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From athletics to IT: The ready position spurs success
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From athletics to IT: The ready position spurs success

Agility in business has always been important. Markets are dynamic. New competitors and requirements are continuously emerging. Businesses must react appropriately, and quickly, especially this year amid COVID-19.

In athletics, there is the concept of the athletic-ready position. It's based on human physiology—bent knees, feet shoulder-width apart, lowered center of gravity, and slight forward bend at the hips. It gives you agility by positioning you to be ready to do anything—move forward, backward, side to side, jump, or duck. Almost every sport has an athletic-ready position. Think about a runner on the starting blocks or two wrestlers in the center of the mat.

We even instinctively adopt the ready position as we go through daily life. The athletic-ready position gives us maximum mobility and stability. It enables us to make a fast direction change based on our unique bodies' physiology. For instance, if a threat is approaching, we are ready to react - the ready position.

Now imagine transferring this concept to your business. Technology agility drives business agility and developing an IT ready position can be a game changer in preparing your business for anything. The biggest challenge: organizations and their required IT ready positions can vary widely. There's no single answer. Each business must define its own IT ready position. Here are three places to start.

1. Embrace Optionality

Every ready position supports optionality. This freedom of choice in the athletic-ready position enables someone to easily move in any direction and to react instantly to even the slightest changes in the environment. An effective IT ready position uses technology to provide optionality around business needs and priorities, especially as they change. Ideally, technology does not hinder or slow the change. In a perfect world, it helps accelerate it. Too often though, technology gets in the way. A case in point is moving to the cloud.

Businesses often want to adopt cloud (sometimes getting out of their data centers altogether) to save money and focus resources on what truly differentiates them. However, organizations without a strong IT ready position must modify and modernize applications before they can be moved. Why? Because the cloud infrastructure is different from what they have in their data center. In other words, technology is reducing business optionality because it forces apps to be modernized before they can be migrated, dramatically slowing down the pace of migration. In contrast, organizations with an effective IT ready position have consistent infrastructure on-premises and in the cloud, enabling them to move apps to the cloud immediately, at which point they can choose to modernize (which is typically a slower process). The right digital architecture enables optionality.

2. Prioritize 2-for-1 Change Opportunities

Staying balanced is key to athletic success. When your center of gravity is to one side, you can easily fall over. And although you can stay upright for some time through pure strength, it's not a sustainable position.

Similarly, IT leaders need to think carefully about how to make long-term improvements while staying balanced in the short term. A classic example of this is the application rewrite. It goes like this: You have the current implementation, which is old, doesn't scale well, and is fragile when making changes. You have a new implementation in mind that, when completed, will be a technical marvel--efficient, scalable, easy to extend. The only problem: the solution you envision will take years to fully build out.

We've all seen IT teams try to make this work. They're building the new while keeping the lights on for the old, but the old is what brings in the revenue. This isn't balanced IT. If a new business need suddenly emerges, such as transitioning to remote working during COVID-19, all work on the new implementation must stop. Work on the old implementation resumes to address the urgent business need.

Instead, after clearly defining your future-state vision, an effective IT ready position helps you adaptively and opportunistically move toward it. Imagine you want to modernize one of the subsystems of an application. It's likely you can't justify the technical fix alone against all of your current business priorities. However, if a business priority necessitates heavy work in that subsystem, take the opportunity to slip in that modernization work along with the business priority work. It may not even be that much extra work, yet it will improve the business priority work simultaneously while better aligning with your future-state architecture. Scoring 2-for-1 changes can fast-forward you to future technology goals.

3. Improve Your Team Coordination

Coordination in athletics is important. Sprinters practice their starts from the blocks to shave fractions of a second off their times. Similarly, when IT teams are in the ideal ready position, they're well-coordinated to deliver innovative and reliable service to their own teams and across the business. DevOps is an obvious example, driving alignment between developers and operations teams. But this applies to all teams in technology delivery.

The key to effective team coordination is defining clear roles and responsibilities. For development and operations roles, Google's SRE model (hiring software engineers to operate products and create systems to do the work that systems administrators typically do) is a powerful one. In that model, development teams get "error budgets" for their services, essentially several minutes per month or year that their services can be down (e.g., 4 minutes/month of both planned and unplanned downtime). If development teams are within their error budgets, then the SRE team (central engineering ops team) takes over operating their services. This incentivizes development teams to spend time on improving the reliability of their services and not to rely on the operation steam to handle an uncontrolled number of escalations. This way developers and IT Ops are working in a coordinated fashion.

Our collective goal as IT leaders now is to be future ready. This requires an effective IT ready position that comes with embracing optionality, prioritizing two-for-one changes and improving your team coordination.