Some Elephants Can Dance

Or Leeming’s Laws of Paralysis and the Common Incapability Index, CII (pronounced sigh)

Large corporations have someone in their IT department to control who has Internet access, who has intranet access only, and who has no browser on their desktop. They have someone to control who has external email access, or internal email only, or no computer access whatsoever. The controllers have a manager, who manages how they prevent people from doing things.

Such an example is the tip of the iceberg of effort being expended by IT departments without any measurable outcome. The bootprints of many more policies leave common sense huddled and bleeding in the corner, unable or unwilling to surface. Technology, once the enabler, becomes the tool for enforcing incapability in the name of cost and risk control.

The NHS, our flagship and largest institution, asks for an extra two billion for IT. What are they thinking? Is that 100 million for development and support, and another 1900 million to overcome the incapability?

Incapability hangs on two factors: latency and entropy. Latency is a measure of how long it takes between asking for something and getting it, or even getting a response. Entropy is how much energy is lost to the process. Latency and Entropy make things more difficult.

First law of Paralysis

The bigger they are, the harder it gets.

The larger an organization is, the greater its latency and entropy will be.

Second Law of Paralysis

Some elephants can dance.

Kipling wrote: “When thou hast seen the elephants dance…”, and he meant never. Management bigwigs Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Lou Gerstner seek to persuade us otherwise, and as Professor C.K. Prahlad said in his address to the Strategic Management Society in 1988, "Successfully managing large, diverse nations like India is like teaching elephants to dance. The important thing is that once they start dancing, everyone else has to leave the floor." IBM is looking like the dance leader. India is singing at the same time. Our internal IT efforts, gnat-sized by comparison, are grinding to a halt. They are tomorrow’s wallflowers, standing back as the elephants waltz, puzzling their own incapability.

Laws of Paralysis through Entropy

* On average, people are optimistic. This leads them to expect a bigger bonus than they actually get. They are disappointed. Disappointment leads to higher entropy. It is better to have no bonus system.

Laws of Paralysis through Latency

The Common Incapability Index

Incapability level 1 - least incapable, typical of a small software house Incapability level 2 – still capable, but subject to some inefficiency Incapability level 3 – The beginnings of incompetence Incapability level 4 – Matured incompetence Incapability level 5 - Most incapable

I have mirrored the CMM’s 5 levels of maturity to highlight that a decrease in incapability is required by those reaching for higher levels of capability. Many companies ‘put in’ CMM without reducing their incapability, resulting in no measurable increase in their ability to repeatedly create software. In the diagram below, the unreachable land exists not because once you reach for higher levels of maturity, your incapability evaporates, but because you will never reach higher levels of maturity without reducing your incapability.

Common Incapability can only be defeated by common sense. But it is common knowledge that common sense is uncommonly rare these days.


CMM: The Capability Maturity Model from the Software Engineering Institute (SEI)
NHS: The National Health Service
VRAPS: Vision, Rhythm, Anticipation, Partnering, and Simplification
XP: eXtreme Programming
COTS: Commercial Off the Shelf Software