CXO

Run your IT like a circus, in a good way

"The Greatest Show on Earth" offers some helpful lessons on running a complex IT department.

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Image: iStock/txus111m

I somewhat begrudgingly purchased tickets for the Ringling Brothers circus for our family. My wife thought it would be a fun weekend event with the kids, and having not been to the circus in several decades, I thought it might be a trapeze act or two paired with some slapstick humor from the clowns, boring the kids to tears in an era of iPads and on-demand entertainment.

However, we were treated to a well-executed spectacle with live music, special effects, lions and tigers, and amazing performances. We were on the edge of our seats as we watched the talents of the performers, and I came away a bit sad that after 146 years this circus would be closing its doors. It was evident that the show was carefully planned and painstakingly executed, and it was clear that if most IT shops ran like the circus, they'd be even more effective.

Plan, practice, and adapt as necessary

Obviously, when tossing human beings around a trapeze, or standing in a pen with a dozen lions and tigers, planning and practice are prerequisites. However, I noticed a significant resilience to the circus performers as well. There were a few times during the show where a stunt did not complete successfully. Without missing a beat, the performer would determine whether he or she should re-attempt the stunt (they usually did), the conductor of the band would instantly change the music, and the rest of the team would reset and reattempt, usually generating even more applause when the second attempt succeeded. There was no angst, no pause in the action, and no disorganization whatsoever.

IT organizations are often adept at planning, but we often struggle with anticipating failures and seamlessly recovering. If you're attempting the technology equivalent of jumping a small dog over a llama, plan what you'll do if unsuccessful, how you'll signal your colleagues, and how you'll reset and reattempt.

Move the spotlight

The circus had dozens of acts and stunts, but only one intermission where the action paused. During the rest of the show, the lights would shift to one section of the floor, while an army of black-clad stage hands rearranged another section of the floor for the next act, in many cases bringing complex props on and offstage unobtrusively.

Like the circus, there are a lot of moving parts to a modern IT organization, and in many cases some element of your operation will be "in the spotlight." Ideally, you'll control where the spotlight focuses, perhaps redirecting it away from operational aspects of your business as they adjust to changing conditions.

Allow your people to color outside the lines

As we entered the venue, we were a bit surprised to find massive lines at the entryway, since the stadium staff was subjecting everyone to metal detector scans. I'm not sure if he was explicitly assigned the job or not, but a "hawker" pitching souvenir circus programs interspersed his pitch with instructions on where to line up, what was happening, and to remove phones and metal objects in preparation for the scan.

IT is often perceived as the sole domain of specialists, each skilled in, and assigned to, one particular task. However, allowing your people the freedom to act outside their explicit role when needed will help your organization run more smoothly.

Play to the cheap seats

Like most stadiums, the venue where we watched the circus had "nosebleed" seats high above the action. Interestingly, there were several acts performed above the rigging, that were in perfect view of the higher seats, and obstructed for many in the "better" seats closer to the floor.

As we engage with our organization and its customers, it can be easy to ignore the "cheap seats" and focus our outreach solely on executives and leaders. However, line employees and gatekeeper customers often have insights into the organization and how technology is relevant, or serve as the eyes and ears of those in higher positions. Ignore the "cheap seats" at your peril.

The greatest show on Earth

The pure entertainment value of the circus makes it worth visiting when it comes to a nearby venue. It's easy to be on the edge of your seats as the lion tamer "kisses" a well-toothed predator, or gasp as eight motorcycles zoom around inside a tiny sphere, but take a moment to observe how the circus manages multiple complex elements and uses its people, technology, and management expertise to deliver an amazing performance.

Also see:
What learning a trade taught me about IT leadership
Why IT leaders should pay attention to eSports
Tech leaders: Stop relying on vendors and do your own innovation

About Patrick Gray

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 ...

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