by Michael Schrage

Getting a Handle on IT Processes

Sep 15, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

This column is about strategic frustration: mine, not yours. It stems from complaints IT leaders and managers make over lunch, in workshops and conferences. They need their problems solved—Now!—and want to vent.

So I listen, ask questions and pay close attention to what they say and how they say it. They’re not happy.

On occasion, I make suggestions. More often than not, their most eloquent response is a dismissive shrug. “We do that already,” they say.

Intriguingly, they don’t say, “We tried that and it doesn’t work,” or “Yeah, we have trouble doing that well,” or “We never thought about it quite that way”; they claim they’re already doing it. That’s odd. If they were really doing it, they wouldn’t have the problem they’re complaining about. But let’s take people at their word.

Since you’re doing what I suggest already, why do you think the process isn’t working? The answers I hear invariably sound fake. The truth—which always comes out—is, they don’t really “do that already.” They’ve never done “that” in any meaningful way. My IT complainers aren’t being dishonest; they’re just not being honest. More precisely, they’re not serious. This is my great frustration.

Of course, my frustration reflects their strategic failure, which is the pathology of the perfunctory process. That is, IT literally goes through the motions without doing the work. The organization is living a process pantomime that may lead to a box being ticked but no meaningful work being done. I’ve lost track of the number of times an e-mail, conversation or onsite visit reveals that IT isn’t doing anything remotely near what its leadership says it’s doing. On the contrary, time, money, talent and credibility are being squandered.

Empty Gestures

A classic example: A financial services firm asked me to examine why its Indian outsourcer did such an awful job of responding to requirements change orders. This was a $200 million-plus outsourcing deal for a self-described mission-critical app for a Fortune 200 firm. The project was already late and well past the point of no return on busting the budget.

The team presented its case. I reviewed the requests and saw the kinds of questions and code coming back. My simple suggestion: Change orders should go out with a three-paragraph brief explaining the technical rationale, the business rationale and the likely testing schema for the change.

The team leader looked at me. “We do that already,” he said.

Great. Show me. He sent me a dozen sample change requests. The explanatory briefs for each one of them were unintelligible. They were filled with jargon, acronyms and references to previous change orders. The idea that someone for whom English is a second language would understand the brief defies belief.

I politely point this out. The unfazed team leader says, “Yeah, that’s why we have the telecons: to make sure they understand the changes we’ve sent them.”

He thinks that’s healthy. I ask if any notes are taken at these intercontinental phone meetings. “Not necessary,” he says. “[The outsourcers] send an e-mail afterwards confirming that they understand the change order.”

He’s serious. Worse yet, this change order “process management” template for the outsourcer was also supposed to be IT’s system documentation platform. The truth was that this team had a change order process in name only. The reality was a multimillion-dollar mess, facilitated by a senior leadership that treated “We do that already” as a sign of good management rather than a warning that a corrupt process was making things worse.

Empty Suits

The central issue here has nothing to do with advice-resistant clients and everything to do with pantomime cultures of perfunctory processes. The process checklist has become the dominant process quality metric. The quality of outcomes and results has been subordinated to the ability to point to a document confirming, “We do that already.” The process has become a lie.

This is not a process failure but a leadership failure. Why? Because, by definition, healthy processes consistently produce healthy outcomes. When those outcomes are unsatisfactory, integrity demands we rigorously reexamine the process to see if it’s become sick or outdated. To say, “We do that already” is to deny the reality of and accountability for process sickness. Denying both reality and accountability is a failure of character. Failures of character are leadership failures. Yes, incompetent people sometimes guarantee unhealthy processes. But my experience has me looking at the leadership.

This was brutally reinforced at a software development workshop for senior IT executives. I had chosen Tesco, the well-managed, surprisingly profitable British supermarket company, as a healthy model for managing software innovation within the enterprise. Tesco’s IT shop has three inviolable rules for rolling out an IT innovation: It has to be better for customers, cheaper for Tesco and simpler for employees.

The third criterion—simpler for employees—was the requirement that killed more than half of IT’s innovation initiatives. To my astonishment, most of the IT executives dismissed that insight. Simpler for employees? We do that already. They then complained about the internal resistance they faced when they tried to be innovative.

So I asked who “owned” simpler for employees in their organizations. The answer: Every single “we do that already” IT executive except one admitted that no one in his shop owned that issue. The exception? A CIO who said he had delegated “simpler” to a human factors consultant. Internal resistance to innovation had been outsourced to an external consultant. That’s not delegation; it’s abdication without accountability. It’s unserious.

The phrase “We do that already” uttered in tones of tired contempt is positively correlated with unseriousness. Only someone who knows he’s not really at risk would say something so provably false. If you know you’re going to get reprimanded or punished for perfunctory performance, you’re smart enough to keep a low profile and your mouth shut. You might even be clever enough to acknowledge that there are some things we don’t do as well as we’d like. But having the arrogance and hubris to claim you do something when you emphatically don’t is tempting fate beyond endurance.

So here’s a simple suggestion: Whenever you’re seriously complaining to someone about a serious IT issue, listen to yourself. If you catch yourself saying, “We do that already” to sincerely offered advice, you’ve got a bigger problem than the one you’ve been describing. You might want to pay particular attention to any direct reports who respond to your suggestions that way. That phrase means your process is either sick or nonexistent. Fix it.