Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ten ways of thinking that can fell IT leaders

Is your thinking impeding your progress? This is a significant problem for an individual and a much more serious one if you’re in charge of an IT department. As the CIO or an IT Director, you steer a ship of technology and people and one hopes that your maps are up to date, your compass is true, and you know how to get to the destination most efficiently.

I see a lot of organizations and people as a consultant. I often encounter situations where I can’t help but feel that an IT department could be a runaway success within its organization if it weren’t for the beliefs that their leader seems to hold. I want to share with you a small collection of such limiting beliefs. There are ten in this list but I could have just as easily added another twenty.

Can you recognize any that plague your organization?

1. The business should identify its technology needs

Think about this very carefully: Who is more valuable to you, someone who knows how to tighten a bolt or someone who knows which bolt to tighten? We’re a knowledge economy and knowing what to do is much more valuable than being able to follow instructions.

If you believe that the onus is on the business to identify technology needs, you’re wrong. You need the business to identify business issues, opportunities, and priorities, and then you and your people have to come up with a way of addressing them from the technology perspective. (Better still, you can elevate your personal positioning by delving deeper into the business content and strategy, but that’s a different story). You and your department are the experts in technology, not the CFO or the Director of Marketing. If you see your department’s raison d’etre as merely implementing and maintaining the technology that business chooses, you position yourself as the guy who tightens bolts. IT departments that fall into this trap get outsourced.

2. We are a fast-paced organization

I have yet to discover an environment that doesn’t claim to be fast-paced. I no longer know what that means. What’s important, though, is how this assertion impacts the people within. If you’re told for a while that you’re incredibly busy, you tend to start believing that it must be so, and your capacity decreases. If you’re told that there’s no time to think, you tend to sacrifice quality of decisions for the sake of speed, even though there may be plenty of time to plan and execute. The net result is an organization with a high rate of project failures, too focused on firefighting and too “busy” to think strategically and identify work that’s truly important.

You can never be too busy for the important stuff if you get your priorities right.

3. We are under-resourced

This is a universal complaint and I’ve met plenty of IT executives that resort to it. It happens in organizations where there are staff members who can’t coherently explain what it is that they do, where there are ten project managers for every project, where every trivial thing involves days of meetings, and where out of every ten projects going at any time, eight have no business value.

You can never have enough time, staff or money if your priority system is out of order. The key is in using the resources you have in such a way that they produce the best ROI possible.

4. Show me the money! For a project to be approved, it needs to save costs or generate revenues.

I know an organization that spent five or six years in cost-cutting mode. If you wanted to buy a pencil sharpener, you had to get a nod from the CFO. After years of this drought, cash finally became available and the company started to look for growth. There was a problem, though, in that the company’s management at all levels had become unable to think in terms of growth. Their ability to innovate all but died and when bold and novel market moves were appropriate, they only managed to come up with meek, low-cost low-value initiatives. Even their ability to plan prudently was affected and they continually understaffed projects despite having access to necessary funding.

If you merely concentrate on the financial side of costs and benefits and require that all projects have a positive immediate ROI to be pursued, you’re killing innovation in your organization. Think about it. How innovative would you want to be if every suggestion you make is immediately evaluated in respect to financial benefit?

5. In difficult times, we must cut costs

Prudent financial management is a must at all times, good and bad. But consider this - it’s impossible to become successful by pinching pennies. It just doesn’t happen.

The best value generated by an IT department today does not lie in trivial and often mindless cost-cutting but in innovation, business alignment and strategic thinking. Today more than ever, your organization needs new ideas, bold thinking, full understanding of business priorities and the ability to think about the needs of tomorrow, not the adversity of today. Will you be ready for the recovery? I predict that most organizations will be slow out of the starting gate.

As the IT leader, you must invest - not cut - time, money, executive support into business critical projects, while completely abandoning projects that are no longer relevant. You must constantly challenge your people to critically examine the ways you do business and improve them. They don’t call you a leader for nothing.

6. We don’t need expensive outside help

Tiger Woods is the world’s #1 golf player and one of the most famous sports personalities overall. Since 1995, he competed in 53 major championships, of which he won 14 and finished in the Top 10 another 16 times. His drive is so powerful that many top golf courses are adding yardage, the practice known as “Tiger-proofing.” He is a remarkable athlete by all accounts.

What can he learn from anybody? Yet Tiger Woods has a coach. So does Lance Armstrong. So did Magic Johnson. Great in their game, they have or had someone to help them to become outstanding.

This is a stark contrast to some IT leaders who don’t believe in calling on the leading outside expertise when necessary. Instead, they subscribe to relying solely on the internal resources, typically for the sake of some nominal “savings.” What they miss they would not know because they are so focused on their small world, unaware of what other people and organizations are achieving. Had Earvin Johnson had this attitude, we would have never heard of Magic Johnson or witnessed his brilliance.

External perspective and expertise is critical (I am not talking here of staff augmentation) to growing your organization and bringing it to the next level. Is your strategy right or are you going fast in a wrong direction? Are your people realizing their full potential? How do you instill the spirit of innovation?

Strong leaders actively seek the best help they can get. I have just acquired a new client, a well-known business organization in Perth, whose COO wanted to roll out a project management methodology and grow organizational project management competency. He did not just send his people to one of the ubiquitous canned public courses or tell them to download some templates from the Internet, he chose to talk to me.

If Tiger Woods has a coach, why don’t you?

7. Our challenges can be resolved by implementing ITIL

I am not picking on ITIL; you can substitute COBIT, PRINCE, Zachman framework, Agile development, TQM, TPS, Six Sigma, Nine Omega or another methodology du jour. There is nothing wrong with any of these; in fact they are useful when applied as intended. The problem is in misapplication, which is increasingly common.

There is a tendency in many people placed in a leadership position to look for the proverbial silver bullet of a methodology that would miraculously fix all of the existing problems. Unfortunately, this approach is as successful as attempting to treat all human ailments with but a small assortment of medicines and without any diagnosis.

Building a truly successful IT organization is not an easy task. It requires strong leadership, intelligence, some hard work, determination and, often, some serious chutzpah. The allure of an “easy” methodology is understandable.

One very good executive asked me if it was a good idea to implement Six Sigma and Lean in his public sector organization (a sponsor came forward to offset the implementation costs). I honestly offered the only possible answer: “I don’t know.” (Imagine asking a doctor who does not know you whether you should start taking antibiotics.)

Instead of jumping on the bandwagon, envisage what you would like your department to become, identify the gaps that need to be bridged and start working on it. Get outside help if you need to. Once you are informed, feel free to implement the best demonstrated practices, such as ITIL, modifying them as appropriate for your organization.

8. Our people are our main asset

This is one of those fallacies that gets repeated so often that it is perceived as an axiom.

A few years ago, back in my corporate days, I worked with a senior executive who evidently had been hired in error. With too many shortcomings to list, he was considered “too expensive to fire” and hence, continued to influence the course of his department for years past his “due date,” initiating misguided projects, letting some good people go, and missing great business opportunities. The cost of such a miscreant to the organization far outweighs the separation costs.

Not everyone in your department is great or even good enough. The main asset of every organization is its BEST people, not every warm body on the payroll. But too often, IT leaders aren’t even sure what their people do and whether they are good at it.

Now that many talented people have been laid off, it’s a good time to strengthen your team. Get rid of the deadweight, attract the bright stars.

9. Hiring talent is easy today

Do you remember the IT talent gap? Yes, the global battle for talent that everyone seemed to talk about at the turn of the century and then again a year or two ago? The sources which sounded alarmed at the magnitude of the problem are suspiciously silent today. A year ago, I wrote an article on the issue in which I suggested that the problem in hiring the talent is not so much in its shortage but in the way we go about the hiring. Today, I am saying that the problem has not gone away, despite the awful job market reports and wide availability of good people. Hiring managers in organizations are none the wiser, using the same dismal methods that prevented them hiring the right people when the economy was booming.

Here are just five out of perhaps dozens of pointers:
  • Do not outsource pre-selection to low-paid people who know nothing about your organization, your department and your needs, and very little about IT.
  • If you want talent, look for talent and passion, not for conformity (e.g., 75 years experience in working with RDD 719991 ver. 7.4). * Highly talented people who you’d want to hire are usually not unemployed.
  • Compromise: most skills can be easily taught, but curiosity and drive are not as easy to instill.
  • Hire people who are better than you, who did not follow the same career path as you, and who don’t look like you.

10. It’s okay to make mistakes

Ebay announced that it sold StumbleUpon, an internet recommendation engine, purchased a couple of years ago for $75 million. It did not work out, a mistake was made, and now the management decided to call a spade a spade, divest, and move on.

The corporate world is often criticized for not allowing employees to fail, ever. If people are not allowed to fail, what incentive is there to innovate, take prudent risks, and disturb the safe harbor of status quo? This is true and is especially important in the world of IT, where experimentation, “tinkering,” and doing things we have not done before is a norm. As IT leaders, we must allow mistakes to be made and even celebrate them from time to time.

But not all mistakes are made equal; some are made repeatedly out of sloth, negligence or incompetence. There is no excuse for these mistakes that I can think of. Surprisingly, many IT leaders prefer not to take decisive measures and leave employee performance problems unresolved or simply mothball them until the “performance review time,” when, frankly, it is too late. This is simply abdication of managerial responsibilities which cannot be condoned.

I have known an IT Director, whose network administrator had a more-than-annoying habit of playing with router configurations during the busiest time of the day, causing, on several occasions, the network to go down. The IT Director resented the very notion of confronting the issue until yet another experiment caused a particularly nasty downtime. He finally had to confront the issue, but of a different nature: finding another job after having been let go.


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