Stop Feeding The IT Beast

"IT is going to start doing less work for you and the business.”

I said that to a CEO a few years ago, and lived to tell about it.

Her scorching eyes hinted that I should have taken a more adult-like approach to the conversation, but sometimes, CIOs just want to have fun.

She had hired me as an interim CIO and was looking for greater productivity out of IT, not less. And, more specifically, she was after greater strategic productivity.

I backtracked to explain myself to her.

“IT is in firefighting mode. Until they get out of this mode, they’ll never be able to focus on more strategic work. They’re drowning in the tactical and technical.”

“The help desk team is busy, though,” she said, “and asking for more resources.”

“Busy doesn’t equal productive. And, this problem is happening with projects, as well, not just the help desk.”

“Is that why our projects never end?”

“It’s a big reason, yes. The team can’t stop saying no to requirements.”

Her eyes eased up from scorching, but she was still waiting for the punchline.

“The only way to get the team out of firefighting mode is to just stop responding to every request that comes in. We need to slow down, in order to go faster. We need to stop feeding the beast. It will only seem like we’re doing less work as we ramp back up on the right things.”

“It does make sense,” she said. “You have my support, but I need to see projects completed on time, and improvements in our help desk metrics.”

“You will, I promise!”

Although, the conversation was a bit tense at first, the CEO was highly supportive of the team as we transitioned from chaos to focusing on the highest-value requests, both tactical and strategic.

Busyness too-often masquerades as productivity. It’s so easy to become consumed, even energized, by chasing the problems of the moment, whether they’re important or not. But, busyness is a fake. A fraud. It drains valuable people resources that could be working on higher-value tasks and initiatives.

IT organizations in firefighting mode reduce their capacity to do greater things for the business.

Here are ways an IT team can stop feeding the beast and create resource capacity for more strategic efforts:

1.   Stop living within your tactical means. In other words, be deliberate about how much IT resource time you want allocated to tactical versus strategic versus innovative efforts. Be willing to turn down the spigot on tactical work, so that you can free up capacity for higher-value strategic work.
2.  Take the time to solve underlying problems once-and-for-all, versus slapping a band-aid on the same sore over and over.
3.  Automate support tasks, and implement user self-service where possible.
4.  Protect the time of IT resources. Give them the freedom and support to say “no” to urgent requests that aren’t urgent.
5.  Implement portfolio management to log and track strategic projects—active projects, as well as approved and potential. Present and review the list monthly with the executive team. They will love you for the transparency and decision-making information.
6.  Don’t let the users bring you solutions. That’s a setup for a failed project. Separate the solution from the business problem, and help the business clearly articulate actual problems and opportunities. This will allow you to solve real business problems, instead of just implementing solutions (that may or may not solve the problem).
7.  Don’t let IT be an order taker. Saying yes to everything will bury a team. IT should be able to push back and seek clarity on a request. Use skilled business analysts to help users better articulate their need.

CIOs, and the IT organizations they lead, can make a deliberate choice to stop feeding the beast, and deliver greater strategic value for the business.

Have you stopped feeding the beast? What worked for you?

John Hughes is a 35-year veteran of IT. As founder and managing partner of Gnu Talent, John, and business partner Brian Donaldson, are solely focused on guiding industry-leading companies in their successful search for influential IT leaders. John and Brian have sat in these seats themselves, are respected industry-wide, and have deep IT connections, making Gnu Talent a powerful, knowledgeable resource for IT leader placements.  John is also author of the book, Haunting the CEO, a leadership fable used by universities in MIS and MBA curriculum, and by C-suite business leaders as a go-to guide for how to do IT right.

John Hughes is a 35-year veteran of IT. As founder and managing partner of Gnu Talent, John, and business partner Brian Donaldson, are solely focused on guiding industry-leading companies in their successful search for influential IT leaders. John and Brian have sat in these seats themselves, are respected industry-wide, and have deep IT connections, making Gnu Talent a powerful, knowledgeable resource for IT leader placements.  John is also author of the book, Haunting the CEO, a leadership fable used by universities in MIS and MBA curriculum, and by C-suite business leaders as a go-to guide for how to do IT right.

IT LeadershipJohn Hughes