by Bob Ronan

Is Your IT Shop a Scrambler or a Leader?

Feb 26, 20143 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

An IT veteran describes the four stages of the technology organization -- and what it takes to move up a notch

Technology organizations evolve on a four-step path, with each step enhancing the value of the organization to its customers. Most IT organizations are in the first two stages: Scrambler and Producer.

Scramblers have a great deal of difficulty getting the basics right and spend much of their time reacting to events. Producers get the basics right but haven’t yet evolved further.

To better understand Scramblers and Producers, it’s important to define the basics–the distinguishing criteria. In short, what separates Producers from Scramblers is a level of competence in IT operations, application development, personnel and finance.

The list of specific capabilities is long, but it includes items such as hitting online and batch service-level agreements, managing security risks and producing high-quality software. Caution: The basics sound like common sense, which may tempt you to jump to the conclusion that you have them handled, but most organizations don’t execute the basics as well as they think they do.

Organizations that get the basics right for operations and application development may be tempted to declare victory. But any success is probably temporary if the organization isn’t paying attention to its people and its finances.

If an organization doesn’t treat its people properly (for example, no mentoring or training), the high-quality employees may go elsewhere. If an organization mismanages its finances, it may lose out when the company decides how to allocate capital.

The transition from Scrambler to Producer is often achieved once the IT organization embraces metrics. Metrics allow management to quickly and objectively evaluate issues so they can take steps to determine the root cause and make changes. Scrambler organizations rarely have good metrics in place.

The next rung on the ladder is Innovator. It’s very difficult to become an innovator if you’re spending much of your time chasing production problems or working significant overtime to hit project milestones. So most organizations need to solidify their Producer status before they move to the Innovator stage, which requires a mental shift from tactical to strategic.

Innovators have the vision to think past traditional ways of doing business and see the possibilities of creative approaches. They are willing to take risks and they want to see results–too many aspiring Innovators have great ideas but spend more time thinking than implementing. Innovators create a culture that lets employees know their ideas are valued, encourages employees to take prudent risks and shines a spotlight on innovative projects.

For successful Innovators, the last step up is to become a Leader. The difference between the final two stages is subtle but real: Leader organizations empower employees at all levels–not just the senior execs–to make decisions and take risks. It means all employees are aware of, and can take steps toward, the organization’s big-picture goals without waiting for permission.

Leaders make decisions quickly because slow decision-making can paralyze an organization. They emphasize failing fast because not every path will lead to a positive outcome, and they reflect on what is or isn’t working.

Of course, even Innovators and Leaders occasionally have to scramble to fix problems, but they’ll do so aggressively and quickly. They remember the pain associated with being a Scrambler.

They know how difficult it is to evolve to the higher-level stages and will do anything to stay there. In contrast, most Scrambler organizations don’t realize how much different life could be if they could fix the root cause of their problems and stop being so reactive.

Bob Ronan recently retired from Fidelity Investments, where he was a senior vice president of technology.

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