Ask most people in IT organizations if they'd like to work on something innovative, and the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Why, then, is so much of IT work just grinding out the same old stuff?
I hear lots of answers to that question, and I usually have something to say in reply. Here are some of the answers I have heard and my follow-on questions:
"The user won't pay to replace anything, so we have to just keep fiddling with what we already have." Have you shown users an economic case for replacement, or did you just assume they wouldn't pay under any circumstances? If you ask users to pay to replace a system just because the technology is old or not what you want to work on, you can expect to be turned down. But presenting a carefully crafted economic argument can get good results. If you're not a numbers person, work with someone who is.
"We just can't get agreement among all the groups involved to do anything really interesting with this set of applications." Have you shown the groups how much they do have in common? Even in the stormiest arguments between business units -- the one, inviolate definition of "the customer," for instance -- the two sides usually agree to 90 percent of the definition. By spotlighting the existing level of agreement, you make it easier for the people involved to shift toward more agreement. If you're not a good facilitator, find one and give that person control of the meetings.
"We've got lots of good ideas, but the business won't let us into their thinking where we could do some good." Have you undertaken a long-range plan to open those doors, or did you give up at the first rejection? Credibility is earned, not granted, and it doesn't flow to you because of the way the company is organized. After all, if your business clients came to you with ideas about how you could change the way you work, you'd be suspicious too, until they proved that they might actually have something worth listening to.
"I'm in infrastructure, so I just do what I'm told." Have you ever analyzed the patterns of problems you face and figured out what could be done to eliminate whole classes of problems? It's easy to feel disenfranchised -- whether you are just another developer, operator or help desk clerk. But no one else sees what you see. Your users don't like recurring problems any more than you do, but they've often given up, thinking, "That's just the way it is around here." But it doesn't have to be -- and users are usually receptive to change that'll make an old problem go away.
The right to be innovative requires that the basics get changed first. Credibility must be built. You have to show that you speak the language of business (economic or financial analysis), that you understand risk and how to manage it, that you can bring disagreements out in the open and work toward resolutions, and that you are willing to work at a long-term effort to improve the relationship.
The reward, however, is the chance to not just work on a project. Going successfully down this road will give you the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce innovation into the entire business and build all new technology. Why grind it out day after day?
Bruce A. Stewart is a former CEO and onetime senior vice president and director of executive services at Meta Group Inc. He is now an executive adviser in Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.