IT Execution at Ludicrous Speed: Leadership Lessons from Spaceballs

Zach Hughes
4 min readApr 20, 2018

In 1987, Mel Brooks released Spaceballs as a parody to Star Wars and other science fiction of that era. As much as I consider myself a Star Wars geek, I’ve probably watched Spaceballsmore than the movies it parodies. It’s so quotable, and somehow, it never gets old. I was recently considering a common IT problem and for some reason, Spaceballs scenes kept coming to mind.

IT is all about speed. More CPU, more bandwidth, faster project execution, tightened SLAs, on-demand provisioning, time-to-market, auto-scale, DevOps, and continuous delivery. What do all of those fancy terms really mean? Speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, and don’t forget speed.

The business hates waiting for IT. The business feels like Princess Vespa standing at the altar with the yawning Prince Valium, while the minister slowly enunciates every word of the “long version” of the ceremony. Technology leaders feel a strong burden to perform for the business as fast as possible. This can lead to some interesting behaviors. The practical thing to is engage light speed and get going. But instead, we respond like Dark Helmet. Skip light speed. Skip ridiculous speed. Let’s go straight to ludicrous speed!

My brains are going into my feet

What can go wrong when we go ludicrous speed? Plenty. For starters, we can overshoot the Winnebago by a week and a half. Too much speed actually reduces agility. Being agile means going slow enough to have time to stop and check alignment. What if while we were busy going fast, the business changed directions? Did we ever stop to ask? Things constantly change. Being adaptable and responsive to change is a higher goal than raw speed. Make sure your priorities are in that order.

The combination is 1–2–3–4–5

Another thing that suffers when we go too fast is security. This is an invisible shortcut that we take. Most people never notice until it’s too late, and then they wish they hadn’t. Some risks aren’t worth taking. Build-in security up-front. Today it might just be the combination on your luggage, but tomorrow, it might be used to secure your planet’s air shield. Changing requirements and future use-cases are hard to anticipate, so do good security work at the onset.

Comb the desert! Do you hear me? Comb the desert!

Sometimes when you get direction from your leadership, you have to ask yourself, “are we being too literal?” This just happened to me recently. I gave some direction to one of my project teams, and they went off and acted upon what I said, but in a more extreme and literal way than I intended. Then we needed to sync-up, clarify, and reset the direction forward. This is what happens when we focus exclusively on execution. Check your understanding and alignment often. Don’t make assumptions. Just like Colonel Sandurz, ask yourself if you are being too literal.

This is your last chance to hit the cancellation button

Sometimes the result of all this speed leaves you feeling like you are careening toward auto-destruct. You’ve canceled the three-ring circus. You’ve closed the zoo, and the bear just stole the last escape pod. Go ahead and hit the cancellation button. (Hopefully, it won’t be out of order.) So many leaders get stuck into the mindset of “failure is not an option.” Pull the plug. Stop the madness. Breathe and regroup. Try again another day. The worst thing about speed is the intrinsic pressure and blindness it creates. Be bold enough stop when you need to. Otherwise, you’ll find out that even in the future, nothing works.

Prepare to fast-forward. Preparing to fast-forward. Fast-forward. Fast-forwarding, sir.

It’s ok to fast-forward. Just do a little preparation first. Dark Helmet mocks Colonel Sandurz’ needless overpreparation. Technology leaders can sometimes do the same thing to their teams. When we have a vision we want executed, we holler to our teams, “Why are you always preparing? Just go!” That wasn’t effective for Dark Helmet and it isn’t for us. Teams need time to prepare. Preparation enables speed, it doesn’t stop it. Preparation prevents rework and confusion. Preparation is a short delay now, that prevents a longer, less predictable delay later.

When will then be now? Soon.

Sometimes, IT execution goes so fast, the sponsors have no idea what’s going on. They are left dazed and confused like Dark Helmet watching himself on instant cassette. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t execute faster than you can communicate. IT loves to go heads-down and quickly forgets about communication. Slow it down a little so you can keep your business sponsors well-informed on pre-arranged tight intervals.

Those are my leadership lessons from Spaceballs about IT and speed. Don’t get me wrong, I love speed. Go as fast as you reasonably can, but no faster. The next time someone makes you go faster than you should, picture the idiotic actions of Dark Helmet. That should get you back on track like a can of liquid schwartz in your emergency fuel tank. Do you love IT leadership and Spaceballs? Please share this blog with your colleagues.

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Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.