This article is part of a series highlighting key takeaways from my recently published book, Truth From the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management. As a seven-time CIO I’ve had an opportunity to observe the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of IT management up close and personal. Truth From the Trenches is my attempt to share my experiences with emerging IT leaders to help them avoid the chronic problems that afflict so many IT organizations.
My colleagues and friends might balk at the following statement, but that will probably prove a point: IT professionals love to whine. We whine about budget limitations and staffing restrictions. We complain about the lack of personal development and advancement opportunities. We moan about the age and complexity of legacy applications and infrastructure. We gripe about the short-sightedness of our business partners and the failure of our companies to invest in strategic IT initiatives. We grumble about new regulatory requirements such as SOC, HIPAA and PCI that siphon off budget dollars and personnel to support compliance activities. In unguarded moments, we even whine about the competence or efficiency of our colleagues in other parts of our own organizations!
Marriage counselors routinely appeal to their clients to stop the interpersonal “blame game” that prevents people from examining the ways in which their own behaviors are undermining their ability to live happy and purposeful lives. IT leaders should do the same. In some cases, they may first need to break themselves of their own defensive attitudes and behaviors.
The Serenity Prayer for IT leaders
Believe it or not (or believer or not!), the Serenity Prayer is an effective tool for combating the blame game that cripples the productivity of every IT organization. This prayer was originally created by Reinhold Neibuhr, a 20th century theologian. It states: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
In reality, the budgets and staffing levels of IT organizations are largely determined by financial considerations over which IT leaders have very little control. Legacy systems remain in place because they perform essential business functions and their replacement costs are prohibitive. Continuous technology innovation perpetuates an inevitable gap between the skills an IT organization needs today versus those it will need in the future. Finally, there’s very little likelihood that regulatory requirements will decrease in the future; the opposite is likely to be true.
If budgets, staffing levels, technology portfolios, organizational skills and regulatory requirements are difficult to change, what’s left?
The courage to change the things you can
Many of the things that undermine the effectiveness of IT organizations are wholly within the control of its leaders. They can be addressed almost immediately with very little consultation or endorsement by IT’s business partners. Consider the potential impact of the following three steps.
1. Prioritize and simplify: IT organizations juggle a wide variety of tasks to support existing systems and implement new ones. Demands on the time and attention of staff members range from production support issues to sustaining engineering tasks to urgent user requests to project-related work assignments. It’s no wonder that staff members frequently ask themselves, “What should I be working on today?”
A new generation of tools and frameworks exist to ensure that staff members are not just doing a lot of things, but doing the right things at the right time. Social collaboration tools, scrum techniques and Kanban work queues can improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. The trick is to establish a framework of prioritization processes around a specific set of tools and ensure that such practices are deployed in a consistent fashion throughout the IT organization. Ticketing systems, collaboration tools and project management systems that spew out independent streams of conflicting priorities won’t help!
Few IT teams receive accolades for the breadth of the activities they perform. Invariably, they receive recognition for delivering certain essential services extremely well, or for completing strategic projects on time and on budget. Successful leaders are extremely cautious about extending the existing commitments of their teams. Instead they focus their team’s strengths and energies on recurring activities and special projects that have the greatest business significance.
2. Bust IT bureaucracy and manufacture headcount through automation: A manager in one of my former organizations once told me: “The problem with this place is that we’ve over-engineered certain processes and under-engineered others — we never seem to be able to get our internal work processes just right.” This is the Goldilocks Dilemma that afflicts most IT groups: How do you get process “just right”?
IT efficiency is undermined — sometimes terminally — by the manual procedures, inter-team hand-offs and communication gaps that exist in all IT groups. Attacking these problems head-on can result in the recovery of lost time, effectively manufacturing productive head count from time that is currently being frittered away.
A wide variety of work flow automation and inter-team collaboration tools are available to reduce repetitive labor, simplify hand-offs and share relevant information across technical team boundaries. Unfortunately, far too few organizations establish dedicated automation teams to leverage these tools in a consistent fashion and deliver the necessary training to IT team members. Automation can pay major productivity dividends if it is pursued in an organized fashion. Piecemeal adoption of different tools and frameworks by different teams will yield marginal benefits.
3. Stop administering people and start managing them — with prompt feedback: Inter-team rivalries and interpersonal animosities can cripple any human organization. They can be lethal within an IT group. IT managers need to stop hiding behind annual performance reviews and start addressing such issues by providing direct feedback to underperforming teams and individuals on a much more frequent basis.
There’s an old saying that rewards should be delivered while “the sweat is still on a worker’s brow.” Rewards are always more impactful and more appreciated when they are delivered immediately after a significant achievement. The converse is also true. Constructive criticism is more readily acknowledged and assimilated when it is delivered frequently in bite-size pieces and associated with specific activities or events. The common failure to provide incremental feedback to IT team members is doubly sad because the perpetual stream of tasks, activities and projects within an IT organization presents a wealth of feedback opportunities.
Consulting firms understand the need for in-the-moment feedback. They are acutely aware that their performance on any given engagement will have a huge impact on their ability to compete for additional work in the future. Consequently, engagement managers are constantly providing feedback to their team members regarding the quality of their work, their ability to meet deadlines and their working relationships with their customers.
Managers who persistently sidestep their performance management responsibilities do a profound disservice to their team members and themselves. A manager who fails to deliver frequent, constructive, actionable feedback is compromising his team’s effectiveness, unwittingly forcing himself to assume more direct control of routine activities and inevitably undermining his own advancement opportunities.
While the actions suggested above may not wholly eliminate the blame game practiced within most IT organizations, they will certainly help squelch the volume, dissipate the cynicism and redirect staff angst into more productive pursuits.