Paul Simon had it right when he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and he was no computer geek. But he perfectly articulated the smartest solution to solve the legacy and enterprise-wide computer system problems that continue to plague many of the country’s largest businesses. Don’t wade through trouble, build a bridge over it. 

We are mired in a swamp of legacy leftovers, remnant and orphaned protocols, and general code confusion that is impeding important process and efficiency improvements and any amount of material innovation. As an example, almost every major retailer (except Apple and maybe Starbucks) is playing catch-up on in-store mobile payments because they are captives of old POS systems. And almost every car dealer in the country is using two or three disconnected, unintegrated, paper-based systems to sell you a car and document the transaction. No wonder it’s still such a pain and takes way too long.

The fact is that the potential solutions for these big businesses are actually pretty simple. But they’re overlooked by the guys who’ve been staring at the same stale whiteboards for years and retreading the same tired paths. Trying to solve yesterday’s problems isn’t going to create today’s innovation.

The simple answer--as Simon and Garfunkel sang in the 70s--is all about building a “bridge over troubled water.” It’s not about trying to implement the latest desperate attempt in a long, sad series of stopgap measures that simply adds complexity to the current code base and impedes any real progress. Too many firms these days are trying to contort and shovel old solutions into new environments without fixing the underlying design flaws in their processes. It just won’t work. You can’t save your way to these kinds of radical solutions; you can’t do it on the cheap, either. But you won’t get anywhere at all if you don’t have a new and clear vision of where you’re headed.

Here’s the hard truth: the code jockeys who built the problems at these companies aren’t going to get them to the next level of solutions. They’re committed to their code with their embedded approaches. They’re stuck trying to drag those ancient hieroglyphics into the future.

Frankly, to solve these kinds of problems, companies need to get a fresh set of eyes. They need a strategy that builds a new, streamlined solution right over the top of the problems--a bridge--rather than another massive rewriting project that takes forever, costs a fortune, and basically repaints the flagpole. The most obvious and glaring examples are all the businesses spending big bucks on updating their websites when the whole world is mobile and that’s where the future opportunities are. Even the best Band-Aid is no bargain in the long run.

The new kids on the block are going to be creating bypasses, express lanes and other new streamlined and fast channels to get the work done. They know the inputs; they know the desired outputs and results; and they’re free to determine the least costly and most efficient ways to connect them. It’s easy, once you get over the old news. When developing nations upgrade their phone systems, they don’t try to rewire their old copper telecoms; they go right to 4G wireless.

 It’s very difficult for the folks whose history is closely tied to legacy systems to acknowledge that their hard work and voluminous body of code can be superseded by simpler and more straightforward solutions. Today it’s not about the size of the effort and the lines of code created, it’s about speed and throughput. And, as often as not, the simpler and more elegant the code, the faster the results and the happier the end users. 

The trick for the old guys is not to take this stuff personally. No one said that life was fair or that anything lasts forever. The trick for good managers is to acknowledge that the rules have changed and-; while it’s not exactly fair-;it’s something that needs to be recognized and adapted.

 The best approach-;still not an easy one-;is to recognize and appreciate that the guys who built the ships that got us here are the explorers and the trailblazers. Their path was long and hard, full of false starts and broken code along with plenty of do-overs. But they still got there and that’s something to be respected.

 The new guys with the new eyes get the easy job--they already know where the goal line is; they know what works and what the users need. Their mission is to build a bridge that spans the old code and connects the past with the future as quickly and inexpensively as possible. And that’s all about execution rather than exploration. That’s what it’s going to take to finally break out of the restrictions and legacies of the past to build the paths to the future.

 The way forward isn’t through the morass; it’s over the top.

 PS: “You Get What You Work for, Not What You Wish for"

 

Published on: May 11, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.