Project Management

Five more ways of thinking that can doom IT leaders

Ilya Bogorad follows up on his first installment of five faulty ways of thinking for IT leaders with an installment of five more limiting beliefs that can doom your leadership efforts.

This is a sequel to my first article detailing five faulty ways of thinking that can fell IT leaders. Here is an installment of five more limiting beliefs.

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 Toronto, 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?

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.

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.

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 (PDF) 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.

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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Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

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