6 Unspoken Laws of Strategic Execution

March 4, 2021 Gautham Pallapa

As organizations recognize that a digital-first, contactless customer experience model is the future, they are making a considerable push towards modernizing their applications and reducing their technical debt. 

There are several proven techniques they can apply in order to transform their processes, technologies, and businesses. In my role as an executive adviser to organizations that aspire to transform, I also urge leaders to recognize the following six unspoken laws as governing principles of strategic execution:

1. Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

This law is believed to have originated with Edward Murphy, a major in the U.S. Air Force in the 1940s, whose work involved testing experimental designs in safety-critical systems. The nature of his work exposed Murphy to events, prototypes, and systems that did not always conform with the expected response; he coined the law to describe the unpredictable behavior.

2. Pareto Principle: “80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”

This is commonly known as the 80/20 rule, or the Law of the Vital Few. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto introduced the 80/20 rule to describe his country’s wealth distribution in the early 20th century. In essence, the Pareto Principle helps us identify the most critical assets or inputs—the vital few, or 20%—of an entity so we can utilize them optimally to create maximum value. We can also interpret it as identifying the most critical inputs, outcomes, or causes that we can use to cover 80% of target use cases or scenarios. In other words, what is the minimal information you need to cater to 80% of your demographic or market segment? Do not wait until you understand 100% of a situation.

3. Conway’s Law: “Organizations design systems that mimic the organizational structure.”

Conway's Law, named after computer programmer Melvin Conway, describes how organizations design systems that mirror their communication structure. Based on this law, Thoughtworks in 2015 introduced the Inverse Conway Maneuver as a technique organizations can use to restructure around better software development. 

The essence of the Inverse Conway Maneuver is that the right organizational structure will create the right kind of software feature or function. While this technique is heavily weighted towards software companies—the reason being that for a software module or feature to function, multiple teams must communicate with each other—we can extend this law to different industry verticals by substituting “software function” with “value created.” In doing so, the broader interpretation of Inverse Conway's law then becomes:

“An organizational structure designed to optimize the flow of created value through the organization will reduce friction as value flows through the organization from idea to consumption.”

4. Brook’s Law: “Adding more people to a late project only makes it later.”

Fred Brooks coined this law in his book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley, 1975). According to Brooks, people newly assigned to a project have a learning curve during ramp-up time to familiarize themselves with its outcomes, features, techniques, and workflows. Even industry veterans need to educate themselves on organization-specific cultures, workflows, and methods. "Hitting the ground running" is an aspirational phrase that project sponsors use when they assign new people to a late project with the hope that they can pull in timelines.

And the more people on a project, the more complicated communication becomes. As do the logistical challenges related to getting in sync with ongoing work, maintaining awareness of current project status, and being cognizant of any impediments.

Optimally dividing specialty tasks among many people is sometimes difficult and can result in long wait times, increasing the project's overall duration. After all, as Brooks notes, while it takes one woman nine months to make one baby, “nine women can't make a baby in one month."

5. Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.”

The story cited most often to illustrate this law, which was coined by British economist Charles Goodhart, is that of nail factories in the Soviet Union. Soviet-era central planners decided to use the number of nails manufactured to measure the productivity of individual factories and issue minimum expected targets (because more widgets created means more productivity, right?). To meet and surpass these targets, factory operators subsequently produced millions of tiny nails, which were effectively useless. When the central planners realized this, they switched the targets to the nails' total weight (total tonnage of production), to which the factory operators responded by producing enormous, heavy nails that exceeded targets but were, once again, useless.

Digital examples of Goodhart's Law include ad clickthrough rates and the number of bugs detected in a test cycle. Indeed, imagine how many spurious defects would get filed if we incentivized testers based on the number of bugs identified in a test cycle; the amount of time it would take for teams to thoroughly address each of those defects would be substantial. Conversely, think of how bloated software would be if developers were measured by how many lines of code they wrote.

6. Metcalfe’s Law: “The more devices connected to a system, the more useful it becomes.”

Metcalfe's Law was first developed for telecommunications networks and Ethernet, but has since expanded to other areas. For instance, a social platform's value increases as the number of people adopting the platform increases; the same can be said about Uber, Lyft, Doordash, or any other digital platform that brings together two different communities. We can also apply Metcalfe's Law to the technology adoption that takes place within organizations trying to modernize their existing infrastructure and related tools. Unless enough people adopt a new technology, it will not generate enough value to justify its use and will instead incur technical debt. Organizations need to subsequently consider adopting technologies with low barriers to entry, minimal integration costs (for integration into their existing systems), a flat learning curve, and a good user experience, especially for a highly remote workforce.

Transformational leaders who have a good understanding of what these six laws mean can use them to execute optimal strategic planning and initiatives that are specific to their organization’s culture, processes, people, and technology, significantly increasing the probability of successfully—and sustainably—transforming their organization’s business.

About the Author

Gautham Pallapa

Dr. Gautham Pallapa is a Global CTO for VMware, where he works with enterprise customers to transform their strategy, processes, technologies, culture, and people to achieve their objectives and business outcomes. His mantra is "Transform with Empathy" and partners with organizations on their transformation journeys with customer delight and employee experience at the core. Dr. Pallapa was previously VP of Engineering at Intrado, successfully driving enterprise and team agility, lean experimentation, CI/CD, and DevOps at enterprise scale. He is a Safe Agilist, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an Agile Coach, sharing his knowledge and validated learnings through talks and articles.

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