To fix IT, diagnose what ails the business first

If you hope to become a next-gen IT operation, you must know your organization's signature dysfunction to overcome it

It's been more than a year since Advice Line's relaunch. In that time I've talked about what a next-gen IT organization looks like, what it does, and how it goes about executing the vision. My coverage has, in one respect, been unrealistic: My next-gen IT recommendations assume IT operates within a fundamentally healthy enterprise.

It's far from a safe assumption. Many companies suffer from one or more business diseases (dysfunctions, if you prefer fully buzzword-compliant phrasing) that can prevent even the most forward-looking IT organization from achieving next-gen IT aspirations.

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In spite of your best intentions and no matter where you sit in the IT organization, diagnosing the business diseases that afflict your employer and taking them into account when you make your plans is an essential next-gen IT skill. If you ignore these, the diseases will inevitably defeat you in the conflict to follow.

As you might guess, the complete list of business diseases is long. In fact, I've never managed to write or find one complete enough to be useful. In the interest of brevity and instruction, let's look at one particularly bad business disease to illustrate the point. It's a common one.

Stir-the-pot business leadership

The first and most fundamental responsibility of leadership is aligning everyone to a common purpose. Not only do many CEOs fail to achieve this, many act as if they disagree with it. These anti-leaders actively promote a sense of competition among the company's top executives. If that doesn't get everyone's juices flowing, they take steps to cause their direct reports to distrust each other as well.

The stated logic behind this strange approach to business leadership is that it gets everyone to work harder and more creatively than they would if they didn't need to butt heads to get ahead. The flaw in this thinking is obvious to anyone who has taken basic physics: When two people expend energy in opposite directions, they cancel out each other's kinetic energy. It turns into heat -- pure wasted effort.

Some CEOs sincerely believe that fostering rivalry among the company's top executives brings out the best in them. Others encourage competition and distrust to make sure no one gains enough political capital and board visibility to represent a challenge.


How savvy IT leaders deal with stir-the-pot business leadership

The most personally beneficial way to deal with a stir-the-pot CEO is to leave for a better-run company. You only live once, after all, and you have no obligation to live any of it in a poisonous environment. Unless or until you leave, your best bet is to form an IT steering committee, composed of the company's top executives -- minus the CEO if you can get away with it.

Forming the steering committee is just the first step, of course. Once you have one, you have to make it work effectively -- not a slam dunk in a business afflicted with stir-the-pot disease. What that takes is:

  • Overt delegation of approval authority: Limit a steering committee to an advisory role, and every member will figure attendance is optional. They'll be right.

Instead, make sure the steering committee sets IT's priorities, allocating its budget and staff effort. This creates a hostage situation -- every member becomes a hostage to every other member's priorities. The CEO-encouraged mutual distrust ensures full attendance and participation -- anyone who misses a meeting risks losing out on their fair share of what IT has to offer.

  • Content that matters: Everything you put on the steering committee agenda should be a subject its members have a reason to care about. If the reason they should care isn't self-evident, make that the starting point of the discussion.

If you're tempted to appeal to their altruistic natures ("Here's why this would be good for the company") resist the temptation. The CEO runs the company to prevent this sort of appeal from having any effect. They'll care if the topic affects them personally.

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