Everyone has legacy systems – do you live with yours, or blow them up?

A number of years ago I toured the operations centre of a bank. It was surprisingly Rube Goldberg, a little bit Dickensian. Papers came in from the branches in colour-coded bags and start their journey from desk to desk to archive box to storage to deep storage, probably in Scrooge McDuck’s basement. It was a hum of activity, with many unfamiliar contraptions devised to make the journey of each piece of paper more efficient. Most of the staff had formerly worked at branches, with deep knowledge of the systems and vagaries thereof.

And then a door opened and I was shown the operations centre for the digital version of the bank. It was a whole other world; quiet, with people working at computers with modern interfaces, a few tranquil conversations going on. No pieces of paper to physically handle. No green-screen systems to retreat back to for mission-critical functions.

Legacy systems – what you’ve already built and have to live with – is an enormous issue for large organizations. The term typically means an IT system, often installed in an earlier technology environment, but it is also a useful term for any sets of behaviours that are installed deep in the organization’s operations and ingrained habits. In complex systems like financial services and health care, legacy systems represent huge financial investments, and the deep muscle memory of hundreds or thousands of people.

But I’d argue smaller organizations are likewise afflicted with legacy systems – just because you don’t have multimillion dollar investments tied up in your systems, structures, and processes, doesn’t mean you aren’t dragging your past decisions (or the decisions of others) around with you. Products, services, systems, processes, habits, behaviours, beliefs – these can all become elements of the organization that slow us down rather than enable us to meet our goals. The cost (or perceived cost) of changing them can feel enormous to us, and it is, if it’s large relative to our overall size.

So, what can we do about legacy systems – whether we have to live with them or want to blow them up?

For leadership (board, CEO, Executive Director):

  • Regularly (say, once a year) take a step back to look at your organization overall. If you were going to start with a blank sheet of paper, is this the organization you would design?
  • Assuming you are embarking on new strategic endeavours, what are you going to stop doing? What are you going to retire?
  • Do you consciously think about flexibility and resilience when you are setting strategy, making investment decisions, and hiring?

For senior staff:

For junior staff:

  • Try to imagine how you would manage things if you were one level up. What would you spend more time on? Less time on? Can you put any of that into operation from where you stand now?
  • Don’t personalize what you’re working on too much. If a product is known as “Meredith’s product” that might be a problem – both because your organization might be hesitant to cut it, but also because, if they do, you might be so associated with it that you go along with it as well.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you make flexible, intelligent strategic decisions, please get in touch.

And, because I can’t resist a Rube Goldberg machine:


Photo from Dave Winer (scriptingnews) via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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