Scale is more of a quality than a quantity

Enterprise has become one of those over-used words that mean anything and nothing to everyone. What does it actually mean and what does that mean for our organisations?

Back in the noughties I worked for a mid-sized technology consultancy called Detica. It was made up of around 500 people when I joined, steadily grew to a thousand or more and was eventually swallowed into BAE Systems. I learned something that’s stuck with me on that journey:

Scale is not quantitative, it’s qualitative

It might seem contradictory at first glance, but I had a series of experiences that led me to this insight. The first was then CEO Tom Black saying that, up until shortly before I joined, he knew every person in the company by name. The small-company quality had already shifted a notch and changed into something different by the time I arrived.

Another anecdote came from the project I worked on. The company worked on a series of software products for HMRC which, when they had started out as what we’d now call “two-pizza-sized teams” worked well but which, as they scaled beyond that size, began to encounter friction and started to reach for process and structure to remedy that. Whether it worked was as open to debate then as it is now, but the quality — the nature of the thing — changed with scale.

Heavy armour

In Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk re-exploring the story of David and Goliath, he explains how the heavy armour offered to the shepherd boy David as he went to face the giant would not only have been a hindrance, but could have cost him his life.

Malcolm points out that David’s approach to the situation was completely at odds with what Goliath and even his own people expected. In short, being smaller and more nimble, David’s approach had a different quality.

Overscale

I’ve seen teams bogged down with enterprise-class process and technology long before they and their mission have reached the scale or maturity to bear the burden. Taking up heavy armour when the situation needed agility.

I don’t believe I’ve encountered an instance where that didn’t grind progress to a crawl, leaving everyone, from the board to the keyboard, frustrated and defensive. There’s constant effort and an exhausting low-level cortisol-fuelled strain that wears trust and tempers thin, fracturing vital lines of mutual support.

It’s hard to come back from overscale

The longer this goes on, the more people become nervously and ideologically entrenched. It takes brave (or new) leadership to take an axe to that monolith with both personal care and direct challenge. It feels a lot like an episode of 24, having to decide whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire as the seconds tick down to project detonation. It’s either going to fix the problem or create a right mess.

There’s a rare and much-needed kind of egoless ambition that will grasp that nettle and take a potentially career-limiting risk. Fearful cries of “best practice” point at the the giants of the tech industry. The myths of their achievements tower over us with fierce intransigence, yet that’s probably a far cry from the nuanced real stories that built them — stories that aren’t so different from where we’re standing now. But the whispers say “this is how grown-ups win battles” and it takes courage to refuse their offer of armour.

Enterprise is scale

It seems obvious, a truism, that enterprise is scale, but let’s go a step further. The way the word is used, attached to certain activities, technologies and architectures, it not only is scale, it requires scale. You have to be a giant to wear it.

I’ve been around software long enough to know that “enterprise” is not a synonym for “good”. There’s a maxim I use that says “the more it costs, the worse it gets”. There may be exceptions, but proverbs exist for a reason. I’ve suffered enough projects to know there’s a time, a place and a scale for enterprise.

It’s not that it’s intrinsically good or bad, it just might not be a good fit for you

One thing’s for sure, enterprise is slow. If you find the words “enterprise” and “easy” on the same web page, your bullshit detector should register off the scale. Some of us have become numb to this reality, desensitised and demoralised by years of death-march projects, but it’s no less true.

If I can give you a spark of remembering, remember this: enterprise is designed for complicatedness and, in the cases it’s good for, that’s the right design. It’s meant to do all, to be all, to encompass all and to require a legion of believers to carry the weight.

Enterprise exhaustion

With this kind of weight, speed is not of the essence and a two-pizza-sized team will not be able to lift it. They may drag it a few feet through the mud, perhaps a few determined steps beyond a “hello, world” demo, but it will exhaust them — and if the software doesn’t get them, the practicalities of the daily fight to keep it running will. If you’re taking on “enterprise debt”, you’ll need deep pockets: money, time, and people, in perpetuity.

That’s why enterprise means scale. Scale is like gears. When you’re small and light, you need a low gear to gain momentum, something simple, improvised, humble. When you’re bigger and have built up momentum, you can shift up a gear, one gear. Go for top gear when you’re starting off and you’ll stall. Even if you don’t stall, it’s going to be a long, slow crawl to build pace — and you may never reach a scale that matches that gear.

For an organisation of tens of thousands, with big budgets, where sizeable teams of people can be dedicated to servicing internal, structural needs without ever needing to come into contact with users or customers, this makes sense. But this isn’t most organisations. It’s not where they are today and it’s not where they will be tomorrow. Barely a handful will ever reach this scale. Trees do not grow to the sky and giants are rare creatures.

The nimble advantage

And here we have the enterprise paradox: relatively small organisations reach for enterprise tools — the heavy armour of giants — and find they struggle to make progress. Sacrificing agility by overscaling when agility is in fact your advantage could cost you dearly.

For David it was being nimble, not being massive, that won the day. Don’t worry too much what the giants are up to. Chances are it’s not relevant to you anyway — your strength is that you’re not in fact a giant.

Playing to your advantage, knowing your scale and finding your unique quality, takes clarity and courage.

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