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Don't Settle for System Spaghetti

We’re all familiar with the concept of clutter. Authors and Internet gurus are a dime a dozen for methods to keep your desk, sock drawer, or Google Drive nice and tidy. Friends, I’m here to tell you that there’s a new kind of clutter on the scene, and it could be silently slurping away your time and money. We call it “System Spaghetti.”

Almost every business now has a presence on and delivers at least a portion of their products through the Internet. The global COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the proliferation of web-based business software applications for increasingly-specific business functions. There really does seem to be an app for nearly every need now. Each of them claims to be the answer to your specific problem, many of them are available for free, and you may even have purchased a few of them... maybe even more than you need. How many is too many? Are the systems you have the right ones for your business? It’s easier to know if you focus on identifying some common symptoms:

  • Do you often get confused about which system to perform a certain action in? This seems silly, but happens frequently because so many applications have overlapping but slightly different feature sets. When you have more than one tool that can perform any one action, this can result in confusion. For example, should your staff schedule meetings using Calendly or Google Calendar? Are your product roadmaps kept in Aha! or Confluence?

  • Do you spend more time than you would like performing admin tasks, such as data entry, configuration, or system maintenance? Excessive time spent working on your systems is the opposite of what is best for your business. Your systems should work for you. We found that one client was using a spreadsheet .csv export to bulk load content into Wordpress, then managing additional parameters individually within each Wordpress object. They could have added the parameters to the export in order to save this step. In another case, we found that two executives were manually populating data into a workaround system so that custom python scripts could be run to populate that data into yet another system. Workarounds should never be permanent solutions!

  • Does your staff frequently need training to perform certain tasks, are tasks completed inconsistently, or are some business workflows known by only one person? When people find it hard to learn how to do a task, or when a given type of task is always assigned to the same person because they “know how it works,” these are signs that the system is too complicated to be practical for your business. We learned of a case where an owner had a staff member that was underperforming, but the owner did not feel they could let the person go because they were the only person who knew how key business processes worked.

  • Do you ever wonder if you’re spending too much money for your software? Sure, individual apps may be just a few dollars a month, but add them all up and you’ve got a “Latte Factor” situation on your hands. Once you’ve committed to making a purchase and a piece of software becomes integrated into your business, it’s difficult to imagine not having that software. This can blind you to whether the software is truly necessary, or if it is actually costing you more than it’s worth to operate and support.

System clutter is bad enough, but the problem compounds when you consider the connections between them. Today, it’s essential that applications talk to one another, and integration is a table-stakes expectation for most modern web software. Thanks to services like Zapier and IFTTT, we take it for granted that most systems can talk to one another. The truth is that complex system architectures, even when they are full of free tools, are costing you time and money. As Einstein (probably) said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Complexity can be thought of as the number of connections between objects. In the case of a business ecosystem it's intuitive that a larger number of applications requires a larger number of connections. Fewer applications would require fewer total connections, and the overall business solution would be less complex. Why is complexity important to consider?

A venn diagram depicting that Google Workspace and Dropbox share Document editing, collaboration, file storage, and sharing mechanisms as features, but also have some non-overlapping features.
Paying for systems with overlapping feature sets causes confusion and wastes money.

  1. Complex solutions consume more money. If you have more systems than you actually need, you’re throwing money away every month. If feature sets overlap between applications and you’re paying for both, some of that money is wasted and you are also paying for time spent on the confusion that results. Additionally, the cost of maintaining such systems is higher, because…

  2. Complex systems fail more frequently. It should come as no surprise that every connection point between applications exposes an opportunity for failure. The more opportunities for failure that exist within your solution, the more likely that some part of the solution will fail. As a result…

  3. Complex systems consume more time. Time is your most valuable resource, and you should care passionately about how much time your systems take to manage and use. If you have ever felt like there’s not time to work “on” your business because you’re spending so much time working “in” your business, it’s quite possible that inefficient systems are to blame. But it’s not only responding to emergency outages or excessive data entry that is costing you time. Complicated systems require more training and applications with confusing user interfaces take more time to operate, which means that…

  4. Complex systems don’t support scale. If you’re a growing business, the last thing you want to try to do is scale your clutter, let alone increase it to try to accelerate your growth. An inefficient business can lead to frustration, burnout, and even attrition, which is far more costly than the inefficiencies on their own. Plus, your customers can tell if things seem hectic and clunky or calm and streamlined.

When was the last time you considered how your own systems are connected? Have you ever mapped out the connections between your systems, or has the situation just evolved over time? Recently, a client came to us with concerns of a non-performant system that would break frequently and required lots of manual data entry. One of the exercises we did was to make a map of their existing systems, shown below:

System diagram showing more than 15 applications connected to one another as part of a technical ecosystem to deliver a single product. There are connections between many of the applications.

Complexity can be thought of as the number of connections between objects.

This client sold only one product line, totally online, and the map above includes only the systems directly involved in selling and delivering their product. The client laughed when they saw this map, realizing how absurd it was. Yet while each application, plugin, or service shown served some purpose that resolved an immediate problem, we calculated that they were spending thousands of dollars per year more than necessary.

Do you have System Spaghetti on your hands? We’ve developed a tool to help you find out, and we want you to have it for free. This downloadable spreadsheet will help you inventory your current systems, see how well they’re working, and how much they’re costing you.

Regaining control of your systems is an achievable goal, as long as you have hope that there is a better way and you’re committed to making changes that improve the quality and profitability of your business. If you need help figuring out what to do next, we’re here to help- schedule a free consultation today. We will help you to simplify your solution and cut through the clutter.



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