneers would be happiest working on Mode 2 systems?” The answer to that is probably yes, but that doesn’t mean that the two models are in conflict. In fact, you might use the Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners model to help you understand the types of people you have in your department and focus them on the types of tasks that make them the most happy, thereby helping you solve the potential mismanagement problem of Argument 1.

Objection 4: You Should be Doing Mode 2 Everywhere

The last argument against Bimodal IT came primarily from the DevOps proponents. Essentially, the argument was, “Once you get good as being agile, you’ll find that stability actually improves, so rather than doing Bimodal IT, you should really concentrate on shifting everything over to Mode 2 and do it everywhere.”

I’m personally a big fan of DevOps, and this argument resonates with me. Indeed, I think this is probably the right answer in the limit.

If I have anything to say against this argument it’s simply that it’s too idealistic in the real world of enterprise IT. If you’re a large enterprise operating at scale, you simply won’t be able to flash cut over to “DevOps everywhere,” managing every system as Mode 2 out of the gate, even if that’s your eventual goal. There are practical realities of pilot teams, retraining, and the sheer speed that you can adopt a new methodologies like agile and DevOps. So, while you’re working on being more and more agile, you have a little bit of both the old and the new. That seems like a very apt description of Bimodal IT to me.

In fact, I think that viewing Bimodal IT as a transitory state from “Everything Mode 1” to “Everything Mode 2” is perfectly in line with Gartner’s model. Gartner doesn’t say that you should be bimodal forever, keeping Mode 1 around past the point that you could have done away with it. Rather, it urges organizations that are basically all Mode 1 to start getting more agile and identifying those systems that can and should be managed in Mode 2.

If you had a consultation with Gartner and said, “You know, we really believe in the DevOps vision and we’re committing to being 100% Mode 2 in our IT management style over the next year,” I think Gartner’s response would be “Rock on!” and fist-bumps all around.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Four good challenges to Bimodal IT that you need to be aware of, lest you fall into any of the traps they contain. But in my opinion none of them are really are really an effective refutation of Bimodal IT at the heart. The best argument against Bimodal IT is that you really want to be managing everything in Mode 2 at some point, but a real IT organization of any size is simply going to be in transition for a long time, thus leading to Bimodal IT.

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