The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department
To be trusted, IT organizations should focus on the customer experience, communicate proactively and effectively, and choose adaptability over rigor.
Despite being brought in as a turnaround CIO with a strategic mandate, Karl began addressing the day-to-day operational activities that were causing the most pain to our customers. He didn’t begin with lofty, strategic-sounding goals. He started by solving existing problems and instilling a regimen of discipline so that we could deliver reliably for our customers every day.
Discipline = Trust
In my book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, I identify “discipline” as one of the five organizational traits of the new IT organization. But the challenge with discipline, particularly in today’s IT organizations, is that it often translates into rigidity and bureaucracy. And this, of course, is the exact opposite of how discipline should be used.
We have a duty to our customers to operate in a disciplined manner and to deliver services consistently and reliably. It is easy, however, to fall into the trap of thinking that more process and more structure is always better. And this rigid approach often leads to organizations implementing and “improving” processes for the sake of the process—rather than for the sake of the business value that they should deliver. I call it, “Improving past the point of value.”
What Karl understood was that wielded effectively, a well-run and disciplined operation is the strategic pathway to the most important asset of any IT organization: trust. Until an IT organization is able to deliver services in a reliable and consistent manner, the C-suite has little to no appetite to engage that IT organization in a strategic conversation. The logic is simple. “If they can’t deliver the basic everyday things effectively, why would we believe that they can effectively deliver something more complex and strategic?”
And despite the massive investments that have been made in process improvement and operational frameworks such as ITIL, COBIT and Six Sigma, IT organizations have often failed to achieve this balance. Rather than using discipline to engender trust, discipline devolves into heavy-handed bureaucratic procedures that produce the opposite effect. It is for this reason that our second Catalyst Experience event is devoted to helping IT leaders understand and apply the right approach to creating a highly disciplined organization.
Becoming the Right Type of Disciplined Organization
How can you help your organization find this balance? During our Catalyst Experience events we focus on three key attitudes that help create and maintain balance. Based on the understanding that we are seeking to create a trusted relationship, these three attitudes help teams steer clear of the common pitfalls that lead to bureaucracy.
Attitude #1: Focus on the customer experience. The first attitude is to remember that the purpose of all of this discipline is to deliver a more positive customer experience. Any rigor that doesn’t either improve the customer experience—or, even worse, hurts it—is going in the wrong direction. (There are, of course, exceptions related to security.) In many cases, IT people take a very black-and-white, objective view of discipline and improvements assuming that "a better, more structured process" is always preferable. But as cell phones proved, customers will often accept a lower level of quality if it comes with other benefits of value. Always asking how a given process or improvement to a process will improve the customer experience is your first step toward ensuring that you are creating trust rather than disdain.
Attitude #2: There is no discipline without communication. One of the things we implemented during that six-month period under Karl’s leadership was a process in which we proactively contacted key business executives whenever a service outage would impact their area. While we had not yet fixed any of the problems, just by increasing our communication with them, we dramatically improved their perception of the services we provided. Communicating with the customer in clear and easy-to-understand terms must be embedded into every process if it is to be effective.
If the goal is to create trust, there is no trust without healthy communication, which means there is no discipline without effective communication.
Attitude #3: Choose adaptability over rigidity. Years later I asked one of my staff why things worked so well at the health-care company. His answer was simple: Everyone understood the process and its purpose, but they also knew when to “break the process” in order to most effectively serve the customer.