Zen and the art of saying forget it

Most IT departments are organised as service departments serving all or part of the organisation. While the charge-back budgeting structure is arguably the easiest to manage from the IT side, most organisations shy away from it for political reasons.

Most IT departments are organised as service departments serving all or part of the organisation. While the charge-back budgeting structure is arguably the easiest to manage from the IT side, most organisations shy away from it for political reasons.

This lack of a rational charge-back mechanism can, and often does, lead to management problems affecting workloads, client expectations and quality of service.

If we follow the advice "The customer is always right" blindly, we eventually run our departments, perhaps even our businesses, into the ground. In ignorant self-interest, departments will demand the Sun, the Moon and the Sky because they don't have to pay for them.

The aforementioned cliché contains a germ of truth, but constant use and abuse has worn away the finer details, leaving behind a service trap for unsuspecting management. Placing all control in the hands of those who don't pay for the service is a recipe for failure.

The truth of the matter is the customer isn't always right; quite often they're dreadfully wrong ... but they are the customer and telling them "No" is as detrimental to our careers as always saying "Yes".

The way out of this little conundrum is to re-install a little accuracy into what got us into this mess. If we change "the customer is always right" to "the paying customer is always right" then most of our service problems fade away. Even without a formal charge-back policy in place, it is still possible, even easy, to introduce the notion that all service has a cost because it draws on limited and shared resources.

This is one of those rare and wondrous occasions when the greater the demands on our limited resources, the easier it is to arrive at a solution. In an almost Zen-like manner, the greater the perceived problem the simpler the conceived solution.

Our first step towards a solution is avoiding the most common mistake of novice managers. We must stop believing it is our responsibility to solve this problem on our own ... by ourselves.

That ineffectual approach to problem-solving grows out of a curious mixture of both arrogance and naiveté. The "naiveté" arises from our poor understanding of the cause of the problem, and the "arrogance" from the misguided notion that problem solving is always a game of solitaire.

The other component of a solution to the unfettered service problem in a non-charge-back environment is to admit we cannot keep saying "Yes" to every demand. That if we do, we cannot but fail to deliver. That our deliverables are as finite as our resources.

So what to do? We implement a single policy. No project assignments are accepted outside of a joint monthly planning meeting. A meeting facilitated by ourselves, and attended by representatives of our primary users. All project requests are presented by the users, and they decide how to assign available resources against their demands. Practising Zen again, we give up control in order to gain control.

While there is sometimes resistance to such a policy, it is often embraced once we admit our inability to handle conflicting priorities and demands from powerful users.

These meetings are not without their own pitfalls. They require good, if not excellent facilitation skills. They require the ego-less ability to say "No" to tasks which would cause other commitments to slip. They require the guts to tell users that while "their wish is our command" ... they have to choose between conflicting wishes ... we can't do the impossible ... and won't pretend that we can.

Paradoxically, the more powerful our users are in these situation, the more likely they'll be able to solve our resourcing problems. Any senior executive is capable of finding funding for their pet projects. Nobody is more motivated to justify additional expenditure than those with the expressed need and the power to do something about it.

The goal of every manager is to deliver services and meet user expectations. Our willingness to say "No" determines how much trust our users have in us when we say "Yes".

De Jager is a management consultant. Contact him via his website.

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