When the help desk malfunctions, metrics are a reliable root cause

Inflated incident count? A scramble for getting credit for closed tickets? A steady stream of distractions for the IT staff everywhere else? Metrics might be the culprit

Dear Bob ...

I'm a developer, and our help desk is driving me nuts. And it isn't just me -- just about everyone else in the department is on the receiving end of the nonsense.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Bad metrics still lead to bad management" | Get sage IT career advice from Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

Here's what's happening: The new help desk manager is the CIO's darling, metaphorically speaking. Why, you ask? Because unlike all the other managers around here, she's completely metrics-driven. She has established time to first response and time to resolution as her key metrics, and (no surprise) both have improved dramatically since she started charting them six months ago.

Here's how: Her analysts fall all over themselves to answer the phone quickly, log the problem, "decide" the problem can't be handled on the call, and escalate it to one of us.

Then our help desk system automatically badgers us regarding our increasing queue of open tickets until we close them. The CIO stands behind the help desk manager on this (he cites you, by the way, since you've been known to say, "Fix the help desk first.") Which means everyone else in IT lets other work drop -- like the development assignments I have for three different projects -- in order to close our tickets as fast as we can.

The help desk analysts openly laugh about how they're gaming the system (they even log a hang-up as an open-and-closed ticket). We can't get our real work done. And our manager is helpless (or maybe hapless -- I like the guy, but he's been entirely ineffective in dealing with the politics).

Any thoughts about what I can do?

- Coping

Dear Coping ...

Sure. This one's easy. Your management has given you clear instructions: Closing tickets from the help desk is your highest priority.

Don't argue. Instead, practice malicious obedience. Keep your queue clear and your sense of humor strong. And keep accurate track of where your time goes. Presumably, the help desk system will be your friend in this, giving you a precise way to log the time you spend on each ticket you work on.

On your projects, when your task assignments inevitably slip, inform the project managers that excessive demand from the help desk is interfering with your ability to perform your project tasks, and since management has established that as the higher priority, the only recourse is to modify the project schedule. Document that you're doing this in an e-mail to each project manager and cc: your reporting manager.

Presumably, your colleagues will pursue a similar course of action.

Here's what will happen: Every project's business sponsor in the company will find out that his/her project is being delayed. They'll express their concerns, with greater or lesser emphasis and heat, to the CIO. Assuming he's read more of my writing than just the fix-the-help-desk phrase, the CIO will recognize that he's fallen victim to the "optimizing the parts suboptimizes the whole" trap.

Or he'll figure out his priorities have become unbalanced, or he'll search for a scapegoat, or he'll call his managers together and tell them to work together more effectively, or he'll do something else that's face-saving and will let you go back to figuring out your own priorities.

Here's what you shouldn't do: Try to persuade anyone that the current situation is a problem using evidence and logic. That will put the spotlight on you as a troublemaker who can't get the job done -- exactly the wrong focus and something that will prevent resolution.

This advice, by the way, is an example of a broad principle that applies to a wide variety of circumstances: When employees are too effective at hiding the consequences of bad management decisions, they act as enablers and do nobody any favors. It's generally a good idea to let just enough negative consequences leak out that those who need to know have an opportunity to recognize the bad decisions for what they are.

Oh, one more thing. Don't be too hard on the help desk manager. She's doing what she's paid to do, which currently is to play the game to win. It's up to the CIO to change the game.

- Bob