sidewalk-657906_1920Around the start of 2014, Gartner began introducing the term bimodal IT as a new model of IT management and/or project differentiation. The term and concept has met with some resistance and skepticism; just Google the term and you’ll find articles like this one, which criticize the term as just being a new name on an age-old concept.

Gartner’s Definition of Bimodal IT

“… the practice of managing two separate, coherent models of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility.”

In much of their literature, they depict Mode 1 as being a marathon runner (steady and calculated) and Mode 2 as a sprinter (quick, lean, and fast to the finish). When you consider it, this does make sense, as all projects are not created equal. Often an enterprise has a few core applications (think their ERP or “system of record”) that, while it does not differentiate them from their competitors or give them an advantage, does happen to be one of those systems that you tend to protect, change infrequently, and when changes are dictated, thoroughly test them to ensure that bad things don’t happen.

Contrast that with customer-facing and often business-differentiating apps that must be created quickly and with a different focus. (My personal belief is that the Apple app store and Google Play store have contributed to the explosion of need/desire for these type projects, but that is the subject of a different post.) Let’s face it, the ability for a customer to order a pizza for delivery via a tweet is a great idea; having your accounting department make a GL entry via a tweet is probably not desirable.

Mode 2 activities – agile development – cyclical in nature along with the concept of “minimal viable product,” working closely with a process owner to build something quickly and potentially failing quickly in order to get to the right end result is a different mindset from the Mode 1 development – completely regression tested and reluctant to change for fear of breaking downstream processes. Similarly, the mindset of those that shepherd over Mode 1 systems tend to be somewhat more risk averse – especially in a culture that tends to shoot those that allow the system to fail.

Now that we have a general idea of the high-level differences between Mode 1 and Mode 2, I pose the question:

In organizations that are or are attempting to operate as bimodal, can one CIO handle both modes? Are the characteristics needed for operating within each mode so different that it might require either a different mindset or different skillset to be successful? Or is it possible for a single individual to possess the skills and abilities to shift from mode to mode?

The question applies not only to the modality of IT operations – CIOs have always been faced with the trade-off between time spent on strategic thinking and planning versus the tactile/operational day-to-day activities that they encounter. This, I believe, may come down to how the CIO is viewed within the organization. Are they a “keep-the-lights-on order taker” or are they a respected member of the C-Suite – one of the go-to folks that are respected for their business knowledge and ability to see technology’s value to the enterprise? This may come down, in some respects, to the size and culture of the organization, as well as the CIO’s relationship with his/her business peers.

My experience with smaller organizations is that the leader of the IT organization is expected to be much more tactically focused than strategic, while larger organizations may have several senior IT leaders over different lines of business reporting to and working in concert with a more strategic CIO with a seat at the table and the responsibility and expectation to focus on more strategic outcomes and directions.

So I posit three questions:

  1. Do the differences between Mode 1 and Mode 2 delivery, or even the differences between the tactical running of the business versus the strategic planning for the future require different leaders?
  2. In large enterprises with business critical core systems, should there be a more tactically-focused deputy CIO over the Mode 1 systems? This could provide a way for succession planning and grooming of the next CIO.
  3. Are the Mode 2 leaders those who have special skills – potentially those “design thinkers” and/or T-Shaped individuals?

While I’m not ready to declare that one person cannot have both qualities – certainly there are talented individuals who do this successfully every day — I think it comes down to the culture of the executive team and how IT has been valued that will determine what type of individual will be most successful and how the IT organization will operate.

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