Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Hardest Thing About Having Plan B is Realizing You Might Be Wrong About Plan A

The second law of thermodynamics describes why it's easier to break a glass than put it back together; easier to write the wrong code than the right code; and easier to metabolize nutrients than to create them. Wilfred Bion's group dynamics theories provide a bit of a social parallel -- some of the reasoning why groups and organizations persistently do the "incorrect" (by their own definitions of "correct"!) thing. By default, groups tend to devolve from their own goals in more or less spectacular ways.

Our social interactions don't rigidly follow laws of physics, we can occasionally climb out of the potential well of typical group dynamics. Doing so improves our odds of success on technology projects.

One of my favorite success stories is Intel's "Yamhill Project." Yamhill is why Intel is still in business. But it's also something few management egos could have lived with, and the Intel exec team's willingness to deal is why Intel is still a going concern.

Once upon a time, Intel wanted to clean up all the messiness that had evolved over the history of the x86 architecture. Make a clean break and launch Itanium, a new 64-bit architecture and instruction set. The new chips would not be backwards-compatible, so the gamble was that if Intel said that the future is Itanium, then no matter how painful the transition for customers and partners, they would have to go along.

Given the egos, and the "all-in" nature of chip development, the typical move would be to wave the Itanium flag, charge into battle, and either win the war or die trying. Lots of famous companies have died (or become irrelevant) fighting these battles.

But Intel's team did something much better. A few folks early on said that the market might not tolerate the change and ... if an alternative emerged from a competitor ... the result for Intel would be catastrophic. Officially, Craig Barrett backed Itanium / IA-64 all the way. But in secret he gathered together some of the brightest engineers in the company and sent them off to work in a remote location on Plan B, a non-Itanium 64-bit chip that would be backward compatible.

Barrett and his team possessed an all-too-rare willingness to come to grips with the fact that the big IA-64 play might possibly go wrong. Instead of ostracizing whoever made the suggestion (more typical organizational behavior), they integrated the information and took a decision about how to work with that possibility.

As it happened, AMD came to market with a backwards-compatible 64-bit implementation. The market loved it, and, outside of a few server niches, it might have been game over for Intel right then. If they hadn't had Yamhill.

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