by Mark Settle

IT management: two parts art, one part science

Jan 26, 2017
IT GovernanceIT LeadershipIT Skills

It’s relatively easy to get the ‘science’ of IT down. The real trick to becoming a successful IT leader is to master the ‘art’ of the job.

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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. My recently published book, Truth From the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management, is my attempt to share my experiences with emerging IT leaders to help them avoid the chronic problems that afflict so many IT organizations. This is the first in a series of articles highlighting key takeaways from my book.

IT management is an acquired skill that can’t be learned through academic studies or formal certification programs. Effective IT management is a craft that is mastered over time through personal job experience. You could say it closely resembles the training that medieval artisans received as they progressed through the apprentice, journeyman and master craftsman stages of their careers. Even widely accepted management frameworks for IT operations (e.g. ITIL or COBIT) or software development (e.g. Carnegie Mellon CMMI, agile or DevOps) or project management (e.g. PMBOK) are nothing more than a collection of structured guidelines. If an IT organization chooses to leverage any of these frameworks they must be customized to suit the organization’s  business needs and technical sophistication. IT management frameworks should never be treated as prescriptive “cookbooks.” Rather they should be treated as books about cooking that leave considerable discretion to the kitchen staff in devising individual recipes.

To further complicate matters, successful IT management is defined through the eyes of the employees and colleagues who are the recipients of IT services. In other fields, such as finance and HR, success can be defined quite explicitly with respect to accounting standards and regulatory compliance. IT success is measured much more subjectively, largely by the satisfaction of its clients.

For all of the reasons outlined above, IT management is truly two parts art and one part science. All IT organizations are called upon to implement new applications, update existing systems, obtain business approval for new investments, safeguard company information, respond to end user issues and requests, etc. But the ways they go about managing these activities can vary considerably depending upon the size of the IT organization, its technical sophistication, the complexity of the business it supports, a company’s culture and the prior experience of its executives. IT leaders generally have equal access to operational best practices, regardless of the frameworks they choose to adopt. Consequently, it’s relatively easy to get the “science” of the job right. The real trick to becoming a successful IT leader is to master the “art” of the job.

Professions that rely on experiential learning to grow and prosper need to pass the lessons learned by one generation of practitioners down to the next. Unfortunately, the IT profession historically does an abysmal job of schooling successive generations of IT leaders. Although research firms and industry consultants have plenty of advice for rising IT leaders, there’s no oral or written tradition of practical storytelling that captures the true trials and tribulations of effective IT executives. Consequently, many current day practitioners are caught in a vicious cycle resembling the plot of my favorite Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day — endlessly repeating the same meaningless activities, committing the same mistakes and solving the same problems as their predecessors. 

Personal experience has taught me that the failings of most IT organizations can generally be traced to three root causes: talent debt, performance mismanagement and the failure to develop effective working relationships with their customers.  

Talent debt is pervasive in most IT shops. Team members are required to support aging systems that employ dated or obsolete technology. Consequently, their technical skills atrophy over time and they themselves become obsolete. Talent debt needs to be evaluated in a far more holistic manner, however.  It extends far beyond gaps in technical expertise. Many teams possess the technical skills required to develop new business capabilities but lack the process discipline, project management expertise, financial acumen or partnering skills they need to be truly effective.

Performance mismanagement manifests itself at both a personal and organizational level. IT managers are chronically ineffective people managers and try to avoid delivering critical feedback at all costs. Furthermore, IT leadership teams rarely establish clear operational metrics that can be used to hold one another accountable to a common set of organizational performance objectives.

Finally, IT leaders frequently succumb to the gravitational attraction of spending too much time in their offices and conference rooms, talking to their IT colleagues at the expense of spending time with their business partners.  A lack of understanding of the challenges or opportunities confronting a company’s business leaders or a failure to empathize with their needs is the surest route to irrelevance for any IT organization.

If the use of the term trenches in the title of my book Truth From the Trenches sounds vaguely combative, that’s intentional. IT leaders are expected to solve problems across a broad skirmish line that includes the management of finances, customers, team members, vendors, day-to-day operations, data security and technology innovation. Leaders need to pick their battles carefully, protect their flanks and stockpile political capital for when it’s needed most. That’s an art form in any management pursuit, whether it’s inside IT or elsewhere.

If you find a sports analogy more enlightening or insightful, I suggest you think of IT management as a full-contact team sport resembling American football. On a good day, IT management operates like a championship NFL team, rotating individuals with highly specialized skills onto the field of play and employing a wide variety of formations and strategies to succeed. Tactics may be altered at the line of scrimmage on any given play, but consistently successful teams pursue strategic game plans that leverage their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents. On a bad day, IT management resembles a football team at the bottom of the standings — lining up incorrectly at the line of scrimmage, losing ground through self-inflicted penalties, and failing to perform due to talent deficiencies or communication breakdowns. Repeated failures to score undermine the morale and focus of the team. By the end of the game the offense looks defeated before they even line up.

I wrote Truth From the Trenches as a practical guide to the day-to-day management issues every IT leader will confront repeatedly during 2017. And although we may not be preparing for Super Bowl 51, all IT professionals in leadership roles should ask themselves what type of team they would like to be leading in 2017 and take the necessary steps to get there.