Successful CIOs, like all highly placed executives, must be adept at running an organization that’s good at getting work out the door.
Unfortunately, many of the most popular management techniques for fixing poor organizational performance don’t work. Or worse.
If you want better guidance, start with Peter Drucker’s observation that, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”
Which should encourage you to take the next logical step: To improve IT’s performance, figure out which of your organization’s management practices are best at making getting work done difficult, and stop doing them. Here are some likely places to start.
Bad fix #1: Reorganize
What it is: The ever-popular Titanic iceberg collision remediation strategy of rearranging the deck chairs.
Why it’s a problem: Reorganizations don’t change how work gets done.
The usual rationale is that realigning reporting relationships removes barriers. Which it does, most often by replacing one set of barriers with a different set of barriers.
Meanwhile, reorganizations change the unwritten rules by which IT operates, as employees have to learn how to work with their new management.
Why it’s a temptation: It’s tempting because it’s easy. Just announce the new reporting relationships and leave it to everyone else to make it work.
It’s especially tempting when you have an ineffective manager — you can avoid the unpleasant conversation that tells them so, instead placing them someplace safe in the new organization to minimize the damage they inflict.
What to do instead: Just about anything.
Bad fix #2: Rely on multitasking
What it is: Asking employees to juggle multiple responsibilities.
Why it’s a problem: Employees divide their time into two buckets — orienting to the task at hand, and performing the task at hand. The more employees have to multitask, the more time they lose to reorienting, reducing the time they can devote to productive work.
Why it’s a temptation: Multitasking means never having to say no to a request. You can always promise to squeeze something in. Also, it improves IT’s performance on employee utilization — a bad but popular metric.
What to do instead: Eliminating multitasking is too much to shoot for, because there are, inevitably, more bits and pieces of work than there are staff to work on them. Also, the political pressure to squeeze something in usually overrules the logic of multitasking less. So instead of trying to stamp it out, attack the problem at the demand side instead of the supply side by enforcing a “Nothing-Is-Free” rule.
Bad fix #3: Ignore bad processes
What it is: The way work gets done is disorganized, ineffective, uncoordinated, undocumented, inconsistent, and idiosyncratic.
Why it’s a problem: When each employee independently figures out the way to get something done, IT’s practices are, in effect, in a perpetual state of alpha testing. Processes never improve because no two people ever do them the same way or build on past successes.
Why it’s a temptation: Defining, documenting, training, and insisting everyone follows well-defined processes is a lot of work, not to mention that it can make a manager unpopular. After all, for most employees doing things the way they want is a whole lot more fun than doing things the institution’s way. Worse, doing things the institution’s way and insisting on it will lead to accusations that you’re turning IT into a stifling, choking bureaucracy.
What to do instead: Encourage a “culture of process” throughout your organization.
Yes, this is just the headline, and there’s a whole lot of thought and work associated with making it real. Not everything can be reduced to an e-zine article. Sorry.
Bad fix #4: Holding people accountable
What it is: According to its proponents, it’s how to make sure everyone does their best to avoid making mistakes and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Why it’s a problem: Holding people accountable is root cause analysis predicated on the assumption that if something goes wrong it must be someone’s fault. It’s a flawed assumption because most often, when something goes wrong, it’s the result of bad systems and processes, not someone screwing up.
When a manager holds someone accountable they’re really just blame-shifting. Managers are, after all, accountable for their organization’s systems and processes, aren’t they?
Second problem: If you hold people accountable when something goes wrong, they’ll do their best to conceal the problem from you. And the longer nobody deals with a problem, the worse it gets.
One more: If you hold people accountable whenever something doesn’t work, they’re unlikely to take any risks, because why would they?
Why it’s a temptation: Finding someone to blame is, compared to serious root cause analysis, easy, and fixing the “problem” is, compared to improving systems and practices, child’s play. As someone once said, hard work pays off sometime in the indefinite future, but laziness pays off right now.
What to do instead: Whenever something goes wrong, first fix the immediate problem — aka “stop the bleeding.” Then, figure out which systems and processes failed to prevent the problem and fix them so the organization is better prepared next time.
And if it turns out the problem really was that someone messed up, figure out if they need better training and coaching, if they just got unlucky, if they took a calculated risk, or if they really are a problem employee you need to punish — what “holding people accountable” means in practice.
Bad fix #5: Keeping you in the loop
What it is: A consequence of the no-surprises rule — if something happens in your department, you’re supposed to know about it before it becomes visible to your peers and management.
Why it’s a problem: It isn’t a problem. Unless, that is, you make keeping you in the loop a higher priority than fixing what’s gone wrong, and especially if it means whoever is trying to fix the problem has to get managerial approval before taking whatever steps they need to take.
Why it’s a temptation: Being kept in the loop reduces the fear that a manager will be blindsided and look bad to their management. Also, it makes a manager feel important: “I have to take this call” is almost as compelling as, back in the old days, having their pager start to buzz.
What to do instead: This is a softball, isn’t it? Just make sure everyone knows that, should a problem arise, priority #1 is fixing it. Briefing you is priority #2 or #3. Or maybe #27.
Not everything is hard to figure out.
And, a suggestion
Set up an anonymous one-question survey. Invite all IT employees to participate. The one question builds on the aforementioned Peter Drucker observation: “What are we in IT management doing that interferes with your ability to do your work?
Publicize the most common responses, take them seriously, and repeat the survey quarterly.
And if any of the common responses surprise you, revisit your organizational listening program, because clearly the one you have in place isn’t working.