For many IT managers, our professional lives are confronted with a never-ending series of crises. Each day brings a new challenge, and it can often seem that our primary job is to keep chaos from engulfing our operations.

When your department is struggling to keep its head above water, you need to project an image of calm and stability. That can be tough, but keeping everyone focused and confident is also what true leadership is about.

Given the business conditions of the past couple of years, most of us have had plenty of practice with that kind of leadership. In this column, I want to focus on another aspect of leadership. In fact, this strategy might be considered almost the mirror image of projecting calm and stability. I want to discuss when you need to be an agent of change.

The paradox of true leadership
Agent of change is one of those infinitely elastic terms that can mean almost anything. In this column, I’m using the term to refer to the ability to overcome inertia, and force your people to move outside of their comfort zone.

This isn’t an easy task for most of us, for obvious reasons. We spend most of our time putting out fires and trying to keep projects on schedule. We have to be good at problem-solving, and coming up with the quick fixes so the business can keep functioning.

We like it when things are quiet, particularly since it’s so rare.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that we are often uncomfortable acting as agents of change. That’s where the paradox of true leadership comes in. If you’ve been with your organization for any length of time, you develop bonds with your peers and comfort inside your work environment. Most of us like coming into work each day, and enjoy the familiar surroundings.

The paradox of true leadership is that you have to be willing to tear down and reinvent the very process and organizations you have built and nurtured. On the one hand, you need to be good at building and nurturing. On the other hand, you have to be willing to prune and adapt, and even tear down the whole thing and start over, if necessary. Even when radical action isn’t necessary, being an agent of change is vital. That’s because almost every organization has institutional pressures that resist change—any kind of change.

Inertia: The complacent killer
Inertia is the single biggest obstacle preventing most IT organizations from achieving long-term success. When I say that to IT managers, many object, noting that they’re not static, and pointing to the number of projects they complete. However, such objections result from a misunderstanding of what inertia means.

Let’s go back to Newton, and his First Law of Motion: Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it. When we think of inertia, we tend to think about some couch potato sitting in front of the TV, immovable.

But that’s not the only kind of inertia you have to struggle against. Your organization could be producing lots of projects and managing a number of complex operations, and still be resistant to change. Indeed, the very fact that your people are very busy could be a reason why they are resistant to change.

Questions to ask
My point here is that saying your organization suffers from inertia doesn’t mean that they are lazy or inefficient. Rather, it simply recognizes that any change is difficult, and real change is painful. That’s where you come in. Being an agent of change doesn’t mean that you personally have to come up with all the new ideas. On the contrary, creating a culture of change and adaptability requires that your team develop its own ability to innovate. Your job is to keep your people from settling for the quick and easy answers. You need to probe— in fact, being an agent of change is about asking questions, more than providing answers:

  • How good are we at anticipating next year’s problems?
  • If we were starting with a blank whiteboard, would we organize our department the way it currently exists?
  • Is this the right answer, or is it the easy answer?
  • Are we taking our egos out of this discussion?
  • Are we being honest about our motivations?
  • Are we too frightened to propose the real change we know we need?

These aren’t easy questions to ask, and institutional inertia in almost every organization resists profound changes to the status quo. However, to be truly successful in today’s environment, IT managers have to balance their ability to keep the train on the tracks while coming up with the courage to embrace change—no matter where it leads.