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Is Your Organization Trapped Inside the Legacy Box?

Tom Sullivan

September 20, 2016
Tom Sullivan

In my first job out of college, I worked as a Cobol programmer updating the computer code that ran the processing of corporate and individual tax returns for the state of New Jersey. That was 1980. I recently spoke with a friend who still works there who revealed they were still working off the same code. I was shocked because I remember that the code module printouts, which took up thousands of pages, contained logic that was complex, convoluted and very inefficient.

She told me that multiple attempts had been made to replace the system with modern software but they all failed because no one could really understand the entire system. “I guess they were afraid to change it and mess it up,” she said.

It seemed to me that the decision-makers were willing to risk the failure of an ancient system and live with its expense and inefficiency rather than tackle the problem with the plans, resources and gusto required to create a reliable system that would save millions in manpower over time. That may just be my gut diagnosis, but it points out a problem that I call being trapped inside the “legacy box.”

I came up with the idea of a “legacy box” over many years of consulting with hundreds of companies and organizations over the years. I found that the speed of change and progress at most organizations is painfully slow. At a few, the ones I enjoyed working with the most, I found that the pace of change was either fast or at least moderate and steady with periodic pauses, like a well-composed piece of music.

Like the legacy software that programmers have to deal with, there are legacy attributes, systems, processes, cultures and business models that hold organizations back. I am going to dive into these in the next several contributions to Insight Tuesday. But let me start with one underlying problem that can trap any organization or individual: fear of change.

Fear can be paralyzing. It leads to the acceptance of less than ideal conditions for personal and corporate growth. In complex organizations, it can become engrained because of the interdependency of people, departments and power structures that can be personally threatening. This can be obvious and oppressive in some places. In others, it can be subtle, quietly holding companies and employees back.

My belief is that the human spirit was designed to be free from fear. We are meant to embrace change in order to create a better future. I see this exhibited in five-year-olds navigating playgrounds, college students changing majors in their junior year, and entrepreneurs financing a dream on their credit cards. Fear is both a symptom and a condition. If you can identify the symptom, you can examine the condition and choose to overcome it.