It’s that time of year again: Companies are beginning to close the books on 2017 and work on the 2018 IT Plan. As always, certain principles and goals will guide the IT plan, and IT leaders will look to past plans and leading practice for guidance and inspiration. Not me.
When I think about the perfect IT plan, or a perfect way of managing IT in general, I think about something written over 200 years ago, for a dramatically different purpose. I’m talking about the New York Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. (Hey, we’ve already gone to Troy, why not New York next?)
The Commissioners’ Plan
The year was 1811, and New York City was still, mostly, a connection of buildings below modern-day Houston Street, but the city had a vision for how to manage its growth as it eventually overtook all of Manhattan and consolidated with four other boroughs to form the modern city. A team of 3 commissioners, including Gouverneur Morris, who had signed the Constitution 22 years earlier (and tried unsuccessfully to build a national capital in The Bronx), worked with land surveyors to lay out a street grid from today’s Houston Street to 155th Street in Manhattan. The plan would eventually expand to include all of Manhattan and parts of many other boroughs. There are many fascinating parts to this story. For example, the grid was laid uniformly out of a desire to break with the traditions of old European cities, because the commissioners felt that the old, irregular street patterns played favorites and led to inequality of economics and opportunity.
My favorite little tidbit of the Commissioners’ Plan is that one of its most vocal opponents was a landowner named Clement Clarke Moore, whose estate, Chelsea, would give the Manhattan neighborhood its name. Moore later became far more famous for a poem, published 12 years after the Commissioners’ Plan and set on The Night Before Christmas.
I could go on like this, but let’s take a look at the key aspects of the Commissioners’ Plan, and its revisions, that make it such a perfect guideline for a well-planed and well-constructed IT system.
Plan for the Future
The Commissioners’ Plan envisioned a Manhattan that did not exist, in more ways than one. In addition to laying out streets in undeveloped land, the plan also laid out certain streets on land that did not exist yet. All of today’s 12th Avenue was laid out on land that was, at the time, in the Hudson River, and the plan called for landfill to extend the shoreline by 400 feet, into both the Hudson and East Rivers, in some places, to establish more coastline.
Your IT plan should not be a plan to perpetuate your IT department as it is. Set stretch goals, with clear guidelines, in order to help build the IT department into a better-performing unit.
Work Within Constraints
This might be my favorite picture of a Manhattan street. This is West 187th Street, between Overlook Terrace and Ft. Washington Avenue in Upper Manhattan:
The stairs are the street. Upper Manhattan is much hillier (largely because most geography was removed as part of the Commissioners’ Plan), and this stretch of 187th Street was too steep to actually be a road. Therefore, stairs were used to “complete” the grid and move on. In the same vein, your IT plan will sometimes encounter unavoidable constraints. In these instances, it is better to work within these constraints to determine the best option, rather than trying to shoehorn an untenable situation into your IT department. Don’t try to make it a street just because the map says it should be a street, and empower your people to determine the best way to solve the constraint.
Don’t Get Too Granular
The Commissioners’ Plan laid out the framework for all streets contained within the plan: between Houston and 155th Streets, and from 12th Avenue to Avenue D. The commissioners smartly left it at that. They did not then go in and set the size of every plot of land on each block, nor did they try to design every building that would be on each plot of land. This allowed developers and architects to work within the constraints of the new city block.
Your IT plan should list out key priorities and projects, but it should not micromanage each aspect of IT planning. Leave it to your IT staff, and the user base, to come together to solve key problems and work on key initiatives, and don’t dictate everything from the top-down.
Evaluate Legacy Infrastructure Smartly
The Commissioners’ Plan was largely imposed upon undeveloped land, but this isn’t universally true. The Commissioners had to deal with already-developed streets in certain neighborhoods, and they based their decisions on a case-by-case basis. For example, the Stuyvesant family, descendants of Peter “Pegleg Pete” Stuyvesant, had laid out a street grid, aligned on a different axis than the Commissioners’ Plan, on their farm. The Commissioners removed this grid, and the only evidence of it today is Stuyvesant Street, a one block-long street in the East Village, and the Church of St. Mark’s In-The-Bowery, which is oriented at a slant to the current street.
However, the Commissioners had a different situation when looking at the maze of streets that developed in the former independent Village of Greenwich, on the West Side. These streets housed a vibrant community, and the Commissioners decided to impose the grid onto the existing maze. This is why West 4th Street in Greenwich Village curves off, and why numbered streets are interspersed with named streets.
In one final decision, the Commissioners later decided to add in a component not originally included: an old Native American trail that had become a major north-south thoroughfare on Manhattan. It was known as Broadway. Broadway was later brought into the grid, and the areas where Broadway intersected with the grid became public spaces (such as Union Square Park, Madison Square Park, and Times Square).
When you write your IT plan, you will have legacy infrastructure, both formalized and made normal due to long-time use (like Broadway). There are times when it would make sense to keep these legacy systems, and times when it makes sense to throw them away. Like the Commissioners, each legacy instance should be evaluated on its merits. Determine whether an upgrade path is needed, or whether the current configuration makes sense…at least for now.
Be Willing to Change the Plan…Even in Big Ways
When you look at the original Commissioners’ Plan, there is one big, glaring thing about it: there is no Central Park. While visionary, the Commissioners’ Plan did not anticipate the rapid growth of the city, and therefore it did not plan nearly enough land for parks and public spaces. In the 1850s, the plan was revisited, and Central Park was eventually developed. These days, it’s hard to imagine New York without Central Park, and it’s an integral part of the life of the city. Your IT plan will not be perfect. It can’t and won’t anticipate every change in technology or the company. Maybe some new technology will become mainstream and re-revolutionize the IT world. Maybe your company will make an acquisition, or grow a new line of business, and have different needs to go along with the different types of business. This is both normal and expected, and you will need to have the vision and humility to adapt your IT plan to fit these changing realities.
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was a visionary document without which New York City as we know it would not exist. Its principles should not be lost, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to incorporate its lessons into your next IT plan.