You may or may not know that magpies. They are rather large birds from the crow family, with pretty black and white suits, who exhibit an irresistible attraction to small shiny objects, such as spoons, foil, and small mirrors. Most of the objects procured by magpies end up stashed at the bottom of their nests, neglected after the initial feat of fascination.

It strikes me that many if not most departments fall victim to the same kind of fascination, when it comes to various frameworks and methodologies du jour. CMM and CMMI, PMBoK or Prince 2, ITIL and COBiT, Agile (I cannot bring myself to listing its gazillion flavors), TQM and Lean, Six Sigma, RUP, and all that crackle and pop ad infinitum. If you have been in this profession long enough, you know that every few years a new fad diet comes along.

Please don’t take me wrong, every IT or management methodology has at least some value to it. Toyota Production System is behind one of the most efficient car manufacturers in the world. Agile, when used correctly in the right environment, helps to create product when the “big upfront design” approach is ineffective or impossible. Key PMBoK or Prince 2 concepts are a must for any project management professional.

What I do find troubling is that IT management nearly always disregards the fact that methodology is secondary to objectives. If only could they ask themselves a simple question of “What are we trying to achieve?” more often! We could achieve results more expeditiously, while avoiding unnecessary and time-consuming undertakings. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When the only answer one has to any IT management question is “ITIL,” you can be sure that it’s not going to end well.

A couple of years ago, one IT leader proudly told me about his department’s great success with ITIL. When I asked for an example, he said: “Well, for instance, we used to close tickets without asking the user whether they can be closed. Now we always ask and users appreciate that.” If you are in charge of IT Operations and cannot figure this out on your own without ITIL, you are probably in the wrong line of work.

How to paint yourself in the corner using best practices

Whenever I am engaged by an organization to advance their IT department, I often look at the current state with the following two variables in mind:

  1. Operational capabilities. How do internal clients rate IT service? Are outages common? Are people knowledgeable in their respective disciplines? In other words, if this were a standalone company, would they be known as rendering good service?
  2. Strategic awareness. Does the CIO appear engaged in the corporate strategy on par with other C-level colleagues? Is the IT department seen as a valuable asset, an inseparable vital organ of the corporate body? Does IT management and staff understand the business their organization is in? Does IT innovate incessantly, propelling their organization forward?

This approach is similar to application of the Gardner’s magic quadrant, except that they use it to look at whole industry sectors and I apply it internally to IT departments.

Here are the four states I usually find organizations to be in, depending on the behavior of these two variables:

1. Morass (Ops -, Strategy -)

The quality of IT service is below par. Outages are common. Business often finds itself in a situation where the technology is seen as a limiting factor. Project management is haphazard and the rate of project failure is high.

The IT department views itself is a support function, akin to facilities management. There is often a strong “them vs. us” sentiment among the IT staffers in reference to the “rest of the business.”

This state has been a common occurrence until outsourcing became a norm. If you are a new CIO entering a department like this, be warned (as you likely have been!) that you don’t have decades to turn things around.

2. Growing pains (Ops -, Strategy +)

IT services are unpredictable. Outages may be common. Operations may be haphazard, with key tools missing or jury-rigged. There is a sense that “too many things are on the go.”

At the same time, CIO is one of the key people within the organization. IT managers have a very good understanding of the core business. IT comes up with solutions that wow their business colleagues. There is a lineup of future projects and noteworthy ideas on a whiteboard.

This state is usually transient and is typical for startups or organizations that underwent a major surgery.

3. Reliable service provider (Ops +, Strategy -)

The department is seen as a reliable provider of IT services, no more, no less.

4. Vital asset (Ops +, Strategy +)

Excellent in what they do operationally, IT staff and management see themselves (and are seen in the same way from the outside of the IT department) as a major catalyst in propelling the company forward. Innovation is a norm and is not a mindless tinkering but a quest guided by excellent knowledge of the industry, keen business sense and the understanding of business priorities.

The CIO is one of the most respected executives within the organization. He or she reports to the CEO and is never looked at as a senior “propeller head” but as a wise decision maker, a strategist and a businessperson.

IT departments that become infatuated with ITIL and that pour enormous resources into aligning with it, will achieve, at best, the third state, reliable service provider. Often seen as the best outcome one could hope for, it is not.

These IT departments will find themselves rather more expensive than before, with new staff – IT bureaucrats – hired to monitor and enforce compliance with procedures.

At the same time, they will have established an almost arm’s length relationship with the business, having documented services that they render and SLAs that come with it, much like a third-party vendor. Their service, even if it is excellent, is now a commodity.

On top of that, they will have lost their flexibility and agility, due to numerous documentation steps, signoffs and approvals – even though they are there with a good intention to protect the integrity of the vital systems.

In today’s economic environment when responsible fiscal management (often, ruthless cost cutting) is a must, the only possible question that can pop in the head of a CEO in this scenario is “Can I not get a comparable service that wouldn’t cost that much?”

They can and they do. Having painted themselves in the corner by following a “state of the art” methodology, many IT departments stand a good chance of becoming history.

On the other hand, those IT departments that exhibit both operational excellence and strategic awareness, find themselves completely immune to outsourcing, because they are not merely service providers, they are an indispensable part of the organization’s economic engine.

What kind of IT department are you running today? What is your vision for your organization’s future? How are you going to get there?

I have recently co-authored a white paper, which may outlines the vision and ideas that will help you to turn your department into a vital asset. You can download “Transformation or Travails: The imperative for IT’s shift from support function to strategic asset” by clicking this link.