Why IT managers need an appetite for destruction

LISBON — Having come to Portugal this week for my company’s annual conference, I managed to take a few moments to walk the city streets. The long, blind alleys, the faded storefronts and especially the church architecture had me convinced this is an Old World metropolis in the truest sense, the kind of place in which you could lose yourself, that would please philosophers of urbanity from Walter Benjamin to Mark Kingwell. It wasn’t until later that a colleague informed me the whole thing was once reduced to rubble.

“You know why they have all those bricks in the streets, right?” he said. “It’s because of the earthquake.” I had to admit I didn’t know, and he pointed me to a Wikipedia entry that goes into great detail about the events in 1755 that galvanized the study of seismology and brought Lisbon to its knees. As we all whine and worry about what’s going to happen to our long-term savings and mortgages, imagine what the people here once went through: near-total destruction of most property, after-effects that included both a tsunami and a fire, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people dead. And yet somehow, out of it came something beautiful, a city which is developing a nascent software industry and hoping to achieve the kind of IT success of India and Ireland.

Although it wasn’t mentioned directly, Lisbon’s history reminds me of a central theme in The Upside of Down, written by Canadian polymath Thomas Homer-Dixon. The book is subtitled “Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.” It probably simplifies things a bit to say that Homer-Dixon believes things have to get worse before they get better, but he certainly suggests misfortune is, like necessity, a parent of invention. He even manages to come up with a term to describe the kind of process he has observed through history: catagenesis.

“(It’s) a word that combines the prefix cata, which means ‘down’ in Ancient Greek, and genesis, which means ‘birth,’” he writes. “Whether the breakdown in question is psychological, technological, economic, political or ecological – or some combination of these forms – catagenesis is, in essence, the everyday reinvention of our future.”

To be honest, Homer-Dixon doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the technologically-inspired forms of catagenesis, but most IT managers could probably think of a few examples. The Internet gave rise to viruses, which in turn lead to the shutdown of many important Web sites but also the development of sophisticated security software. Even when internal projects fail, customers are lost and some employees lose their jobs, but this is usually followed (in good companies, at least) with some kind of post-mortem that allows executives to learn from their mistakes and in some cases develop much better projects or strategies. These are much milder forms of creative destruction than what Homer-Dixon is concerned with, but as a model for innovation catagenesis can be applied in many ways.

Right now many people are responding to the financial market collapse as though a physical act of God has wreaked havoc around the world. For IT professionals it may seem like the time to keep your head down, but perhaps the lesson of catagenesis is to be creative before destruction takes place. The most innovative people use their imaginations to pre-emptively address the opportunities that a later crisis would present. As an IT manager, think for a moment of what would happen if your data centre, if all your applications, were wiped out in one fell swoop. How would you start over? More precisely, how might you improve on what was lost? If you can answer that, you might have the blueprint for something truly amazing. Though perhaps not quite as amazing as Lisbon.

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