In order to build, first you must destroy

12 Oct

by brendan-nelson 12.10.12

Large organisations are encumbered by yesterday’s platforms like never before. Many address this problem by creating new ones but this just adds to the mess. The real answer is not to create, but to destroy.


Over the last few weeks everyone in the Tobias & Tobias office has become captivated by the demolition of the building next door. We’ve gathered at our windows to watch the “High Reach machine” claw at its crumbling walls and retreated to our meeting rooms from the skeleton-shaking sound of “percussive breaking”.

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Watching from the window, I’ve become fascinated by how much work goes into tearing down a building like that. When we think about demolition, we picture the cooling tower or council block suddenly felled by a controlled explosion: the countdown, the loud bang, the spectacular sight of a huge structure collapsing before an unseen, cheering crowd. But the reality is that demolition must be careful, methodical, incremental; it takes a long time and it’s extremely expensive. Yet what does it deliver? Nothing, essentially. So no-one would fund those projects if there wasn’t a good reason to carry them out.

Meanwhile, at the recent TradeTech FX conference across the Square Mile from our office, I got talking to someone familiar with the technology of a large Swiss investment bank. This organisation had recently discovered to its horror that it had over 3,500 IT systems in active use, many of which were over thirty years old and did things no-one currently working at the bank actually understood. Worse still, these old systems couldn’t just be turned off; because no-one knew what they did, there was no telling what disasters might ensue if the life support was switched off.

The last thing this bank needs is a new generation of IT systems to add to the mess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s just what they’re doing. Management teams generally like to build, not to destroy. Making new toys often seems like the most obvious way to solve a problem even in organisations that clearly have too many toys already.

This mentality might need to change. As businesses accumulate ever more websites, platforms, systems and applications, the rusty pipework of yesterday’s technology will become an ever more limiting liability. We might need to start celebrating a new breed of demolition experts: those who shut down old systems, who gently euthanise ancient applications, who carefully dismantle the dusty old servers that house them. 

A new mentality may be required among people working in business and technology, especially in mature organisations that genuinely want to thrive in the future. The CVs of tomorrow’s executives might boast about the many systems they’ve shut down and killed off during their tenure, not the ones they commissioned and built. Creating without first destroying - and destroying with care - could come to be seen as a sign of laziness, the easy way out for those who don’t think of the longer term.

For technology and design to truly deliver in the 21st century we need to free ourselves from the creaking legacy of the 20th. It’s time for the hard hats, heavy diggers and pulverising drills to move in. And let’s just be grateful that demolishing old IT systems, while difficult, doesn’t create the sort of racket we’ve been putting up with here in the office.

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Tags: strategy

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