I am somewhat known for using car metaphors, whether it’s the tractor racing the sports car, you having to move before you can steer, or coining the term “digital rpm’s” for the build-measure-learn cycle. There may be a number of reasons for this: first, I do like cars, though mostly as design objects and engineering marvels because I actually prefer the subway over being stuck in traffic; second, cars being some of the most complex technical systems easily found in most people’s daily lives also makes them a suitable metaphor; lastly, they’re mechanical, so you could, at least in principle, take one apart and see all the pieces and their respective functions clearly - something that’s much more difficult to do with your software.

Shifting Gears

Car owners are historically split into two camps: those who prefer a manual gearbox and those who prefer an automatic transmission. The former gives more direct control over the car and (with a good driver) can be more fuel efficient as there’s a direct connection between engine and wheels. In the opposite camp are the folks who are not looking to build muscle in their left leg, but who want their car to just go. Even though the lines have blurred significantly (and electric cars don’t need all this stuff in the first place), most “serious” cars like trucks or Formula 1 cars use manual transmissions, which gives a hint as to what side I stand on.

Gated shifter

Manual transmissions need a clutch to serve an important function: when shifting gears, e.g. from first to second gear, the engine speed and the transmission speed (connected to the wheels) don’t match. That’s because in second gear the engine doesn’t have to spin as fast as it does in first gear - that’s why you shift in the first place. However, the car still moves at the same speed, so the transmission speed hasn’t changed. Depressing the clutch disconnects the two, allowing you to let the engine speed drop a bit, select the new gear, and then re-engage the clutch to re-connect the engine with the wheels.

The organizational clutch

Many organizations are also looking to shift gears to speed up: they are too slow to be successful in a world increasingly dominated by digital players who couple short software release cycles with rapid innovation. As these organizations are “shifting gears”, they’ll also need a clutch because new processes and old processes won’t necessarily work together, or at least not at the same speed. This can be the case because financial, organizational, procurement, or approval processes aren’t designed to move quickly.

The organizational role of the clutch is usually played by a person or small team. This can be the head of innovation or more likely a regular IT leadership role who has taken a keen interest in speeding up the organization. In my prior job as Chief Architect, I was the clutch, working between different speeds of my team and the rest of the organization.

The clutch takes the friction

The clutch has got a tough job, though, because it has to compensate for the difference in speed between two moving parts. This becomes clear when the car is standing: because a combustion engine cannot reduce its speed below a certain point, but the wheels aren’t moving at all, the connection between engine and wheels has to made gradually. The clutch allows slippage between the two parts until the car is moving fast enough to fully release the clutch pedal to make a permanent connection between engine and wheels.

Using the clutch is therefore a delicate affair: if you release the clutch too quickly, you’ll stall the engine. If you do it too gradually, you’ll cause excessive wear on the clutch: it’ll heat up and will ultimately burn out. The same happens when not shifting gears properly: if there’s any difference in speed between engine and wheels, the clutch takes the heat, literally.

Clutch smoking

(Sadly, that’s the clutch smoking, not the tires)

I was the person running a team in second gear inside an organization stuck in the first gear, so I was taking quite a bit of friction as the organizational clutch: we requisitioned hardware on the “black market” (see 37 Things One Architect Knows), had to make detailed budget forecasts despite 95% of my department’s cost being fixed, filled out forms justifying employees working longer than 10 hours, ordered MacBooks for the team with my credit card, and maneuvered around compensation constraints to reward people for their work.

The person taking the role of the clutch has a very tough job. As you are in between two speeds, you’ll be viewed by the “1st gear” organization as an iconoclast: you’ll be charged with not following existing processes, being a naysayer, disturbing the collegial work environment, and causing trouble of all sorts. The “2nd gear” organization you are building will complain that things aren’t moving as quickly as you made them believe, and while they appreciate their MacBooks they won’t see most of the work you are doing in the background.

2-Speed IT

The clutch taking the friction also makes us wonder about so-called two-speed architectures. Having an organization run at two speeds for a long time will cause constant friction in the clutch and ultimately wear it out. The clutch is made for shifting gears, not for staying between gears for a long time.

Similarly, you could run at different speeds as long as the clutch is disengaged (i.e. the pedal pushed). However, just like in a car, there’s no power to the wheels while the clutch is disengaged - it’s job is to disconnect engine and transmission. So you can rev up the engine, e.g. in your digital innovation center, all you want, but your organization won’t speed up. Also, your foot will get very tired from holding the pedal down…

Supporting the clutch

When I work with customers undergoing a transformation, I usually try to find their “clutch”. I know how hard their job is because I did it for 5 years, so I look for ways to support them. The “clutches” are generally extremely passionate and energetic people - otherwise they would have given up a long time ago. As a result, these are really fun people to work with. And some of them even appreciate car metaphors!

Learn 37 More Things About IT Transformation

37 Things

You can find more real-life stories in my book 37 Things One Architect Knows About IT Transformation: