Slow Movers and Agile Speed Junkies - You Need Both to Succeed

Monday, October 27, 2014 by Rainer Stropek
Image source:, under Creative Commons License

We believe that modern commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions like time cockpit have to develop at different speeds at the same time. There are layers where change has to be very carefully planned and executed slowly. On the other hand there are layers that are constantly moving and change has to happen literally overnight. Architects call this the sheering layers concept. In this article I would like you to introduce you to this idea, provide some tips how you can benefit from it, and finally describe how time cockpit follows this principle.

What are “Sheering Layers”?

The original idea of sheering layers is that different aspects or layers of a physical building change at very different speeds.

  • The site where your house is located is nearly unchangeable.
  • Basic structures like load-bearing walls are hard and expensive to change so they have to be carefully planned.
  • You will probably not change the skin, the external surface of your house every month. However, it might need a makeover every few decades.
  • When designing services like wiring, heating, plumbing, etc., you are well-advised to plan for long-term changes.
  • Flexibility is even more important when thinking about the space plan. Family situation might change, number of employees in your office building could rise, etc. Change will be happen every few years.
  • Finally there is stuff. In German we sometimes use the word “Mobiliar” which originates from the Latin word “mobilis” meaning movable, volatile. Stuff will change very frequently.

Wikipedia has a good article about sheering layers. There is also a 6-part BBC documentary “How Buildings Learn” of which the last episode is dedicated to this topic. If you are interested you can watch it on YouTube.

Sheering Layers in Other Domains

The concept of sheering layers can be applied to other domains like software or organizations, too. Think of the latter:

  • Your firm’s vision and mission should be carefully designed because they should guide you for a very long time. A vision that has to be changed every now and then isn’t a good one, just like a building that has to be torn down already after a few decades. Vision and mission are like site and structure.
  • Logos and brands are invented to let people quickly identify your products. They are the skin of your company and change should happen slowly.
  • Your organization’s fundamental business model should be so solid that it can be quite stable for a long time. However, business environments are changing and you might be forced to adapt your services on the long run.
  • Org charts are just like your house’s space plan. Be prepared for change every few years.
  • Finally there are the tools you use, the colleagues or employees you have, the policies you have to follow, your website, etc. This is stuff that will definitely change every now and then.

In our own industry, the software business, agility is modern. Long-term planning and big design upfront have become out of fashion.

In order to be successful, we have to consciously choose between in-depth planning with slow movements and fast, agile processes depending on the layer that we work on.

Dare to be a slow mover when formulating your vision or developing your business model. Otherwise you burn time and money just like building a house on a poor foundation is waste. However, experiment and stay agile when it comes to new tools, technologies or internal processes.

Sheering Layers and Time Cockpit

At time cockpit, we try to embrace the concept of sheering layers. At the very beginning of our venture, my colleague Karin Huber and I took many months off to develop the vision and concept for time cockpit. We used tools like the Blue Ocean Strategy to develop the core principles for our company technology- and business-wise. Here are some examples:

  • Site: We are experts in Microsoft’s technology and this is what we mainly rely on.
  • Structure: We create COTS products but our users must be able to tailor our software to their specific needs without having a PhD in computer science.
  • Skin: It took us long to develop our time cockpit logo and only the nuance of the colors have changed since then.
  • Services: Software as a Service at low costs, no entry barrier, no lock-in.
  • Space plan: We started with a full client, then came our Silverlight web client and now we are rebuilding our user interface in HTML5. We anticipated breakthroughs in UI technology. Therefore we have designed our technological UI architecture for change without having to rewrite time cockpit from scratch.
  • Stuff: We use Kanban to continuously improve our product, our services, and the tools we use.

Solutions like time cockpit compete against custom development. We believe that it is our job to do the heavy lifting in terms of long-term technology and core business logic.

By providing a robust platform with solid domain-specific functionality, modern business software makes customers efficient and agile in managing their stuff and freeing them from having to do the long-term planning.

How Can End Users Benefit from the Sheering Layers Concept?

Here are five tips for how awareness of the concept of sheering layers will help you as an end user of software, too:

  1. If you select products or vendors, focus on selection criteria that are fundamental to them. The detailed feature set will change over time. As a customer you might even be able to influence it to a certain degree.
  2. You don’t need to follow every fashion trend for software that is used to manage your core business processes. Carefully plan changes as disruptions might be costly.
  3. Clearly distinguish between tools and core software applications. For tools, regularly try new things and throw away outdated, old habits without hesitation.
  4. Software that you want to use for a long time needs regular maintenance. It will never be “done”. Someone has to care for it otherwise it might suddenly break down and the investment to quickly replace it will be high.
  5. As you have seen, change takes some time on certain layers so you have to be open to recognize and evaluate technologies early that might become disruptive to your business.
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