by John Edwards

7 steps to turning around an inherited IT department

Oct 23, 2019
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Congratulations, you've just inherited your predecessor's IT dumpster fire. Now, it's up to you to get essential operations back on track. Here's how to get started.

It may be the toughest job in IT — and perhaps the most rewarding. Taking on a troubled IT department isn’t a job for the faint of heart. Repairing damage and putting things back in order will require a great deal of time and effort. If you succeed, you’ll be lauded as a hero. If you fail, your washout could haunt your career for years to come.

Getting a derailed IT department back on track requires persistence and a success-focused action plan. The following seven steps will help you get started.

1. Assess IT’s ability to support business goals

Assessing an inherited IT department’s alignment with business strategies and objectives is an important first step toward rebuilding it. “In today’s increasingly digital world, IT plays a key role in enabling business strategy,” says Rahul Singh, managing director of Pace Harmon, an IT management consulting firm.

Ensuring alignment with business goals is necessary for IT to be viewed as a strategic business partner. “Engaging with the business will help one discover what’s working versus what isn’t working, to identify the most pressing challenges and how deep the issues go,” Singh explains.

The new leader must also assess whether the IT department, in its current state, is even capable of providing operational stability. “It’s hard to be seen as a strategic partner when ‘keeping the lights on’ is an issue,” Singh notes.

2. Stabilize the situation

It’s impossible to fix a ship that’s still sinking. “The new IT leader must take action to stabilize any unreliable technology that’s disrupting business operations,” says Alberto Ruocco, CIO of management consulting company West Monroe Partners. “A new IT leader’s first priority should be to make sure that technology infrastructure and applications are available and reliable.”

It’s necessary to understand which areas within the IT department are causing the problems, and to have an unbiased data-driven approach to making corrective decisions, says Vishnu Nallani, vice president and head of innovation at Qentelli, a software engineering and development services provider. “Once the list of actionable items is created, the manager should prioritize the actions that will create the most value.”

Singh recommends assessing the current IT team’s ability to set objectives and deliver positive results. “This involves frank conversations about what is working, as well as the existing challenges with people, processes, technology and the underlying structure,” he explains.

3. Pinpoint and root-out dysfunction

Before attempting to rebuild a dysfunctional IT department, it’s important to know the source and extent of the issues. “The problem is not necessarily with the IT department, but from a lack of visibility and prioritization,” observes Vinay Sridhara, CTO of cybersecurity firm Balbix. “IT teams want to do the right thing, but if they don’t have their priorities straight, and are not sure of where the vulnerabilities are, how can the team see what issues to focus on?”

Weak security is frequently the telltale sign of a dysfunctional IT department, allowing critical, private information to fall into the hands of cybercriminals. Before attempting a department rebuild, the new IT leader should work to obtain visibility into all assets, including on-premises, cloud and mobile resources. “Each asset must then be continuously analyzed for risk across hundreds of attack vectors, including misconfigured databases or weak log-in credentials from employees,” Sridhara says. “With this level of visibility, IT managers gain insights on the weaknesses in their organization’s defenses which can help the manager prioritize and drive remediation actions.”

Once the sources of dysfunction have been revealed and fully understood, and the team is on the same page, the planning phase can begin. “Start with your strategic plan and then expand to your organizational model, change management program, operating model and communication plans,” recommends Kim Walker, IT director at Abraic, an IT management consulting firm.

4. Share insights

Gather together all relevant IT and business principals to hold hard, direct conversations aimed at airing out the dirty laundry. Create a safe environment to share, validate and discuss observations. “Together, you will rewrite the narrative,” Walker says. “Consider engaging an external facilitator to enable you to stay laser-focused on the meeting.”

Build rapport quickly, Walker suggests. “Put all your senses into overdrive by actively listening, observing, engaging over food/drinks, walking around and sniffing out opportunities for improvement,” she adds. Document the findings and themes will likely emerge. “These employees are living the dysfunction, and though some people thrive on chaos, most don’t, and they will appreciate a lifeline with a promise for a better tomorrow,” Walker notes.

Walker recommends that the group collectively develop both a vision statement and a charter that describes how the department will move forward. “Have all participants sign these documents,” Walker says. “It reinforces commitment and support.”

5. Set realistic goals

The new IT leader needs to identify and confirm exactly what long-term department success should look like. Deciding and acting on success metrics is a multi-faceted task. “It requires talking to the team, which is usually very self-aware about the changes needed, but don’t have the means to tackle [them],” explains Donato Lalla, executive director for managed IT at Agio, a managed IT and cybersecurity services firm. “This is an opportunity to secure their individual insights on strengths and pain points across the department in order to develop a roadmap.”

On the process side, defining success requires identifying the most effective workflows and platforms, as well as discovering the root causes of inconsistent results. “This, in turn, helps source key data points that help measure the success of the department against pre-designed OKRs and KPIs — whether that’s on a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis,” Lalla says.

6. Begin rebuilding

When launching the rebuilding process, the new IT leader should take an innovative and programmatic approach, suggests Gaston Fourcade, Studios CTO at Globant, an IT and software development company.

“This involves planning the migration and replacing old applications along with [addressing] evolving processes and capabilities,” he explains. “The IT manager should conduct an assessment of the employees … and qualify them as ‘ready now,’ ‘trainable’ or ‘legacy.'” Start building new teams by leveraging the knowledge of holdover staff members while adding fresh hires possessing new and positive views. “Managers should start training everyone in the new technologies and methodologies to get all team members on the same page,” he advises.

As the rebuild moves forward, Fourcade recommends seeking a clear understanding of future goals from both functional and SLA point of views. “Managers must design their teams and processes to comply with that future outlook, asking questions surrounding technical requirements and process application,” he says. “IT managers should design their teams both from a capabilities and governance standpoint.”

External partnerships with hardware, software, service and advisory organizations can play a valuable role in the IT rebuilding process. “Partners can sustain the existing systems while the IT manager frees up resources to develop the new team,” Fourcade suggests.

Partners can also help accelerate the development of new, more capable IT teams. “IT managers must determine what they want to insource and what should be outsourced,” Fourcade says. Reliable partners can help offer elastic resource allocation, quick ramp-ups of new teams and insights into best practices. “IT leaders should rely on partners while retaining governance and ownership,” he notes.

7. Embrace the mission

Where there’s failure and chaos, there’s also opportunity and, for many IT leaders, the pleasure inherent in building something better. “The rebuild process is fun, but you have to go in prepared to work and put in the hours — especially upfront,” Singh says.

In initial conversations with management about taking over a foundering IT department, it’s important to gauge whether business leaders view IT as a strategic, business-enabling partner or as a necessary but non-strategic cost center. “Change agents want to drive value; if the company doesn’t recognize IT value, success will be challenging, regardless of whether the current state is functional or dysfunctional,” Singh observes.