Despite being at the top of their game, professional athletes still spend significant time on the mechanics of their sport. Baseball players constantly practice basic fielding and hitting techniques, while golfers hit hundreds of balls during a practice session merely to adjust a small aspect of their grip or backswing. Like sports, IT has an abundance of basic, mechanical functions that also need to be considered, practiced, and improved.
As with athletics, there are aspects of IT that are far more interesting than the more mechanical functions of service management, project management, and portfolio management; however, these basic foundational skills must be operating at a high level before you can focus on the exciting things. An IT leader who has built a world-class IT R&D capability won't last long if the email system is down every week. Here are some suggestions on improving your IT "game."
Get a coach
Athletes employ coaches for obvious reasons: they bring expert observational skills to identify areas for improvement. While it can be tempting to "self-assess," self-evaluation often misses basic errors or focuses on the wrong areas. Getting some coaching from peers outside IT, consultants, and subordinates in some combination on how your IT organization handles the basics is a great start.
Build IT "muscle memory"
Part of focusing on the mechanics is to help them become second nature, so they are executed flawlessly and with minimal thought under pressure. Practicing everything from carefully following a logical debugging approach to making ethically sound purchasing decisions ensures that at a critical moment you naturally respond just as you practiced. Luckily for IT, we perform these mechanical actions every day, often without thinking about them. As your coaches identify areas for improvement, implement their suggestions and thoughtfully observe how you perform these mechanical actions until the suggested improvements become second nature.
Practice the mechanics in varying conditions
The best pro athletes will practice the mechanics under a variety of conditions. Pro skiers will visit different parts of the country to practice in varying conditions, just as teams will put players in different positions or remove a star to see how the team adapts as a whole.
Similarly, IT should practice the basics in varying conditions. In an area like disaster recovery, an IT shop with the latest redundant systems and best disaster plan can be paralyzed if a key decision maker can't be reached, something that would have been immediately apparent if they had practiced the mechanics under varying conditions.
Prepare for the big game
The ultimate goal of a constant and rigorous focus on mechanics is that it prepares you to deal with the unexpected pressures of a metaphorical big game. A sleepy IT organization might be rocked by a merger or acquisition, where IT staff are suddenly expected to perform at a significantly higher level. The shop that has routinely focused on mechanics will be ready to focus all their energies on the new challenges ahead, while the shop that's been lackadaisical about the basics will not only have to step up to a higher level, but also be handicapped by having to focus on the rudiments. Even an IT organization that has a lavishly funded cool initiative will struggle if it can't perform basic project and vendor management, or keep the lights on while simultaneously executing a complex project.
While it's far more interesting to talk about emerging technologies and intriguing projects, much of what we do in IT is defined by fundamentals. Project management, staff development and retention, problem disposition, customer relations, etc. will rarely garner accolades; however, when these mechanics have grown rusty, there's a chance IT will drop the ball at a critical moment.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.