Disrupting Ourselves

Comparison of integrated stack software environments versus federated multi-vendor environments

Let’s talk about some received wisdom: “disrupt your own market before someone else does it to you”. Sensible advice: complacency can kill. Except disruption is generally a pioneering activity, and the survival rate for pioneers is lower than for copycats.

Corporate blindspots being what they are, this style of transition is more often a new company’s opportunity to disrupt an existing market. When done internally, it’s as disruptive as calving a new company or acquiring a competitor.

Still, let’s assume our company has decided to change. Further assume that we’re not completely altering business model from vertical integration to horizontal commoditization or vice versa. That takes executive team guidance, but I generally write about technology companies.

There are many architects with opinions on horizontal versus vertical technology stacks. Worse, they win budget to shift the stack under the rubric of self-disruption. Horizontal and vertical both work, so a team can start anywhere on the cycle and shift to the next step. They might even get external help.

Moving from vertical to horizontal:

  • Identify functional components
  • Abstract those components with APIs
  • Replace the ones that can’t elastically scale
  • Start writing large checks to your IaaS of choice

That’s all fairly straightforward for a new project, and enables some nice features, but if you’ve got an existing customer base there’s some challenges.

  • Maintain or improve performance and quality while complicating architecture
  • Decide to expose or hide the APIs… Who’s embracing and extending who?

Worst of all:

Moving from horizontal to vertical:

  • Identify painful integrations that need consolidating.
  • Define interfaces where your solution will tie into the rest of the world.
  • Execute. Ease of purchase, use, and assurance in the product and go-to-market story and roadmap. Buyer must feel confident they didn’t make a mistake here.

There’s no lack of memoirs about startups finding product market fit. Doing it from within a company is gnarlier, disrupting your own existing system. Professional services and the partner community are going to ask some tough questions. Sales and marketing might not be thrilled about rewriting the playbook.

Transition is reimplementation of capabilities, meaning forward progress slows or halts for at least a year. Strong support in a fat Q2 evaporates in the following lean Q1. Teams that mismanage their planning find their work going into the bitbucket, maybe along with some executives.

To forestall that reckoning, leadership spends significant effort badmouthing existing product: hopelessly outdated, unscalable, and just bad. This is easy and successful; and therefore the worst damage of the entire process. It burns the boats and commits the company.

Once “Something must be done” is accepted wisdom, all manner of crazy can be considered reasonable. Add some sunk costs and it takes a major crisis to reset direction.

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