Examine group behavior to identify causes of nonperformance in your IT department

IT executives have to look at the collective behavior of their IT staffs to determine whether the organization is going to be successful or doomed to mediocrity.

By Howie Lyke

Much is being discussed, written, and applied regarding the IT value chain and the best practices in IT management that focus on three fundamental dimensions: people, process, and technology. However, IT executives must look deeper into their organizations to identify, understand, and address the true source of their successes and failures: the collective behavior of their people.

How do you know whether your organization has developed a cultural behavior driven toward success or one destined for ultimate mediocrity and failures? You may feel the answer in your gut, but answering the questions in Table A can give you a more objective answer.

If your answers fall in the Undesirable column for many of these questions—especially if you’ve spent months and dollars investing in reorganizations, processes, and technologies, you may need to examine your organization's cultural behavior.
Table A
Desirable Undesirable
Does your new technology get fully and effectively implemented?
Or are you aware that much of the functionality you purchased is not in place and in some cases the whole package is on the shelf?
Are the production processes in place robust and working effectively?
Or do they fall short of their objectives and purpose?
Is your production environment stable?
Or are constant changes continually causing problems, making it difficult to detect and identify their real source and prevent future issues?
Does your department clearly understand and focus on business objectives?
Or does your staff tend to focus more on technical whims and lose sight of why they’re there in the first place?
Is your staff communicating well within the department?
Or does communication constantly fail between functional groups within IT?
Is your staff communicating well outside the department?
Or are you dealing with customer problems that often boil down to poor communication?
Is your environment generally a happy, challenging, and stimulating place to work?
Or is it described better as chaotic, stressful, and full of frustration?
Does the business you support understand your true value?
Or are you struggling to gain the qualified and quantified understanding and support of the executive staff?
Does the company treat your IT department as a strategic partner?
Or are you treated as a cost center, a necessary evil?
Behavioral identity test

It's time to tune in to your cultural behavior
Behavior is purely about people, irrespective of the organizational structure and the processes and technical architecture they’re operating within. For the IT industry specifically, it’s about understanding and overcoming a stereotype (IT pros being poor communicators and infatuated with new technology even when it doesn’t fit business needs) that, gone unchecked, is counter to the objectives and needs of a performing business.

The Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management - Winter/Spring 2001 writes:

“Individuals arrive at organizations with variant motivations, experiences, and values. These natural individual differences tend to direct behavior in numerous, often divergent directions. If an organization is to direct behavior toward the accomplishment of a focused mission, and is to present itself to those it serves as a unified form, mechanisms must be created for reducing the variability of employee behavior.”

Assume for the moment my submission that the common personality characteristics of the IT populace are counterintuitive to needs of the business. And then add the fact that organizations establish a behavioral identity that governs the way they approach initiatives, challenges, goals, communication, performance, and change, and you have a daunting challenge to make sure your answers in Table A fall mostly within the Desirable column.

Examples of poor staff behaviors
Take an extreme performance problem, for example. I have an institutional client whose IT department had for years invested in a general practice of nonperformance. Business as usual was reactive and minimal/sufficient at best. Performance regarding initiatives was abysmal.

After breaking down the human element, we found that their standard mode of operation was steeped in a behavioral practice where everyone else’s lack of performance was an excuse for their own lack of performance. “Well, Jane didn’t do what she was supposed to do, therefore I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do.” This could be followed around the department, creating a never-ending loop of excuses, nonperformance, and failed initiatives.

In other words, the department’s implicit and explicit intent was to not perform. Even if they really wanted to, they wouldn’t allow themselves to. Neither proud nor happy about this, the department had nevertheless subconsciously accepted this over time as their culture. And what do you think their reputation was among the rest of the organization? Not good. How do you think the staff felt about their job, the place they worked for, their management, and most important, themselves? How do you think their CIO felt about his job, his standing in the organization, and his job security? Again, not good. You get the picture.

I challenge you not to simplify this example by thinking that the sole problem was in the leadership. Of course, leadership was a problem here. In all organizations, every problem ultimately rolls up to leadership. But what’s at issue here is what the leaders should be focusing on.

Also, if this example seems too extreme to relate to, think about how lesser situations create even more difficult struggles in your department. When a situation is extreme, its causes are easier to identify. But when the behavioral situation is subtler, the answers are harder to come by—and in IT we end up wasting a lot of time and money on reorganizations, process engineering, and technologies trying to solve these problems.

Take a more vibrant, growing environment as a contrasting example. I had such a client. The production environment was about two years old, the company was growing quickly, and so were the demands on IT: more systems, more services, more people.

Growing out of their informal technical support environment, they invested in expensive system management tools and consultants to put monitoring and processes in place and autogenerated Web-GUI reports. Yet when answering the first three questions in Table A, they found themselves in the Undesirable column. Why? Because of the underlying behaviors of their IT department. Can you guess what they were? Behaviors driven by pride of ownership, because so much of the infrastructure was built by the people supporting it; distrust, because so many of their early problems had driven wedges between the functional groups; and control, because these groups struggled to deal with these issues and position themselves as the company was growing. All this led to a cultural identity that could best be described as a group of people who were difficult to deal with and reluctant to grow and change.

So there you have it, two contrasting organizations, one established and intuitional, the other young and growing; different cultural identities, same source problem: their collective behavior. Now think how the challenge becomes even more difficult with organizations between the two ends of the spectrum: mature, but still growing and highly political. Rough. No wonder the tenure of CIOs and equivalent executives is also in the Undesirable column.

So how do you accomplish a focused mission, especially if the organization you're working with has invested months, and even years, in their current collective, unacceptable behavior? The answer lies in focusing on your people, their desires, their motives, their situation, and their behavior.

My definition of the ideal IT environment is one that is designed to exceed the enterprise’s strategic goals while nurturing the individual to achieve exceptional productivity and job satisfaction. These words are all about people. They begin and end with the personnel you lead.

In the upcoming articles in this series, I'll take you through a new approach. First, I'll address understanding the makeup of IT and how the business really views you. Second, I'll examine understanding your specific behaviors and outcomes based on your particular situation. Next, I'll visit recapturing the desires, passion, and commitment your people have to themselves, one another, and their job that will ultimately change their individual and collective behavior and propel the department to the new levels you envision.

For more information on the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute, visit


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