While many emerging countries have a problem of no infrastructure, America’s problem is the opposite: it has tons of infrastructure. Generators like the Allis-Chalmers behemoths are gigantic, inefficient, costly to run, costly to maintain, and gradually breaking down. The problem is, they still work. So what do we do, dismantle them all? It’s the same with our highways and bridges, our municipal water and sewage systems, our power grid.
It is the curse of the legacy system. It works too well to throw it away, but not well enough to move us forward, and it’s growing more dilapidated and more of a handicap with every passing day. It is an anchor, holding us back as we strive to drag our way into the 21st Century. We have a decision to make: Are we going to sink by the weight of our old stuff?
The crippling problem of legacy systems is not a dilemma of nations only; it is also the routine scourge of companies, organizations, and bureaucracies of all sizes, who easily become so handicapped by their expensive, outdated computer hardware and software systems that they lose all hope of retaining any competitive edge. It seems easier and less expensive to keep using the old systems but it only seems that way if you’re looking in the rearview mirror.
Look out the windshield into the future and you get a very different picture. With your eyes on the visible future, based on the certainty of hard trends, it suddenly becomes apparent that making the change from the inside out will be less costly by far than having to make it from the outside in. Staying with the old, the legacy system, is a lot more painful than transforming with the new.
The challenge of legacy systems goes beyond hardware and software; it also applies to our processes. Scratch the surface of practically any company or organization and you find ways of doing things that have been developed and implemented because, to some extent, they work. Supply and inventory processes, accounting and customer service processes, research and decision-making processes, organizational and communication processes — all of them so bloated and cumbersome yet so entrenched they can seem almost impossible to abandon yet staying with them can be suicidal.
But here is the real problem, bigger by far than our aging highways and dinosaur generators: not just legacy systems but legacy thinking.
For most of history, weighing the value of holding on to or letting go of outmoded technologies was an issue we could safely ignore or postpone most of the time. Not anymore. In the new technological environment, our tools and systems become antiquated with astonishing rapidity. Because of the pace of change, dealing with legacy systems is something we have to learn to do constantly, because what is cutting edge today will be out of date before the steam cools on tomorrow morning’s coffee.
In the old world, the rule was: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In today’s world, the rule is: “If it works, it’s already obsolete.”
Therefore, ask yourself, “What are the legacy systems in my company? Would it be wiser to let go of the old stuff right now and skip into the future?”
Ready, set, SKIP!
Refer back to that “biggest problem” you brought to mind in the beginning of this article. As you’ve been reading, have you been getting glimmers of ideas about ways you might skip that problem altogether? Even if you had just a tiny glimmer, don’t get stuck; move forward. Often, you can’t see the real problem because you’re blinded by what you perceive is the problem. Forget about what you think the problem is. Often the real problem and its solutions will surface once you eliminate the perceived problem.
Ultimately, every problem has a solution; some better than others. There are many paths to the same destination, and some don’t have roadblocks. By asking yourself if you can skip the problem completely, you free your mind to look beyond the roadblock. That is usually where the best solution lies.
Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.