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Should you build a plane while flying it?

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

An important part of your digital strategy is understanding when its ok to take an agile approach and when you need to implement something robust to ensure that you and your customers can operate safely and effectively.

There's been a kind of meme around for years, intended to convey the benefits of an agile way of working. Building the plane while flying it, building the plane in the air etc.

The earliest use of this fun idea that I am aware of is an EDS advertisement which screened in the US around the year 2000. The ad, which was part of a humorous series ("managing your digital is like herding cats, building a plane in the air etc.") that seemed to acknowledge the challenges that businesses have in realising their digital strategy.

I don't for a minute think this was ever intended to be taken too seriously, but in a world where some people feel entitled to believe anything they want, I do wonder about the consequences of this type of messaging. I often encounter clients and other people who seem to think that its fine to "just do it" and sort out the details along the way. When that attitude gains traction, any attempt to inject practical consideration or even facts into the discussion tends to be met with a lot of eye-rolling.

There are plenty of times when an agile, "just do it" approach works really well, but applying this to everything is not necessarily a good idea.

Of course the laws of physics simply prohibit a plane being built in the air. But sure, the ad's funny.

How does this relate to Digital? Well ask the investors in Wheedle from a few years back. This much-touted competitor to TradeMe was shut down permanently after only a few days of operation when massive security holes were discovered which basically meant that, well, nothing really worked. It was absolutely the Digital equivalent of trying to fly a plane with holes in the fuselage, and I doubt if any of the investors were laughing.

Never mind money, how many of us would be prepared to take delivery of a brand new car in a flat pack that we had to assemble ourselves? It would probably save a bundle of money to buy a car that way. There are probably a few enthusiasts who would be keen to give it a go, and there is a flat-pack truck designed for emerging markets. Most of us would probably prefer to entrust the safety of ourselves and our families to something that is guaranteed to work when we first press the start button.

Sometimes we need to have a fully-finished product before we take off, otherwise we're going to be let's say herding cats - at best.

The CIO Studio approach allows you to work through the practical constraints of time and money while still making sure you push forward to reach your business goals.

Update 23 June 2021

Some might read this post as me hating Agile. I don't, I hate Agile being treated as an excuse to not define a requirement.

Ray Delany is the Founder of CIO Studio and has been doing this for a while. Why not ask for a no-obligation discussion to help plan your change?


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