AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

Anti-Patterns for Enterprise IT

Our Enterprise Strategy team meets with many hundreds of enterprise customers every year. We are able to see patterns in their digital transformations—ways of practicing and thinking about IT that work, and ways that don’t. In this post I will discuss some of the anti-patterns we encounter—IT mental models and traditional behaviors that just don’t work well in the digital era and that hold back enterprises from digital transformation. In the next post I will walk through some of the good patterns that we see enterprises use as antidotes to these anti-patterns. For easy reference, we’ve given the anti-patterns names: Big FANGs, Risky and Sticky, Hubris HIPPO, Railroad Baron, Bloated Bear, Fashion Straightjackets, and Key Under the Doormat. Here is a brief narrative of each.

Anti-Pattern 1: Big FANGs

“We are going to become the Amazon of seared Foie Gras!”

The enterprise has a big vision but doesn’t know how to “execute small.” It spends years planning and even fantasizing about its envisioned state. Everything else gets put on hold because the big “next generation” is coming soon. Unfortunately, Vision 2.0 is not based on actual market testing of any of the ideas; it is based on anecdotal feedback and the enterprise’s ideas on what the market needs and what is “truly innovative.”

The enterprise struggles to get traction with 2.0. Meetings are held; ideas become bigger and bigger. The leaders believe 2.0 will completely restructure the industry. As planning goes on and on, the enterprise realizes that it will have to reduce scope, but no one is willing to give up his or her pet ideas. When the company finally does try to execute 2.0, work items keep creeping in because employees have held off on doing anything else while they wait for 2.0. In order to be truly transformational with 2.0, the enterprise has decided to hold off until they can have a “big-bang” release—after all, everyone will be disappointed if they only launch a tiny piece of new functionality.

Anti-Pattern 2: Risky and Sticky

“We have to make sure we protect the status quo!”

The enterprise is excited to move into the future. But, without realizing it, the enterprise is unwilling to give up any of its legacy ways of thinking and doing business. Old models for risk management are applied to new ways of doing things. Instead of managing risk through continuous delivery, the enterprise tries to plan the risk away. It is determined to be both innovative and to follow a long-range plan, so it imposes gatekeepers and gatekeeping processes to limit risk and ensure that the project is delivered as planned. Many approvals are necessary to execute on anything meaningful.

The enterprise is not necessarily more risk-averse than other enterprises; it is just more focused on the risk of the new and unwilling to let go of its legacy way of managing risk. The company is caught in a sunk cost fallacy: with many expensive legacy investments, it believes that it needs to keep investing in the platforms it doesn’t really want. It is also unwilling to lose any of its current sources of revenue, even if they hold back new lines of business. It is very focused on how others see short-term performance and targets. The enterprise sincerely wants to change but keeps getting in its own way.

Anti-Pattern 3: Hubris HIPPO

“We know what the market needs!”

The enterprise has both ideas and execution ability—but it is executing the wrong ideas. Someone’s, or some group of people’s, ideas, usually a “Highest Paid Person’s Opinions” (HIPPO), are being implemented. They make a lot of sense, the vision is compelling, and the people behind the vision are articulate; the only problem is that even though it seems right, it is not what will actually stir the market or accomplish the business objectives.

The enterprise has not prepared itself to be surprised by customer or user behavior. Instead of conducting small experiments and carefully considering the data, the HIPPO is basing his or her ideas on anecdotes and intuitions, or possibly tribal knowledge—beliefs that are common around the enterprise about what customers want or what will put the company ahead of its competitors. These beliefs, however, might be outdated or are just plain wrong.

Anti-Pattern 4: Railroad Baron

“We’re almost done writing the requirements!”

IT has not even reached the stage of maturity where it can execute reliably on plans and provide good customer service to the business, so how could it possibly take the enterprise into the digital era? “First, let’s learn to run IT like a business!” they say.

IT and “the business” are two separate entities. IT is a service organization that delivers what the business asks for. The business decides what is valuable; IT provides solutions. IT budgets are determined without considering the impact on the business of marginal spend; the business is not willing to invest an incremental dollar in IT even if it might lead to a revenue increase or a cost decrease of $100 in another business unit. Annual limitations in IT spending have resulted in technical debt—a legacy estate that is too hard to change. IT is treated like an internal contractor and is benchmarked against external service providers. The business formulates “requirements” and tosses them over the wall to IT to execute. IT is not welcome to drive business innovation or the structure of the organization, or IT’s role doesn’t allow for it. IT is not a trusted advisor for digital strategy.

Anti-Pattern 5: Bloated Bear

“Make sure there is no scope creep!”

Projects become too large as they get loaded down with requirements that are unnecessary. The enterprise writes requirements documents or supplies a product owner who creates requirements for a monolithic project. The requirements writers are told that scope creep is not allowed—they had better make sure they think of everything up front. Since the project will take a while, the writers try to think forward to what they will need later. As the project becomes bigger, everyone realizes that to get any IT work done over the next few years they will need to include it in the scope of this project—a vicious circle.

They are not “gold-plating” the requirements—every individual requirement can be justified by a business case, generally in terms of reducing manual work or making customers happier. No one works on “maximizing the amount of work not done.” Many of the features wind up irrelevant by the time they are finished, or add minimal value, or just get juggled (thereby wasting time) until they are later “triaged” and removed from the scope. In addition to building new IT systems, the enterprise continues to invest heavily in legacy systems which seem “non-discretionary”—just “keeping the lights on.”

Anti-Pattern 6: Fashion Straightjackets

“Buy off the shelf whenever possible!”

The enterprise is focused on checking the box for functionality without considering the strategic value of agileIT assets. A business case determines what functionality is needed; the cheapest or most standard way of obtaining that functionality is obviously the best choice. If the enterprise builds its own system, then no value is attached to the internals of the system (“that is IT’s job”)—only the features matter. In general, though, the company chooses to buy COTS software whenever possible rather than build its own. It then has to to mold its business processes around that COTS product, usually through workarounds or expensive, unplanned-for IT customizations and integrations. It is then committed to an ongoing stream of maintenance payments to the COTS vendor. When the vendor makes a major update to their product, all other IT work must stop while the update is tested and installed. The vendor’s roadmap does not include the changes that the enterprise needs to innovate in its market. As a result, the IT assets, while they might work, are not agile. Similarly, the enterprise builds processes that limit its agility: gatekeeping, bureaucracy, heavy-handed approval processes. All of this stands in the way of the enterprise as it tries to become faster and nimbler—the enterprise has never built a way to incorporate the value of nimbleness into its decision-making processes.

Anti-Pattern 7: Key Under the Doormat

“They’d never think of checking the back door to see if it’s locked!”

The enterprise envisions the future in terms of anecdotes and information close at hand. IT plans for “best cases” rather than unknown unknowns. It never occurs to anyone that a customer might have twenty-six given names, that their last name might be “Null” or “Void”, that hackers are sorting through their trash and finding personal information and scrawled passwords. The enterprise sets up a disaster recovery and business continuity process but never tests it—so it doesn’t actually work when the disaster strikes. Security is “IT’s business” and an unpleasant constraint on everyone else’s freedom. When the new digital service turns out to be even more popular with customers than expected, the IT systems won’t scale and business is lost. Managers and line employees spend a lot of time in emergency meetings to deal with crises—who would have thought that hackers would take advantage of what employees were posting on Facebook, or that Microsoft would discontinue support for Windows 95?


Do any of these anti-patterns sound familiar? If so, don’t feel bad—we see them pretty much everywhere we look. In our next blog post, we’ll talk about the antidotes—the good transformation patterns that battle these anti-patterns.

A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility
The Art of Business Value
War and Peace and IT: Business Leadership, Technology, and Success in the Digital Age (now available for pre-order!)

Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an Enterprise Strategist at Amazon Web Services and the author of The Art of Business Value and A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility. Before joining AWS he was the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Service (part of the Department of Homeland Security), CIO of Intrax, and CEO of Auctiva. He has an MBA from Wharton, a BS in Computer Science from Yale, and an MA in Philosophy from Yale.