Reactivity is not heroic; it's a leadership failure

Swooping in and getting things done in the organization's darkest hour might seem heroic, but it's not. In the long run, this is also one of the costliest ways to operate an IT shop.

If there is one "universal" handicap among otherwise high-performing IT organizations, it is being stuck in a permanent reactive mode. In many cases, there's a frustration with IT that no one can quite put their finger on. The reactive IT organization might get things done and be full of smart and capable folks, but they always seem to arrive to the party a day late. In some cases, this type of IT shop might be beloved by its peers, since it swoops in at the darkest hour, pulls heroic 24/7 shifts, and miraculously saves the sinking ship moments before it slips beneath the seas. While this might make for high-fives and undying admiration, leaping from fire to fire is a difficult environment in which to work and is certainly not a particularly strategic way to operate.

In the long run, this is also one of the costliest ways to operate an IT shop. Dropping everything to react to the latest cry of "all hands on deck" robs future projects to pay today's disaster and has an obvious financial penalty as resources are constantly shifted and work deferred. In the worst case, it creates a fast and easy culture where IT projects are not carefully planned, and it is assumed that someone will swoop in to pick up the pieces should the project fall apart. Eventually, you'll encounter a problem that can't be fixed in this manner or one that ends up costing double or triple what the project would have required if simply done right from the get go. So, how does IT leadership get out of reactive mode? Start with the following:

Begin capturing requirements

New requests for IT functionality appear all over the place, from help desk tickets to water cooler conversations, and most IT shops do a poor job of logging these requests and somehow dispositioning them, allowing them to eventually "blow up." Create a process whereby these types of recommendations and suggestions are captured and regularly reviewed. You'll accomplish a PR fiat merely by following up and letting people know their voice was heard, explaining the outcome of any related discussions, and better yet being able to identify growing concerns before they spiral into "drop everything" priorities.

Help your people prioritize

No one functions well when given a list of fifty "#1 priorities." Instill a discipline in your organization where people ask what should be a priority and communicate that effectively. Once you've given the marching orders, explain the objective and what success looks like and then get out of their way. A large portion of the organizational entropy engendered by a reactive mentality is a constant reordering of priorities coupled with micromanagement. Reducing both will pay huge dividends.

Kill time wasters

Some basic meeting and organizational management can do wonders for finding lost time. Demand that people only schedule meetings where necessary and show up in a timely manner when they do. Avoid wasting a quarter-hour on conference calls asking "who just joined?" with every chime, and end meetings with a crisp and succinct list of next steps, with names next to each. While you may not have to write a check for every wasted hour to salaried IT employees, creating a culture where time is respected tantamount to the corporate treasury allows people to plan their days and have uninterrupted periods where they can actually accomplish something.

Regard reactivity as a leadership failure

There's a temptation to regard reactive planning as heroic, with employees pulling all-nighters and management working the phones to defuse a ticking time bomb. While this may legitimately happen, it should not be the norm and should be regarded as a leadership failure requiring some analysis. Once the dust settles, determine why a project or system "blew up" and how leadership could have identified and proactively diffused the problem earlier.

While you cannot see in to the future and predict every potential "explosion," act like an air traffic controller who ensures he or she has visibility into every plane of his or her scope and proactively manages each to prevent a collision. While the controller has a rare near miss, this case is the exception rather than the rule and is subject to painstaking analysis to determine what went wrong. Just as this vigilance makes for calmer skies, so too can it make IT a more thoughtful and effective shop rather than the chaos brigade.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...