Over the holidays, I was rereading William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman is a screenwriter, and his book is a terrific look not only at screenwriting, but also at the movies in general.

Among Goldman’s insights is, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” He is talking about box office receipts. His point is that no one in Hollywood really knows which films are going to be blockbusters and which will bomb.

No one knows anything. For every small-budget mega-hit like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s a big-budget disaster like The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

I think in some ways that’s as true for an IT manager as for a studio executive. In this column, I’m going to look at some of the things in IT that no one knows, and how you can overcome your inability to predict the future.

What don’t we know?
My point here is not that IT management is made up of ignoramuses, but that some things, including almost all important things, are simply too difficult to predict with precision. Here are some of them:

  • Nobody knows what their IT requirements will be this year: Sure, you might be able to extrapolate the organization’s current duties into the next few months, but there’s no way to predict how your needs may change by June or July. You may decide to enter new markets, or have to support new product lines. Your company could make an acquisition, or be acquired itself. You may have to downsize your staff. Your organization may decide to move into a new building—in a different city. You just don’t know.
  • Nobody knows what their budget will be this year: Even if you could accurately predict what your department’s future responsibilities will be, there is no way you can forecast exactly what kind of funding you’ll have. In today’s business climate, companies change spending priorities in a heartbeat. Even within the existing budget, IT managers often find themselves having to move funding from one project to another as needs change during the current fiscal year. It’s even more complicated when trying to think about the next fiscal year. Besides, your organization’s IT budget is often affected by macroeconomic conditions that are totally outside of your control. Do you know what gross domestic product (GDP) growth will be this year? If you do, you should be working for Alan Greenspan.
  • Nobody knows if the new hire is going to work out: You troll through endless resumes, conduct a dozen interviews, bring in three candidates for follow-ups, check references, and then make a hire. All that effort notwithstanding, you simply don’t know if the person you hired is right for the job. You can’t know until he or she is actually onboard and starts working. Even then, it will take awhile for you to find out if the new hire has what it takes. I know that I’ve hired a person that I was sure was going to be a superstar, only to be bitterly disappointed. On the other hand, I’ve hired folks that I would have predicted to be average employees, who came in and transformed the way we do business. You might think you know who is going to be successful, but you never really do.
  • Nobody can predict the next Microsoft: If you control an IT budget, you have to work with vendors and make technology decisions. Chances are, you’ll occasionally have to make bets on small or unknown vendors. Even if you know the technology inside and out, you can’t predict who will be the market winner. As Apple aficionados will tell you ad nauseum, superior technology is no guarantee of business success—or even business survival, for that matter. That is why choosing a new technology or vendor always contains an element of risk.

Does this mean you should forsake all planning? Of course not. Planning is essential, and you have to take your best guess about the future, even when you’re not sure what the future will hold.

However, you need to go into your planning process knowing that circumstances will force you to change those plans. As Karl von Clausewitz said about warfare, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. In the same way, all your plans for the coming year will have to be updated (or even scrapped) depending on the circumstances you encounter.

Flexibility is the key
Since we can’t know the future, flexibility and the willingness to adapt are the keys to survival as an IT manager. We all know employees who perform particularly well under pressure. For technical managers, one of the keys to long-term success is the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Being a good manager in a static organization is one thing, but getting the job done when the job is constantly changing is another thing altogether. So don’t ignore your planning, but realize the limitations of any plan to predict the future.