Monday 2013-03-18

The Upside of Turbulence by Donald Sull

In yet another Rorschach business book, Sull looks for signs of agility in the black muddle of business and finds them.

Sull joins Allspaw in using Boyd's OODA loop uncluefully. As a fighter pilot, Boyd says you have a set of options in front of you, balanced by what it takes to get to them from where you are now. In air combat, that's primarily a function of time, so Boyd focused intently on making jets fast and agile, and making his pilots fast decision-makers who could use their quick manipulation of option-space to reduce the options available to the enemy. When the other jet is maneuvering too fast, and you can't react in time, you lose.

Allspaw misses this time aspect of operations management. When you build systems, can you inject ways for admins to buy themselves time to act before failures get really out of hand? Since most outages have precursor events, we buy ourselves time by doing aggressive real-time log analysis and detecting issues when they are tiny. How else can you buy time?

From the other side, Sull misses the essence of maximizing options by maximizing the right resources:

Rather than smothering uncertainty with massive resources, Boyd argued, combatants should seek out turbulence, and when possible create it to generate opportunities.
-- The Essence of Agility

Instead of reading this book, we'd probably be better off watching this 90-second clip of Mike Tyson talking about fighting, and thinking about what's actually occurring in those rings.

However, the book isn't a complete waste, although his saving grace arrives apparently accidentally, when he links Starbucks to economic Fraud:

To create value, a resource must have three characteristics: First, it must create economic value by cutting costs (think Wal-Mart's logistics) or by increasing customers' willingness to pay (think of shelling out $5 for a latte at Starbucks).
-- Active Inertia

Con artists deceive people so thoroughly that their victims are initially upset that their friends and family could be so rude to such nice people. It's a slippery slope to claim that increasing someone's willingness to pay = economic value added.

Why is it that certain transactions between willing people are viewed by society as morally repugnant, while $5 lattes aren't? Both take advantage of human foibles; what's the difference? Happily, Sull's serendipity provides an excellent opportunity to grapple with economic value.