The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 04-03-2014
Woman, leadership

The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department

By Charles Araujo

I was livid.

“Karl, how could you hire this outside consulting company. All they are doing is telling us what we already know. This is a complete waste of money.”

Karl was the new CIO, my boss. I was a young manager running technical operations at a large health-care company. And I was positive that I had it all figured out. What I lacked in experience I made up for in an abundance of overconfidence.

Karl had come in as a turnaround CIO and, after quickly sizing us all up, had brought in a consulting company to conduct an operational review of our respective areas. The consultants identified all of the areas for improvement that I had already identified and put together a plan for improvement that looked eerily similar to the plans that I already had in motion.  

I just couldn’t understand how Karl could have so little faith in me. He had just started at the company and hadn’t even given me a fair chance. I was mad. I was disappointed. And I was frustrated. Karl would eventually become one of my favorite people and a life mentor, but at that time, I was confused and very upset with him.  

In what I would later recognize as his trademark style, Karl chuckled at my youthful insolence and said, “Charlie, this isn’t about me not having faith in you. In fact, it’s the opposite. If I didn’t have faith in you, we would be doing this differently. But I needed an outside voice to help me get this done. I’ll explain more later.” With those five sentences, our conversation was over. I was still confused, but I was also slightly mollified that Karl's decision wasn’t a complete slap in the face.

It would take me years to fully understand what had happened, but Karl’s actions are an object lesson for every IT leader who is battling to gain a “seat at the table” and have the type of strategic conversation that must be engaged in as we move into the new era of IT.

Your Pathway to Political Capital

What Karl clearly understood was that he needed to earn some political capital if he was going to be able to get anything real done. As someone who had been brought in as a turnaround CIO, Karl's job was to fix the IT organization so that we could execute effectively during a period of rapid growth that we were anticipating.

There had been a lot of frustration with the way the IT organization had been operating and, therefore, there was a lot of cynicism about IT’s ability to perform at any level, let alone being able to respond to the coming strategic demands. There had been a subtle chorus call to explore outsourcing options, and Karl immediately recognized that he wouldn’t be able to get anything done if he couldn’t temper the cynicism and the doubt within the executive ranks, as well as within the IT organization itself.

Karl hadn’t brought in the consulting firm to help him discover what was broken. He brought the consulting firm in to help him communicate to the executive leadership team that he understood what was broken and that it would be fixed. When he told me that it didn’t represent a lack of faith in me, what he meant was that because he had faith in my ability to execute on the required changes, he was confident in communicating them to the executive leadership. Using the consulting firm’s report, Karl created a straight forward program that identified the key operational deficiencies that were most annoying to our customers and launched a six-month effort to instill a rigorous process and improvement activities to fix these problems.  

Of course, we had already identified these issues and were working on them, but Karl used the issues as a tool to communicate an important message to our customers: “We hear you. We know that we have things to fix. We will fix them, and we will earn your trust.”

The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department

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.

The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department

Because our team was unrelentingly focused on serving the customer and in protecting the customer experience, we understood that the process itself was only useful to the point that it helped us best-serve the customer. The moment the process got in the way of that, we skipped it until we could reevaluate the process and make it work for the customer again. While I don’t know that we ever said it explicitly, we had created a culture that valued and recognized adaptability over rigidity—and that lead to massive amounts of trust in our organization.

What Our Customers Want

Our customers want us to deliver services on a consistent and reliable basis. Yet, we must also understand that their expectations are often not as high as we think. We must recognize that, ultimately, our overriding goal is to create trust. And to earn that trust, we must be focused on our customers' experience and expectations. It is only after we create an engrained and steady sense of trust that we will have earned the right to be a member of the group that has a seat at the table—and be able to help drive the organization into the digital future. 

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the fifth installment of an eight-part article series titled "Seven Steps to a Next-Generation IT Organization." To read the fourth installment, "Building a True Learning Organization," click here.