Leadership

Reactivity is not heroic; it's a leadership failure

Swooping in and getting things done in the organization's darkest hour might seem heroic, but it's not. In the long run, this is also one of the costliest ways to operate an IT shop.

If there is one "universal" handicap among otherwise high-performing IT organizations, it is being stuck in a permanent reactive mode. In many cases, there's a frustration with IT that no one can quite put their finger on. The reactive IT organization might get things done and be full of smart and capable folks, but they always seem to arrive to the party a day late. In some cases, this type of IT shop might be beloved by its peers, since it swoops in at the darkest hour, pulls heroic 24/7 shifts, and miraculously saves the sinking ship moments before it slips beneath the seas. While this might make for high-fives and undying admiration, leaping from fire to fire is a difficult environment in which to work and is certainly not a particularly strategic way to operate.

In the long run, this is also one of the costliest ways to operate an IT shop. Dropping everything to react to the latest cry of "all hands on deck" robs future projects to pay today's disaster and has an obvious financial penalty as resources are constantly shifted and work deferred. In the worst case, it creates a fast and easy culture where IT projects are not carefully planned, and it is assumed that someone will swoop in to pick up the pieces should the project fall apart. Eventually, you'll encounter a problem that can't be fixed in this manner or one that ends up costing double or triple what the project would have required if simply done right from the get go. So, how does IT leadership get out of reactive mode? Start with the following:

Begin capturing requirements

New requests for IT functionality appear all over the place, from help desk tickets to water cooler conversations, and most IT shops do a poor job of logging these requests and somehow dispositioning them, allowing them to eventually "blow up." Create a process whereby these types of recommendations and suggestions are captured and regularly reviewed. You'll accomplish a PR fiat merely by following up and letting people know their voice was heard, explaining the outcome of any related discussions, and better yet being able to identify growing concerns before they spiral into "drop everything" priorities.

Help your people prioritize

No one functions well when given a list of fifty "#1 priorities." Instill a discipline in your organization where people ask what should be a priority and communicate that effectively. Once you've given the marching orders, explain the objective and what success looks like and then get out of their way. A large portion of the organizational entropy engendered by a reactive mentality is a constant reordering of priorities coupled with micromanagement. Reducing both will pay huge dividends.

Kill time wasters

Some basic meeting and organizational management can do wonders for finding lost time. Demand that people only schedule meetings where necessary and show up in a timely manner when they do. Avoid wasting a quarter-hour on conference calls asking "who just joined?" with every chime, and end meetings with a crisp and succinct list of next steps, with names next to each. While you may not have to write a check for every wasted hour to salaried IT employees, creating a culture where time is respected tantamount to the corporate treasury allows people to plan their days and have uninterrupted periods where they can actually accomplish something.

Regard reactivity as a leadership failure

There's a temptation to regard reactive planning as heroic, with employees pulling all-nighters and management working the phones to defuse a ticking time bomb. While this may legitimately happen, it should not be the norm and should be regarded as a leadership failure requiring some analysis. Once the dust settles, determine why a project or system "blew up" and how leadership could have identified and proactively diffused the problem earlier.

While you cannot see in to the future and predict every potential "explosion," act like an air traffic controller who ensures he or she has visibility into every plane of his or her scope and proactively manages each to prevent a collision. While the controller has a rare near miss, this case is the exception rather than the rule and is subject to painstaking analysis to determine what went wrong. Just as this vigilance makes for calmer skies, so too can it make IT a more thoughtful and effective shop rather than the chaos brigade.

About

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 ...

8 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If it's us blokes at the sharp end , then a suitable response would be "Thank you Captain Obvious" If it's at the blokes at the blunt end, then I have to ask why you think you'll be successful with this message, because we've been saying it for years, and none of 'em have paid any attention as yet....

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

In my experience, IT is in reactive mode, more often than not, because senior management called the CIO/CTO/Director of IT and said: "Hey, we've just bought this equipment/software/system and want to roll it out company-wide next month. Make it work."

cyber_jimpatrick
cyber_jimpatrick

Once IT is shrunk to the point that you have only enough resources to react to fire drills, it is your life.

santeewelding
santeewelding

TR: reactivity to what passes -- passing off the reaction as "new" -- rather than to engender and gamble on the entirely new...

OurITLady
OurITLady

but had to run to react to the latest fire. I can't even get the staff here to call the right number for help, we keep stressing they're supposed to call the service desk so we can prioritize but they still insist on calling the techs direct as they think they get faster response. Can't seem to make them see that every time we answer the phone it takes us that much longer to deal with the problems on the list and they actually get slower response. As for capturing requirements, our team has a nice long list of requirements, every few months we say that we'll deal with them as soon as we've fought the latest fire - except every time we've put one out the next one has got going. Being proactive would be lovely, you have to have enough staff to keep the fires under control to have that luxury though and in the real world I can't actually remember the last time I worked anywhere with a team that was adequately staffed to allow that.

tbmay
tbmay

It's the same reason we have a hard time getting customers to get MSP agreements, or even back their dog-gone data up. It's in our DNA to not worry about something until there's a problem. I think they call it "confirmation bias." I agree with the last poster. It's rarely the sysadmin's choice to live a life of firefighting. Even if it is, it's usually because he's learned the only way he's perceived as having value is if he's "heroically" saving the day. I wish that weren't true. It tried very hard to make it not true for years. It's not going to change.

maclovin
maclovin

Soo, essentially, anyone who can't predict the future, isn't doing it right? Many issues can be CAUSED by users/inexperience....how the hell do I rectify that situation....aside from my preferred method? As for capturing requirements....you mean when these people aren't e-mailing support requests as they are supposed to be, while I'm on a break AWAY from work.....the breaks that all the drones get regularly? "Help your people prioritize" and "kill time wasters"....I would love to have both of these things happen, but the people requesting help seem to think they are the only thing on the face of the earth when requesting. These two are great suggestions for a Utopian world...but, I think we all know how close we are to that! As for a leadership failure....I don't think your average sysadmin will be surprised with that statement. Unfortunately, all of the things named here have to do with bad management dictating things like "priorities" and yelling at you saying you need to go fix Joe the Plumber's problem RIGHT NOW. (Never mind that he's unlicensed....sorry couldn't help mahself!) /rant

tbmay
tbmay

People want...even demand..."the best technology and support available." But they don't want to pay for it. There's an old, old adage about getting what you pay for. Edit: While I don't know who you work for, I can tell you your bosses will have to understand, and be sympathetic too, technology in general before you'll ever get your users to follow procedure. Users circumventing the channels is a very common thing. Of course, you might want to take a good look at those channels before you make a point of pushing them. Some channels are necessary. Some are just bureaucracies established to build fiefdoms. If you're sure your channels are the right way to do things, you'll have to convince someone up the food chain. BTW...good luck...it's easier for management to side with the masses.