The real secret to IT success

In a desperate search for solutions to IT's organizational problems, I turn to Bob Lewis, InfoWorld's IT management guru

In most companies, IT remains far less effective than it could be. And guess what? The main barriers to success are almost never technological. They're human -- how people organize themselves and how they relate (or fail to relate) to each other.

So where are we in the long-running soap opera of IT and its relationship to the business? To answer that question, I could think of no better person to ask than Bob Lewis, who has been writing about this topic for InfoWorld since (I believe) the disco era. His Advice Line blog, the "Dear Abby" of InfoWorld, remains one of our most popular items. And he has written several insightful books on IT management, his most recent being "Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology."

[ Also from InfoWorld: Got a burning question about your IT career? Then go directly to Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog. | For more on Bob's view of prevailing wisdom, see "Run IT as a business -- why that's a train wreck waiting to happen." ]

Bob lives in Minnesota, but he visited InfoWorld's offices in San Francisco recently, providing a rare opportunity for me to interview one of the true gurus of IT management in person. I was surprised that he actually showed up wearing a saffron robe; after all these years the guru thing seems to have gone to his head. But after years of bemoaning IT gridlock, I was in search of wisdom, and Bob was the best I could do.

Eric Knorr: Your most recent book listed 13 principles you say will be the hallmark of successful IT organizations. I'm giving you 50 words: What does a CIO need to do to be a true part of the executive team?

Bob Lewis: Hmmm.

Knorr: That's one.

Lewis: I know this is going to sound like I'm channeling Dr. Phil, but it's still the right answer: In spite of all the panaceas out there -- ITIL, COBIT, CMMI, and so on -- relationships and trust come first. Without positive relationships and trust among participants, no process can work, all governance will be ineffective, and even the best employees will be hamstrung -- tied up in conflict, bureaucracy, and rework.

Knorr: Relationships and trust? Sounds pretty difficult to turn that into a strategy.

Lewis: But it is the right path. To be part of the executive team, the other executives have to trust what you have to say, and trust that you can deliver on your promises. It's trust and competence, and trust comes first.

Whenever I go into a company with ineffective IT and dig into what's gone wrong, bad relationships and lack of trust are always there, either at the surface or just beneath it. And, by the way, it's never just IT. When there's distrust it's generally engineered into the whole corporate culture.

It's always distrust that gets in the way, not the process itself. Person B adds whole sub-processes to validate Person A's work, not because it's necessary but because Person B and Person A don't trust each other.

Distrust is why process standardization fails, too. If I don't trust you, I certainly don't trust you to figure out how I should do my work.

Starting with trust and relationships is beyond radical -- for most industry experts it isn't even a subject.

People in healthy businesses trust each other and collaborate to figure out solutions. Everywhere else, people carve out turf and shoot trespassers.

That's one of the many reasons I've preached the evils of internal customers, in fact. It encourages distrust.

Knorr: So by that you mean "running IT as a business," where the customers are various stakeholders in the organization. This has been a popular idea, although I realize you have always advocated against it. Are people actually starting to listen to you?

Lewis: It sure looks that way. I'm reading more and more pundits talk about IT as an integral part of the enterprise, rather than a supplier to it. I haven't heard anyone say, "I was wrong and Bob showed me the light," but there has been progress.

Knorr: What's so bad about internal customers?

Lewis: It's a long list. Here's one smoking gun: When IT has internal customers, its job is done when it delivers software that meets specifications, not when the business has become more effective.

So we end up with arguments about whether the requirements were wrong or the software doesn't meet them, instead of a collaboration that makes sure external customers come back and bring their friends with them.

Knorr: A recurring theme in your writing seems to be  a lack of respect for process. Why is that? Aren't effective processes what make some businesses more successful than others? And if not, why did Hammer and Champy's "Reengineering the Corporation" sell so many copies?

Lewis: Second question first: It sold so many copies because it told business executives what they wanted to hear -- that there's a silver bullet that will solve all their problems. Better yet, the bullet lets them treat their employees as interchangeable parts.

Hammer and Champy didn't say that, of course, but it doesn't matter. By describing the organization as a collection of processes, with humans just there to fill roles in those processes ... it's a dehumanizing perspective.

Knowing how employees are supposed to do their work matters a lot. That's what process should be for, to make employees more effective.

Hiring and retaining great employees matters more than designing and managing great processes. The proof is simple: Even the best processes can't overcome bad employees, but great employees can overcome even horrible processes and find ways to succeed.

In any event, I'm not against process. Far from it. I'm against the dehumanization of business.

Knorr: That sounds suspiciously like a moral proposition.

Lewis: Not a chance. I made a deal with my rabbi: I leave morals to him, he leaves organizational effectiveness to me. Overemphasizing process and de-emphasizing the importance of having great employees is a great way to turn a first-class business into a second-rate also-ran.

Knorr: One of your principles says that there are no best practices, only practices that fit best. I like koans as much as the next guy, but aren't you just playing with semantics?

Lewis: I wish that's all there was to it. The business press promotes magic potions, and that includes most of what's published about IT management. It's downright annoying.

What businesses need is contextual advice. What they get instead are universal formulas for success, which always turn out to be something that worked for a handful of carefully chosen businesses, extended to everyone else through the magic of chutzpah and highly effective public relations.

Half the time, "best practice" means "one size fits no one." The other half it means "the minimum standard of basic professionalism."

Knorr: Pundits are supposed to be visionaries. While it's true that no single set of rules or maxims fits all organizations, you need some sort of vision to move forward. What's your vision for IT?

Lewis: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It's something Ainsley Throckmorton said when he became president of Bangor Seminary: "First management had plans, and then strategic plans.  Now we have vision, and we're only one small step from hallucination."

So here's my hallucination: IT resets the entire business culture.

Most companies are trapped in silos. The organizational chart shows a bunch of boxes. It describes what my job isn't, while managers make sure their boxes have clear boundaries and interfaces, as if the organization was just so many software objects with APIs.

IT resets the culture by changing the conversation. It isn't boundaries and interfaces anymore. It's collaboration. IT stops asking, "What do you, as my customer, need the software to do?" Our new question is, "What do we need to do together so the business becomes more effective for our customers?"

Where this ends up is something we call a "chainmail culture."

Picture a silo culture as independent rings. Each of us defines success as taking care of what's inside our own ring.

Picture a chainmail culture as the same rings, only each one interlocks with many others. Each ring is a point of focus, not a boundary. Everyone understands how their work fits together, and takes responsibility for the whole chainmail fabric, not just their personal ring.

IT is in a perfect position to lead this change, because it's where the entire enterprise comes together.

It would be a wonderful irony, too, if the company's technologists turn out to be the ones who re-humanize the enterprise.

This article, "The real secret to IT success," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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