Transforming paradoxes into opportunities: our consulting approach

Jorrit Molkenboer 2984
Jorrit Molkenboer
Jul 04, 2022 · 8 min read
Transforming Paradoxescrop LM 030

Over the last two years, we witnessed the resilience of companies that thrived during the pandemic. Those that flourished, reaping the opportunities of digitization, share something in common: rather than expecting themselves to make binary decisions or, for that matter, to live with binary outcomes, they embrace paradoxes.

They operate in a way that is unshackled by “the tyranny of the OR,” as named by business management author Jim Collins; instead, these organizations profit from “the genius of the AND.” That is to say: even though it may be easier, quicker, and less confrontational to think in either-or terms, non-binary thinking and inclusionary decision-making enable organizations not just to survive but to thrive.

This attitude, which we at Schuberg Philis refer to as 100%, is what guides our consulting approach. And it is the very spirit that led to the establishment of Schuberg Philis 20 years ago. In co-creating a different species of IT outsourcing, our company started with its founders asking themselves: “What if we started doing things how we actually want to?” And before long, they realized that doing things just as they wanted would simplify their own business goals. Where competitors typically get caught up in strict SLAs, legal terms, preconditions, and conditions, the founders discovered that only one KPI matters: 100% customer satisfaction.

The unconditionality behind 100%

The unique Schuberg Philis spirit inspired Harvard Business School to conduct a case study exactly a decade ago and categorized us under the industry of “business consulting services.” Published on March 26, 2012, it quoted our own company statement as follows:

“In a world rife with opportunism and promising more than it can deliver, 100% is hard to believe. Because it is unconditional. Full commitment, without concessions or restrictions. 100% is binding…”

Harvard Business School

Today, it’s obvious that our “100%” was another way of expressing “the genius of AND.” Our founders were weary from their former jobs in impersonal, bureaucratic IT companies, where engineers and salespeople did not work in tandem, much less sit at the same table in consultations with customers. So, in their own organization, they knew they didn’t want tradeoffs between what would be good for their customers’ technology and what would be good for their business and employees. And within those domains, they didn’t want customers to have to choose between crucial virtues or values.

Too often we hear companies reveal that their organizations are still working in silos, saddled by binaries. Their managers make proclamations such as: you can have security or flexibility; you can maintain control via central IT or decentralized autonomous DevOps teams; you can operate with agility or structure; you can maintain high quality or low costs; you can invert the business or rejuvenate the core; you can progress by pursuing a predefined process or seize opportunities as they present.

Alternatively, when customers turn to us, we propose solutions that replace each of those instances of or with and. We promote the pursuit of qualities that might seem like binary choices, but actually aren’t. Then we deliver on these promises and, in doing so, raise the bar for both business and IT.

The foggy forest of digital complexity

Mission-critical engineering is our core business, but combining the people, tools, and cultural values and practices of different disciplines has always come naturally to us. Schuberg Philis was one of the first organizations in the Netherlands to embody a DevOps way of working. In fact, we’ve expounded on the portmanteau to call our approach BizDevOps. The Biz prefix reflects our belief that the digital quest for our customers is never solely technological. All our engagements touch upon business strategy – and we happen to use digital means to execute our strategy. The lines between IT and business are blurred anyway.

Indeed, many of our colleagues also feel at home hovering in each other’s disciplinary domains. Our data scientists find themselves on factory floors to figure out how to improve the production line of a beverage company or maximize the fit-for-human consumption output of a commodity crop. Our engineers are as used to sitting around a table with a bank’s C-suite to discuss secure network architecture as they are walking the halls of a senior citizens’ facility, hearing what kind of digital tracking support nurses need to prevent falls among residents.

And still, even though our IT solutions guarantee the 100% uptime of mission-critical activities – and Schuberg Philis has year after year received the highest industry ranking testifying to our reliability – technology and business solutions are complex. They have become even more so in “the exponential age,” to quote a book title by entrepreneur Azeem Azhar.

“Mission-critical engineering is our core business, but combining the people, tools, and cultural values and practices of different disciplines has always come naturally to us.”

By nature, we help our customers navigate the foggy forest of digital complexity. Organizations have no choice but to become digital. They themselves know it’s becoming more urgent, and there is less room for uncoordinated experimentation or unlimited trial and error. Secondly, since most organizations are usually five, if not 10, years into digital operations, we recognize that customers’ needs are ever-changing.

A 100%-reliable partner 100% of the time

So, after recognizing what organizations need, what do we do concretely? We typically help companies act fast, make unregrettable moves, and keep focused. By encouraging them to move away from binary thinking, they internalize what appear prima facie to be polarities. This enables our customers not just to entertain paradox, but to embrace it.

To perpetually rise to the occasion of being a 100%-reliable partner to our customers 100% of the time, we invest in learning new skills while also constantly improving our existing expertise. Our teams keep accelerating their capabilities in mission-critical engineering, software development, data engineering and science, cloud transformation, and resilience (security included).

We can now offer technology, including fast-moving technology, as a service across all layers of digital enterprise. What’s more, we combine engineering capabilities with business and technology consulting. All three fields are fueled by our in-depth industry knowledge and are reflected in our methodology and vision on consulting.

The consulting skills, methodologies, and frameworks we use let us navigate through complexities. Along the way, we seek and find ways to successfully transform paradoxes into opportunities. Consultancy nowadays is an accompaniment to the services provided by our customer teams, not a standalone engagement model. With unwavering consistency, we therefore make it a point to:

  • Keep the AND in mind: we embark on a project from the customer’s quest, not our own or anyone else’s, because this is how we accurately assess the complexity of apparent paradoxes.
  • Emphasize business value over technology: we look to what the business needs because its stakeholders are the individuals who will experience the daily benefits – or not – from the IT.
  • Bring the whole system in the room: we put experts in the lead to conduct workshops about application architecture, IT governance, business strategy, or any other theme because we want to help our customers become self-sufficient experts in their own business.
  • Steer toward action: we develop actionable use cases to create proofs of value because transforming paradoxes into opportunities requires to mitigating risk while engineering a digital journey.

“To perpetually rise to the occasion of being a 100%-reliable partner to our customers 100% of the time, we invest in learning new skills while also constantly improving our existing expertise.”

Ambidexterity and incremental gains

Although Schuberg Philis is a technology company, our consultancy departs from our customer’s business challenges. Indeed, we create IT solutions, but we’re always seeking to answer business-driven questions. For example: How can you shorten time to market? How do you avoid security incidents that will impact the business continuity of your company? If the goal is to improve portfolio management, how do you implement data governance? If rejuvenating the core is important, which of your company processes need to be automated?

However, we don’t just seek to address the most pressing challenge at hand. Our outlook is long-term. We design projects to make sure that from the get-go, they can scale, stay flexible, and remain secure. This requires equipping our customers with the ability to persist in the face of paradox and, crucially, to do so on simultaneous timelines. Companies then have, as Collins also wrote, “the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time, while executing strategy. Instead of choosing between A, B, or C, they figure out a way to have both A, B, and C.” Or as another Harvard Business Review article, on ambidextrous organizations, noted: we need to “allow executives to pioneer radical or disruptive innovations while also pursuing incremental gains.”

The success of our solutions

In other words, we design, deliver, and manage solutions that quench immediate thirst while also committing to project-long satiety. It’s why for one manufacturing customer, our data solution let a production line predict stoppages while also increasing the factory’s overall performance. And for another, we provided a solution that would optimize the utilization of a commodity crop for fast food while also minimizing its longer-term impact on agricultural sustainability. In a healthcare industry case, our solution exploited the inexpensive, highly available public cloud to process the most sensitive of medical images without jeopardizing the privacy of patients involved. For another customer, our robotic process automation solution liberated staff from doing rote, repetitive tasks while letting the company plan for a massive post-pandemic reorganization. Or in another solution still, we revitalized the IT landscape of a financial institution and modernized access to cash, even though the demand for cash itself is dying.

As these examples show, binary thinking would have prevented the organizations from generating both short- and long-term value. It would have threatened their resilience. The success of our solutions is contingent on the ability to add on, not to trade off. This capacity – and we’ve experienced how consultancy assists in executing the capacity – reframes paradox as unconditionality. Our unconditional commitment is to our customer’s unconditional satisfaction in a world with ever-changing, unpredictable conditions. It’s our unconditional welcoming of all the ANDs our customer needs, wants, and aspires to.

By Agne Nainyte, Laurens Eversmann and Jorrit Molkenboer

Jorrit Molkenboer 2984

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