Meet Mr. Ivory Tower and the upside-down management chain

An out-of-touch boss looks to underlings to figure out what the technology group actually does

Many of us in IT like to think -- right or wrong -- that we're the invisible hands behind a successful business, making sure systems operate smoothly and solving tech puzzles on a daily basis. Call me cocky, but I can point to at least one episode where our pride was warranted and IT's unheralded leadership guided a less-than-tech-savvy manager to make a decision that helped the entire enterprise.

This story dates back to the early 1980s when I was working for a regional bank. The senior IT manager had a banking background, but zero IT background. He was generally a nice fellow but also pretty aloof. He rarely spoke to IT people in the trenches, and he was well known for his immaculate desk -- only one item at a time was allowed to be on that desk. The phrase "ivory tower" often popped up when discussing his management style.

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The term "IT" was not in our lexicon back then. We were mostly known as "ADP" for Automated Data Processing, or just "DP." After working in a technical job for more than two years, I was hired into a management position. The people who reported to me were tasked with fixing production problems ASAP, nearly 24/7 -- except for Sunday nights, when there weren't enough batch processing jobs scheduled to need coverage.

The daily grind

In our not-so-copious spare time, we were allowed a break from the daily grind to work on "fun" projects. It was a point of pride in our department that we'd get projects completed that the development teams had turned down and deemed undoable. Fixing production remained our team's No. 1 priority, so we could not be held to completion dates on these extra projects, not that we ever used that as an excuse to goof off.

As a new manager, I was not at all prepared for what happened when September rolled around. Our boss, who had three managers between him and Mr. Ivory Tower, came by to ask for our goals for the next year. Our team's project work was sporadic and secondary to our assigned job description, so I assumed our goals would be simply to "fix production problems ASAP." Instead, I was told our team's goals should speak to the project work.

Trying to make something concrete out of this vague guideline, I asked my boss if I could see his goals and/or the goals senior management had set for the coming year. I was told -- seriously! -- that our manager and other managers on up the food chain all the way to Mr. Ivory Tower would review unit-level goals, then determine the IT organization's goals. We were in store for bottom-up management instead of top-down direction.

I could hardly believe my ears, although in retrospect Mr. Ivory Tower probably had no idea what direction to set for IT. In light of this edict, I had to make up stuff based on what I considered to be promising projects our team could pursue. Then the higher-level managers cherry-picked the best-sounding items from all of the unit-level managers to come up with what they considered to be relevant goals for the IT departments.

The silver lining

The goals process was certainly less than ideal, but I can happily say in my decades-long IT career our team was able to implement enterprise-wide projects rejected as unfeasible by the larger development teams.

One project automated budget planning for all of IT. We had been the first team to use VisiCalc (anyone remember that Excel ancestor?) on a PC for salary planning. The enterprise-wide project leveraged that idea into a mainframe-based system for budgeting everything -- not just salaries.

The automation of the unit roll-ups into departmental budgets prompted Mr. Ivory Tower to request many more tweaks and reiterations of IT budget projections. As a result, we may have finally convinced a non-IT manager that IT projects could truly add value to the business.

But I was so glad when Mr. Ivory Tower retired and the bank hired an actual "CIO in all but name." He was a very capable manager with an IT background; someone who (finally) provided top-down direction. Goals finally started to make sense!

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