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What 9/11 and non-euclidian geometries have in common

More than 2000 years ago, Euclid wrote his famous series of books Elements. In these proceedings, he laid the foundation for what most of us know as geometry. It is the mathematical description of how we experience the world around us. It is the view of a flat plane.

15.2.2017

More than 2000 years ago, Euclid wrote his famous series of books Elements. In these proceedings, he laid the foundation for what most of us know as geometry. It is the mathematical description of how we experience the world around us. It is the view of a flat plane. Since then, the rules of the euclidean geometry have been accurate enough to allow architects to design amazing constructions. Euclid built his geometry starting from 5 postulates. From these postulates, the complete view is derived. For example, it leads to our common view that the sum of the corners of a triangle equals 180 degrees.

However, by slightly changing the 5-th postulate, you get a complete different result. This leads to elliptic geometry, which turns out appropriate when navigating the earth, or hyperbolic geometry, which underpins GPS systems.

So, by simply changing one of the initial beliefs, you arrive in a different world and new possibilities arise. This is what we like to call a paradigm shift. You can also look at it as not playing by the rules. Unfortunately, one of the best examples of a paradigm shift is 9/11. Ever since the wave of hijackings in the 70-ties of last century, we thought that the goal of hijackers was to get hold of a number of hostages, use them as bargaining chips in negotiations over the time span of some days, and at then end get out alive. This has driven the security check in airports for nearly 4 decades. But if you only need to have control of the airliner long enough to turn it around and crash it into a skyscraper, airport security measures suddenly look much easier to bypass.

Many companies, such as banks and insurance companies that heavily rely on IT, strongly believe that making changes to the IT application landscape is difficult and risky. Heavy procedures are put in place to mitigate the risks. As change is experienced as heavy and slow, people try to come up with the complete solution upfront to avoid changes later. This results in an even longer time to market and more complex systems which then become even harder to change. Fear for change has become a self fulfilling prophecy. It is not always clear any more what is cause and what is consequence in this way of working. You cannot know everything in advance and even if you did, the world will have changed by the time you roll out your new application.

So, let’s abolish the postulate that changing the IT landscape is risky and difficult. Imagine that it is possible to very quickly move from a business idea to an actual running service with all the quality attributes and NFRs that you need. Run it for a while with a controlled set of users. Learn what your users like or want, and what does not bring value. Watch at the same time what your competition is doing. Imagine that you can extend your service and roll out a new version without touching the existing one, providing a seamless migration. Keep multiple versions side by side to support slower upgrading customers.

How would this impact your view of your business? Which new opportunities do you see?

This is not science fiction. It happens everyday when some of the apps on your phone upgrade themselves. And the app most often is just the front end part. Its upgrade is driven by new functionality at the server side. Seamless version coexistence and upgrading is a technical problem and can be solved. If the new kids on the block are doing it, it is equally possibly in a banking environment.

The risk of changing the IT landscape should not be an excuse for moving ahead slowly or even stand still. Scratch the “change is risky and difficult” postulate and start imagining how you can innovate your business.

Visualise. Create. Innovate. Repeat.