Somewhere out there is a company that has no conflicts between the IT department and the rest of the organization. The CIO gets the budget and staffing changes that are requested, and the various departments always accept the development schedules produced by the applications group. End users who call the help desk are invariably cheerful, and no one opens e-mail messages with suspicious-looking attachments.

Except for those happy few working at this idyllic company, the rest of us have to work in organizations where conflicts between IT and the other departments are the rule and not the exception. As technology becomes a strategic advantage for many firms, it’s not surprising that IT departments find themselves caught in the center of some messy internal politics. In this column, I’m going to explain why that piece of advice your parents gave you—pick your battles—makes sense as a management strategy.
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Why are so many technical managers terrible at office politics?
Before talking about why it’s important to pick the time and place to fight, I want to take a moment to ask a rhetorical question: Why aren’t most IT managers any good at office infighting?

After all, many of the technical managers I know are among the brightest men and women in their organizations. For the most part, they are competent, dedicated, and organized. On paper, you’d think they could more than hold their own in interdepartmental disputes. Why can’t they?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the conclusion that the answer is temperament. While there are certainly exceptions, most IT professionals are born problem solvers. They like to build and fix things. They have strong opinions about how things should be done, but they don’t have the patience to engage in long, drawn-out disputes with other departments.

The result? When it comes to internal politics, you end up with two basic types of IT managers:

  • The Pushover: Whether due to a natural aversion to conflict, or a history of losing these kinds of struggles, this IT manager makes a kind of bargain with the rest of the organization. He or she says, in effect, “Look, just tell me what you want me to do. I won’t argue with you. In exchange, you stay out of my way, and let me implement your wishes without interference.” While this attitude may be understandable, it deprives the organization of your insight on these issues. Furthermore, it’s inefficient since your department will waste a lot of time and money on ill-considered initiatives that you could have stopped had you tried.
  • The Warlord: This technical manager takes the opposite tack from the Pushover. Rather than contesting nothing, this type of IT manager contests everything. For a Warlord, no dispute is too petty, no stakes are too small, and every fight “goes to the mattresses,” as in The Godfather. While this kind of manager may win some internal arguments, he or she does so at the cost of poisoning relationships with other departments. In the long run, this is not a sustainable strategy.

Choose the issue, as well as the time and place
As I said at the beginning, “Pick your battles.” This is the advice that most of us received while growing up. Unfortunately, many of us seem determined to make our own mistakes. We get burned a couple of times before we learn the wisdom behind this saying.

As a strategy for IT managers, picking your battles relies on several assumptions about how organizations work:

  1. Some things are worth fighting for, but others aren’t.
  2. When it comes to resistance, there is a continuum that has “complete spinelessness” on one end, and “nuclear first strike” on the other. Most disputes call for a response located between these extremes.
  3. When possible, take the long-term view.

One of the problems with the “pick your battles” strategy is that some consider it a cover for universal surrender. Clearly, that’s not true. No matter how good your working relationships are with other departments, there are times when you have to say no, when you have to push back. Failing to do so when appropriate will cost you the respect of both your staff and your peers.

On the other hand, since you can’t win every fight, it’s prudent to choose which fights to have. This is as much art as it is science. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is this really a big deal, or are you hacked off because this group is always pulling this kind of stunt?
  • Do you have the time and energy to devote to this kind of battle with everything else you’ve got going on right now?
  • Is this a “slippery slope” kind of issue? If you give in on this, are you setting a precedent that will make it harder for you to resist something similar later?
  • How important is this to your people?
  • Is this conflict worth straining your relationships with other departments?

Only you can answer these questions. Since neither the Pushover nor the Warlord is an appropriate model for most IT managers, you’ll have to handle each dispute differently and decide if and how to respond.
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