Integration Ain’t Easy

Integration is where most projects and companies fail.
Whether it’s an M&A deal failing to live up to its promises of efficiency synergies or an endlessly-delayed project to integrate a key piece of technology, the main execution challenges reside in the integration of pieces, not in the creation of the units.

In the software world of multi-tiered systems, project management generally has an inocuous line called “back-end integration”, when in fact it is the most costly and risky piece of all. What I like to stress to people is that the words “back end integration” seem pretty harmless, and only imply that you have to link front-end to back-end databases. But it goes much further than that. “back end integration” means linking all the pieces together, it means building the whole systems architecture, and that is the big deal. How the pieces talk to each other matters more than how well each piece is built.

Companies themselves are systems whose pieces need to be integrated. The business of ensuring integration of all the human resources in a company is called management, and hiring a dozen specialized PhDs doesn’t guarantee a product is made. Startups bragging they made awesome hires should focus at least as much energy on how those hires are integrated in a smoothly operating entity. What are the communication channels? Who’s responsible for what? How complex are the interactions during normal course of business? (hint: the simpler the better)

A SimCity analogy seems appropriate here. SimCity (any of its versions, spanning over 3 decades, or the more modern Cities Skylines) is a game where you play as the mayor of a city, and you build out a city from scratch that has to be self-sustaining. You can build residential, industrial and commercial areas, roads, etc… Each piece by itself is pretty neat and very easy to build. Just point to where you want a road, click and presto! Here’s a piece of road. So you start happily building the big city of your dreams, just to note after 15 minutes that nothing’s happening. No one is coming into the city, spending money to build apartments or restaurants, no cars are driving on the roads, and your coffers are dwindling to petty cash.

Before long you’re bankrupt and the game is over.
What happened? Well, you can build the pieces. But if you don’t integrate them correctly, nothing happens. They don’t work. You can’t have miles of residential space, then miles of commercial space with few roads in between. The pieces are important, but it’s how you fit them together that makes or breaks the system. To extend the analogy, SimCity is also great at teaching you about inefficiencies and bottlenecks in systems. Very highly recommended.

Don’t just think Units, design Systems. And systems are everywhere.