Discover Performance

HP Software's community for IT leaders // September 2012

A novel approach to IT excellence

In “The Phoenix Project,” a trio of IT experts use fiction to portray IT disasters—and a VP-Ops’ enterprise-saving solution.

When Gene Kim would tell IT leaders he was working on a novel called “When IT fails,” their response was always, “Oh, I could tell you stories …” He and his co-authors, Kevin Behr and George Spafford, say the book (whose final title is “The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps & Helping Your Business Win,”) uses the commonality of IT nightmares to tell a story that will help IT and business leaders tackle those problems.

IT failures have a number of causes, but many fall into roughly two groups: IT has failed to align with the business, and the business has failed to realize the criticality of IT to its success. A novel debuting this fall aims to tackle both kinds of problems, in a way that will let readers improve their own businesses.

In the latter case, Kim notes that many line-of-business (LOB) leaders view IT as merely a utility, barely more important to the business than the desks at which the work is done. “Despite the fact that 95 percent of capital projects depend on IT, the business tends to say, ‘IT trouble? Oh, that’s the CIO’s problem,’ ” he says. “Worse, they’ll say, ‘IT isn’t our core competency,’ and it’ll be the first thing they think of outsourcing. The results are rarely pretty.”

In the cases where IT’s vision is lacking, Spafford points to a task-oriented mentality that ignores the goals of the enterprise.

“We need to break down the silos and have IT work together toward objectives that support the goals of the organization,” says Spafford,
a consultant on IT and business issues and an expert in ITIL/ITSM best practices. “We can't afford to try and inspect quality at the end—we need all of the groups in IT to work with the business to optimize the entity overall.”

Telling that story

“The Phoenix Project” opens with the CEO of a $4 billion company who starts with that attitude, but realizes that the company’s success is jeopardized by a scattered and struggling IT department. He drafts a reluctant Bill Palmer to fill the VP of IT Operations role and tackle problems that include frequent outages, huge audit problems, the threat of outsourcing, and one late project after another.

“Having worked for many CEOs and CIOs in my practice, I feel that this book should speak directly to the corner offices,” says Behr, whose career has included time in the CIO/CTO chair. “I know that it tells the stories of IT operations and developers in a way that will positively affect behavior and change the discussion from implicit blame to explicit system design and daily improvement.”

The book follows its struggling interim VP-Ops through a daunting—but perhaps familiar—array of IT challenges, engaging the reader in a way that a typical business manual cannot. That’s part of the reason the writers chose the longer novel format, despite the cliché that busy executives don’t have the patience for anything longer than a PowerPoint slide.

“When presenting over the years, we’ve all seen the glazed and stuck looks that can come from the attribute-based improvement and ‘best practice’ approach used in many books,” Behr says. The novel allowed them to craft complex, realistic examples and work through solutions in an engaging way.

Having a goal in mind

The writers, whose previous collaboration was “The Visible Ops Handbook,” cite “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement”—the influential novel by Eliyahu M. Goldratt that has become a mainstay of college business courses—as an inspiration. “What struck me about that book,” says Spafford, “was how strongly it resonated with me, because I could relate to the problems the characters were having. That enabled me to better understand both the problems and why the solutions made sense.”

Kim, who was the founder and CTO for Tripwire straight out of college, and has since written and spoken on business and IT issues, says the novel is somewhat an IT-focused update of “The Goal,” applying Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, as well as Lean Thinking and the Toyota Production System. It takes proven lessons from manufacturing and applies them to IT.

“In a plant, all things must get through IT operations to deliver value to the customer,” Kim says. “So Ops is often the bottleneck—what Dr. Goldratt would call the strategic constraint of the whole company. It dictates how much the business can do.”

For the individual IT leader, Behr adds, IT’s focus on “knowing it all” needs to be de-emphasized in favor of how new lessons are acquired. “I’ve found that building an effective system where learning daily is the focus is really key,” Behr says. “In other words, it is not what you know, but rather how fast can you focus, acquire and learn.”

But the hope, Kim says, is that the VP-Ops’ journey in the novel will not only show IT leaders how to improve their own performance, but will help CIOs and the rest of the C-suite understand what IT needs to succeed—and why IT’s success is so important to the business.

“The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps & Helping Your Business Win” will be published in January 2013. For a preview, visit IT Revolution Press to download the first chapter.


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