Be Nimble, Be Quick: The Paralysis of Large Scale

by David Behrman

In a provocative piece in the Huffington Post, Hildy Gottlieb argues for faster-moving, decentralized, and opportunistic program development, taking advantage of communities, relationships, and resources that already exist. She uses a parable:

Star Wars (the original) revisited: The rebels identify the source of the galaxy’s problems and know they must take immediate action. So they form an organization, build a board and a fundraising committee, and spend years building organizational capacity, knowing that one day, they will be big enough – with enough money for a huge marketing budget and well-paid staff – that they will finally be able to formulate a plan and kick the Death Star’s butt.

Ross Perot, who before he ran for President founded and built the hugely successful Electronic Data Systems, famously put it in a more colorful way:

When someone sees a snake at EDS, we kill it! When someone sees a snake at GM, the first thing they do is form a committee on snakes. Then they bring in a team of outside consultants on snakes. They write a strategic plan for getting rid of snakes. Then six layers of managers delegate someone to kill the snake.

Many of us hate committees, and as each day winds down often wonder where it has gone. After a series of meetings in which we seem to get nothing done, with no deliverables, and with the work we needed to do that day still crying out to us – unwritten proposals and emails, calls to return, colleagues who need our help, clients, customers, and others we serve still waiting to hear from us.

The software development world has begun to recognize the merits of small, with concepts such as minimum viable product and agile development. We also see it in new product development and communications practices; in fact the pace of change is accelerating all around us. The world is perhaps a bit less orderly, less predictable, but at the same time faster-moving, and often more productive.

We need to recognize this in our community, and embrace it. I’ve written in eJewishPhilanthropy about the trap our community often falls into with large-scale digital development. There are multiple effects, including lack of flexibility, high overhead, lack of user input, and long lead-times before benefits are achieved. The need to define these mega-projects in advance, funder reporting requirements, projects which proceed along a multi-year implementation plan without adapting along the way, in a world which is evolving rapidly, means when the project is done, it may no longer be what the community needs.

So let’s adapt our practices. Let’s become nimble and quick. Let’s stop looking and waiting for the opportunity to hit the grand-slam home run. Instead let’s swings for hundreds of singles and doubles; we’ll score more runs for sure.

David Behrman is President of Behrman House, a publisher of textbooks, software, and other educational materials for Jewish religious schools throughout North America. Before joining Behrman House, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Co, in New York, where he served clients in the service, transportation, and not-for-profit sectors. A graduate of Haverford College and Stanford Law School, he also practiced corporate and securities law with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York.