How do you reinvigorate IT?

While the economists seem to disagree about the state of the economy in the near and medium term, clearly the current "state of the union" at most IT shops is unsustainable. Wow do we start the recovery? Here are a few ideas.

With the holiday season nearing full tilt and the new year just around the corner, for many December is a time of reflection and contemplation. During the early weeks of the month, before many depart for time with friends, family, and loved ones, December becomes a time to reflect on the year that is closing and start preparing for a new one.

Having survived a difficult year on many fronts, a lot of IT leaders are at the helm of a scarred and battered organization that has likely been marred by layoffs, cost cutting, and a constant refrain of "Where can we tighten our belt?" rather than "Where can we innovate?" While the economists seem to disagree about the state of the economy in the near and medium term, clearly the current "state of the union" at most IT shops is unsustainable; eventually the constant doom and gloom leads to a risk-adverse, inflexible, and cowardly organization, exactly what is not needed to make a compelling case for IT as a business enabler. So how do we start the recovery? Here are a few ideas:

Put on your boxing gloves

Some of the most effective and invigorating leaders I have seen were not the most eloquent, or the most effective managers, but they usually were the ones who would go to bat for their employees and, assuming they were in the right, fight until the end for that employee. If your organization is browbeaten after a difficult year, a leader perceived as a coward who leaves employees out to dry is only going to further hollow the soul of his or her group.

This allows your employees to feel empowered and make decisions that may not be the most popular option but are often best for the larger organization. It also allows for measured risk taking, when subordinates and lower level employees know that their leader will stand behind them rather than abandon them when the sparks start to fly.

Think outside your organization

All of us have heard the trite admonishment to "think outside the box," and thankfully that expression finally seems to be repackaged in the box from which it came and returned to sender. While the expression may be hackneyed, the constant internal focus driven by a poor economy has stifled ideas and suppressed innovation. One quick and fairly inexpensive cure is to hold a day or two of strategy sessions, skills training, or industry overview meetings with outside experts. You can source these experts quite cost effectively from the large consulting organizations, the author of a book that resonated with you, or even from the cadre of bloggers here on Tech Republic.

Bringing in outside thinking, new ideas, and perspectives on your industry can be a breath of fresh air and can get creative energy to begin flowing once again. To make these sessions even more effective, kick off some small pilot projects or research efforts around the topics that were discussed. If you have a social media expert speak, for example, cobble together a cross-functional business and IT team to explore some of the new social technologies and present their findings.

End the "policy" reign of terror

Whether it's an onerous expense regime that tracks how many glasses of wine one consumes during a reimbursed dinner or a hundred-page treatise detailing what can and cannot be done online, "policy" not only stifles innovation and creative thinking but tells your employees that they are not to be trusted or treated as adults. While there will always be a few outliers who will abuse things like travel expenses, punishing the offender rather than treating the masses like children is more effective and helps preserve the employer/employee relationship.

When you create guidelines and principles that suggest the right path and hold your employees to account for making the right choices, you'll spend far less time and money agonizing over whether to allow employees to "super size" their fries on the company dime, and more time vetting new ideas and harnessing the creative energy of your people. If your employees are truly so nefarious and sneaky that a policy-based "super nanny" is the only way to control them, perhaps it is time to examine your hiring practices and consider replacing some of them rather than crafting another unwieldy policy.

Every new year is an opportunity to adopt a new way of doing business, and it is also a perfect time to evaluate your own attitude. Like it or not, your subordinates take a cue from how you act, and presenting a calm and eager face will be just as contagious (and far more positive) as a downcast look and negative comment. With the above changes and a shift in the leader's attitude, your IT organization will find itself starting afresh as the calendar changes.