One of the themes I’ve come back to from time to time is the notion of “sticking points” – i.e., in the context of business-IT maturity, things that you have to do to get from one level to the next, that if you keep doing them, will actually prevent you from getting to the next level.  The analogy is, you can’t walk by crawling faster, or you can’t run by walking faster (or at least, you can run as quickly!)  Different muscle groups, balance and coordination mechanisms come into play.

In the context of business-IT maturity, a common sticking point is the rigorous systems development methodology.  These are just about essential to get beyond the lowest maturity levels (to reduce the chaos of systems development without rigor and discipline) but if they are obsessively and universally applied to all types of development, they tend to stifle innovation and experimentation.

I’ve felt the same way about the so-called “quality methods” such as Six Sigma.  While these are essential for bringing order to chaos, applied blindly and with quasi-religious zeal, they can limit growth and development, and, in many cases, limit innovation.  And unfortunately, the ways in which many companies introduce methods such as Six Sigma are very prone to this, with their cult-like trappings and high priests with colored belts.  Sigma Madness, or, as one of my clients said, “Death by a thousand belt-qualifying projects!” is not an uncommon malaise.

To this point, I loved the latest posts by Cognitive Edge on Putting Six Sigma back in its box … and The Context of Error.  The traps are beautifully articulated and nicely illustrate the potential tensions between the rigor and discipline needed for “preventing bad change” versus the management practices needed to “create good change” as quality guru Joseph Juran used to say.  I also admit to being tickled by the “Sick Stigma” Spoonerism!

To be clear, I don’t think there is any conflict between the notions of quality (especially as articulated by author Robert Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and his lesser known Lila: An Inquiry into Morals) and innovation.  It’s the mindless, obsessive application of rigorous methods such as Six Sigma that I am questioning.