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In with the New — Out with the Old. A Conservation Approach to IT

Many years ago my sister Mary taught me a valuable lesson. At the time she and her husband lived in a very small apartment. But each time I visited her I was amazed by how neat everything was. There were no overflowing bookshelves, no overstuffed closets and pantries, and none of the usual clutter of everyday living. It didn’t look like my house at all. Instead there just seemed to be total order, with everything in its place.

I asked her whether she had some offsite storage location somewhere for all of the “stuff” that we all seem to accumulate during our lifetime. She said that everything she and her husband have is in the apartment, but that they carefully control the number of things they buy. Their simple rule is “for anything that comes into the apartment, something else has to leave.” If they buy a book, then they sell or give away a book. If they buy a lamp, then they get rid of a lamp that’s already there. They buy food only when other food has been consumed or when they decide to throw something out. It’s the ultimate conservation of “stuff”: the amount of stuff in the apartment always stays the same.

It’s a simple concept, but one that’s very difficult to practice for most of us. We tend to hang on to things because we think we’ll use them later, because we attach some sentimental meaning to them, or because we feel like we’ve spent money on them that would go to waste if we discard them. Clothes might come back into style, or might fit after we lose weight. We’ll reread that book one day. We’ll find a use for that old gadget. Keeping things seems to be the “safe” approach.

But there’s a downside to being “safe.” As we get more books, we get more bookshelves. As we get more clothes, we expand our closet or get our closet redesigned to hold more stuff. Our house becomes cluttered and uncomfortable. Our refusal to deal with things from our past costs us in space, maintenance, complexity, and ultimately in time. It’s just too much effort to have to manage and track all of that stuff.

Peter Drucker
The other day I was reading a book about Peter Drucker, and a quote from the book reminded me of Mary’s approach:

“The first step in a growth policy [for a business] is not to decide where and how to grow. It is to decide what to abandon. In order to grow, a business must have a systematic policy to get rid of the outgrown, the obsolete, [and] the unproductive.”

Drucker is essentially advocating the same approach for business that my sister Mary used to keep her apartment under control. And this exact same approach can be applied to IT as well.

Progress Hurts the Business Perception of IT
In my book I talk about the fact that maintenance and infrastructure typically start as small parts of an IT budget, with new projects making up the largest part of the budget. Then over time as new projects get completed, the percentage of the IT budget dedicated to maintenance and infrastructure rises, and the percentage of the budget dedicated to new projects declines. Everything new gets converted into something that consumes resources and has to be maintained. It’s the cost of progress.

But from the business perspective, it appears that the IT organization is getting less done. There’s a decline in the amount of money allocated to new projects, or the IT budget has to increase. Either way it’s not good for the business perception of IT. And this perception is something that we all have to struggle with on a day-to-day basis.

A Conservation Approach to IT
I’m not against progress. But I think that many IT organizations tend to follow the same approach that their people follow at home. They accumulate systems the way some people accumulate clothes. A new system is purchased or developed, and the old system stays in place. The organization starts using a new operating system or a new development platform, but the software using the old approach is still supported. That old system probably even has a maintenance budget, and year after year you spend money on enhancing something that’s destined for the junk pile.

So here’s my message: Try to apply the rule “for anything that comes in, something else has to leave.” And take it one step further by including in the new project plan the cost of migrating and closing down the old system. Don’t just accumulate old applications, hardware and operating systems the way some people hang on to old clothes and old books. Clean out the old as you move to the new.

Your budget will improve. Your business reputation will improve. And you’ll find that your job is a lot less hassle without the burden of all those old systems.  Simpler is better, but things don’t get simple all by themselves.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Richard September 17, 2009, 12:28 am

    This logic only goes so far. For example, how did they furnish their apartment in the first place? I’m assuming there is some sort of exception rule for the first lamp to be purchased and placed in the apartment, otherwise they would still be sleeping on the floor. The same thought goes for business; sure its a great idea to throw out the old whenever it gets replaced by the new, but you just can’t wake up one day and say “You know, that Windows XP thing is old, lets install Ubuntu!”. Your business would probably go down the tubes before you finished the sentence.

    • Harwell September 17, 2009, 5:58 am

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, you have to establish a point of stability. In the apartment example, you have to first furnish the apartment. For IT, you have to get systems up to a basic level. The main point is that you don’t hold on to things that you are functionally replacing. And you don’t assume that things will always be there just because they’ve been there in the past.

      But as for your Windows/Ubuntu example, I am definitely including operating systems. I worked with a client whose IT budget was much too high for its value because the client was supporting half its users on a Mac platform and half its users on Windows, using different applications for each platform. Their IT value improved once they made a decision and went in a single direction.

  • Haim September 29, 2009, 3:19 pm

    Es obvio que tenemos la costumbre de apegarnos a las cosas viejas cuando estas son de buena calidad; y la que existe en el mercado para sustituirla, su valor esta por las nuebes,quizas nos identificamos y nos aferramos a la cosa vieja porque es facil manejarla,entenderla y todo aquello que nos hace mas fácil la vida diaria.Pero no podemos cerrar los ojos frente al avance tecnologico y debemos estar informado , actualizarnos ya que la evolución tecnologica no espera a nadie y por ende quedamos fuera de competencia.

    Un ejemplo que he vivido;tenia yo una pc de escritorio excelente por mas de 10 años,mis hijos crecieron son universitario y todos usabamos la vieja pc;pero aparecio ABA y todo aquello que te hace navegar supersónico en el ciber espacio.Compre una pc portatil de la misma marca de la vieja;nos a cambiado la vida a toda la familia,y hoy la vieja pc lamentablemente tenemos que sacarla ocupa espacio.

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