How can organisations digitally transform and innovate whilst also maintaining current operations?
Sometimes it is good to look back at the past to help you understand the now, even if it means updates on new terminology.
Around 2015, Gartner coined the term ‘Bi-modal IT’, which refers to the practice of managing two separate but coherent work styles.
Gartner said by 2017, 75% of organisations will have this Bi-modal capability - ‘Mode 1’ being the traditional, manual and somewhat more heavy administration operating position. The other is ‘Mode 2’, utilising highly automated IT with increased agility.
The Bi-modal approach was embraced by many large organisations and helped to form a two-pronged IT operations model that enabled both stable foundational IT systems and the creation of agile deployments. Recognition of Mode 1, ushered in Mode 2 capabilities such as cloud, agile and digital adoption for many organisations.
It has now been over five years since this approach became mainstream, so how did it go? Bi-modal IT was viewed as organisationally experimental, created some change fatigue or competing priorities associated with standing up distinct modes and was perceived as expensive for many organisations who ran with it but perhaps were not as prepared.
Bi-modal IT received considerable pushback from executives with more traditional organisational models, especially if high levels of bureaucracy or low agility were prevalent.
Addressing Competing Needs
Bi-modal (or modularity) at its core is still around today because businesses always have a minimum of two-step competing priorities, which often flow through to their organisational makeup and the resulting technology capability.
Businesses can live in a constant dichotomy to execute and explore. Surely then, this should be more clearly recognised rather than aggregate processes and people that are in different modes of operation, incentivised in different ways and tasked with different objectives - into the same ideals.
Navigating the Two Modes of Business
Businesses still have to manage two separate but coherent work styles: one focused on predictability and protection; the other on exploration and rapidly increasing their market position.
Mode 1 remains, which is ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) or commonly seen as Operations which is resourced, formalised and with ongoing support.
Mode 2 was automation and cloud a few years ago but has progressed towards wider digital transformation. At times innovation is included, requiring a level of experimentation, and a culture of learning - not just delivery.
This second mode is different to operations. It has a clear inception, a team has to form, and there is a visible burn rate, with leadership tested as they also learn themselves whilst coaching. They must ensure adaptability and change throughout its distinct stages. The investment criteria can be difficult as they are pitted against well-proven operational benefits realisation - soft benefits with ‘trying things out through experimentation and worker efficiency’ don’t tend to win business cases.
These different modes become visible in different business situations. Whether it is integrating one company into another, or working across two different departments, geographies or markets. If you want to innovate or transform whilst performing, there has to be a realisation of these different characteristics or modes in the business and the associated cultures in play to leverage in the right way. Miss this at your peril.
I am a big believer in ‘Disasters never happen in ones, they happen in twos or threes’, aka it was never one single thing that created the event or the escalation. On the flip side, greatness is plural with hindsight showing a combination of strengths or multidisciplinary capabilities made it happen.
Acknowledge the differences that show folks their superpower and leverage the opportunities by bringing them together. Mode 1 and Mode 2 can work separately but are also brought together in combined operations and transformative presence in the business that cultivates and clearly defines.
Putting Theory into Practice
This will start and end with people.
As Simon Sinek says, “100% of companies are people, 100% of customers are people, if you don’t know people, you don’t know business.”
Choose diverse capabilities from the groups to form an ephemeral yet visible, cross-functional team that has leadership buy-in wholeheartedly, across the business. That team must display the special sauce needed to execute but connect.
It cannot be seen as a ‘mission team’ because it can quickly isolate itself. Taking a note from the book ‘Good to Great’: Willing yet humble! From a PR perspective, it is really important the leadership are empathetic by design - this is not a mode 3 team, it's mode 1+2 = 12.
They have to be on board to continually advocate for this small combined group, encouraging its vulnerability, learning and collaboration across the business so they use this as a vehicle to reinforce strategic imperatives and modern ways of working.
Building High-Performing Cross-Functional Teams
We have seen this at play with the likes of squads, FinOps and innovation teams. However, it requires strong, nurturing leadership, connected purpose and a PR approach, not just an agile cadence. Mixing IT Ops, Design, Engineering, Finance, Marketing and Talent acquisition can help solve multi-dimensional problems and launch products or fix tough challenges, at speed.
Often organisations worry about how these may scale. When running correctly, showcasing can activate other passionate, compelled and curious people to the rest of the teams through mass. A mindset across delivery, leadership and commerciality develops. Advocate iteration and the safety of doing so over perfectionism.
Building these groups isn’t always easy. They must be confident in their abilities, willing to respectfully challenge inherent processes but humble enough to be hero makers who bring others along to help change these sticky issues.
Key Ingredients to Develop High-Performing Teams
These teams need direction and fuel to run correctly.
The first aspect is incentivisation. Whether we like it or not, incentives help motivate and can drive behaviours in people and teams. Balancing this right will provide a benchmark for change, getting it wrong will stop teams in their tracks. When you have found the economics then look further, as for experienced folks it isn’t just about the money.
Driving Clear Purpose and Vision
Another key ingredient is driving clear purpose. Top talent want to feel they have made a real impact, something tangible they can discuss. IT is full of problem solvers and builders that want to implement solutions. Understand and unblock what gets your people up in the morning, what is their why?
Companies talk a lot about vision. We all know vision has to connect. However, many companies do not directly demonstrate how this vision connects to the purpose of these teams. When you can clearly articulate this to teams it can make the aggregation of efforts, purpose and benefits a cohesive force multiplier in the organisation.
Don’t confuse this with being overly task-driven; understandably, the fan base for this is low. Demonstrate daily the skill of working backwards from an outcome. We often work on ‘future backwards’, including a ‘future media release’ to galvanise the team.
Perhaps the business wants to move ‘30 Apps in 30 days’ to demonstrate modernisation or ‘move from 8 months to 8 weeks’ for the initial release to market. It will highlight some of the main organisational and process barriers.
Outcomes can be confusing to teams and procurement alike. Remember that an outcome isn’t about a fixed task or fixed price (that's just commercials) - it is simply taking the time to align on what everyone is there to do for success.
The path to the key objective is often fluid, but the end result should be clear. A team with a laser focus on customers, a willingness to execute and a sense of vulnerability is a formidable combination.
Bridging the Gap Between Modes
This article has emphasised teams; however, are there real examples of how we use the Bi-modal approach activity effectively across transformations and operations?
Let's look at Mode 1. Operations often have areas they would like to get ahead of to reduce their opex spend and reduce risk. Often operations already have a clear idea of the areas that are ‘held together by glue and sticky tape’ that keep them up at night but struggle to articulate the uplift benefits. With operational folks in the cross-functional team, the relationship allows Mode 2 teams to use their strengths like FinOps safely and effectively, to help shape and triage operational key priorities, bringing real operational momentum and better visibility in the business to proceed.
Mode 2 can be unintentionally blocked by traditional processes and structures meant to protect the business. The likes of operational policies, security and risk boards, change policies and the Project Management Office all mean well with their perspectives. Mode 1 folks work across these every day and know that arena best. With operationally experienced and connected individuals in mode teams, the strength of operations can lend a huge hand in moving transformation forward and providing confidence in future handover activities.
This begins a more modern approach called ‘business modularity’. It is more adaptive to a hybrid workforce and post-COVID business needs. The approach avoids over-prescribed operating models or ‘centres of excellence’ prior to inception, focuses on competing priorities and opens up real potential for servicing existing customers exceptionally while also lifting their heads up to look ahead and explore what’s next.
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