Do you believe that truth can be stranger than fiction?  

One of my favorite non-fiction stories, though it has been mythologized over time, is about the Winchester House in San Jose, California. (The movie, Winchester, was released in February, and has brought this old legend to life again.)  

The visionary behind Winchester Mystery House was Sarah Winchester. Sarah was the widow of William Winchester, who (along with his father) operated the Winchester Repeating Arms, the infamous gun company in New Haven, Connecticut. The Winchester Gun Company credits personalities such as Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Jesse James, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody as those who made the brand popular and in many ways an American institution. 

By 1881, Sarah had lost their only child, her father-in-law and her husband all within a span of years, leaving her an incredibly wealthy and grieving woman who owned half of the Winchester fortune.  So, she moved to California and bought an old farmhouse in San Jose in 1886. Then she hired a staff of carpenters to begin a daily construction project on the house that lasted until her death in 1922. This is where the legend begins: Sarah acted as chief “architect” wherein, as an article in The Smithsonian Magazine explains, “she built, demolished and rebuilt.”  

The Smithsonian article continues: “Winchester hastily sketched designs on napkins or brown paper for carpenters to build additions, towers, cupolas or rooms that made no sense and had no purpose, sometimes only to be plastered over the next day. In 1975, workers discovered a new room. It had two chairs, an early 1900s speaker that fit into an old phonograph, and a door latched by a 1910 lock. She had apparently forgotten about it and built over it.” 

Why did she do it?

According to the article, Sarah “became terrified that her misfortunes, especially the death of her husband and one-month old daughter, were cosmic retribution from all the spirits killed by Winchester rifles.”  She believed that “she would be haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims unless she built, non-stop.”

A recent Cosmopolitan article offers a different perspective: “Some historians believe that the house was just a strange means of philanthropy. Janan Boehme, who worked as a historian at the house for 40 years, thinks she may have built the house as a way to keep so many people in the area employed.”  

Whatever you may believe (and this is what makes the story a good story – multiple interpretations!), her house of 160 rooms remains in California with doors to nowhere and stairs that merely lead to ceilings. Yet make no mistake: we have all been responsible for elements of building our own version of Sarah’s home. Our version lives in the technology and processes we unintentionally build in our workplaces.

Have you inadvertently allowed for a sole keeper of company data to emerge within your organization? Do you know where your data lives? Click here to find out.

The labyrinth of technology and process has been built over time: over the last 10 to 15 years, many companies have started to hoard old technology. They don’t see a need to shift to a new way of doing things unless they absolutely have to…and even then, it’s hard.  

Think about your office environment. There may be multiple redundant systems across departments that are not in any way integrated or maybe not even fully used. There may be manual processes created to hang off those redundant systems and that make us grind our teeth each day. Then there is that mission-critical (and perhaps slightly embarrassing) Access or FoxPro database in the mix that just doesn’t have a disposition plan. What about that Excel spreadsheet that keeps the office ticking?  

To an outside eye, it may not make sense. Why would employees settle for having state of the art technology in their personal lives and at home, while at work they deal with the mediocre? Some might call it crazy. Yet, it’s the reality for most of us. 

You may also like: The Tyranny of Moderate Success

When there is no technology strategy, or that strategy does not meet the needs of the business teams, then you have a Winchester House. This is not to judge because we have all been guilty of architecting a door to nowhere at some point. The question is, how do we undo something as complex as a Winchester House? Just as Sarah did, through re-building, but with a defined enterprise-wide plan and buy-in.  

There are a couple of guiding principles to re-evaluating business needs for a technology and process overhaul:  

  • First, one person can’t dictate an organization’s technology strategy: teams need input and help from the business teams if any rebuilding initiative will be successful. Whomever is driving the changes should conduct a current state analysis to identify the low hanging fruit and what needs to change immediately.  
  • From there, teams should prioritize the needs and develop an execution plan, keeping in mind that process and technology should work in tandem.  
  • Lastly, the team should collect business requirements on what the business needs in their day-to-day technology and objectively evaluate the options through a scorecard – how well do the commercial off the shelf options really meet user needs? Would it be more economical to build a custom solution?  

Once an organization has done its proverbial homework on how to move forward, they should make it a point to keep planning. Technology can become stale in a matter of years. The investment in technology needs to be ongoing and focused on the trends. (For example, do you really need that on prem server, or can you move to the cloud?)  

Related Reading: Technology and Process Problems: It Is Our Job

Sarah Winchester is remembered as a crazy old lady, and she seemed to know that would be her legacy. Tourists visit her house in fascination. Yet, we should be careful when throwing stones and instead make a targeted plan to address our own doors to nowhere. What is that system that needs to be replaced? What about that process that just makes no sense? Why continue the madness?  

It’s time to rebuild and reassess…to gradually chip away at the Winchester House we have architected in our own workplaces.  


Worried you may be creating your own Winchester House? Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation. Mention “Winchester House” in your note.

Share this: