Every IT leader seeks faster, more efficient department performance. After all, when IT underperforms, it hurts business operations and stifles innovation.
A lackluster IT department also limits an enterprise's ability to meet changing market demands, lengthens the time required to develop and release new products and services, and ultimately degrades customer satisfaction.
Fortunately, improving performance doesn't have to come at the cost of employee morale. In fact, motivated team members can play a major role in spurring a somnolent IT department into action. "If you want to improve IT performance, be involved," advises Mike Guggemos, CIO of global IT and services provider Insight. "Very few good decisions were ever made with a butt in a chair."
Here's how to steer your department onto the IT express track.
1. Communicate goals
Keeping IT team members in the dark is a fundamental morale killer. "It's important that you communicate to every staff member the state of the business and how the work they are doing will contribute to moving the ball forward for overall company objectives," says Mike Duensing, CTO of user interface toolkit provider Skuid. "They need to feel that they are playing a role in the success of the company."
IT leaders can begin motivating team members just by being honest. Many IT leaders stand in front of groups and give presentations packed with analogies and tables when, really, all they need to do is explain what’s going on in the company and show clearly why the project matters, Guggemos explains. "Show how that activity ties into the objectives and strategy."
Establishing individual goals at least quarterly and then reviewing them one-on-one is also important. "To ensure your team members are continually improving and engaged, goals should include training and other ways to develop skills — technical and/or business," Duensing advises.
2. Give your staff the tools they need to succeed
Equipping an IT staff with inadequate and/or outdated software and equipment is guaranteed to lead to poor performance. Forcing team members to waste their time on monotonous, easily automated tasks is also detrimental to long-term success.
"Automation tools, such as continuous deployment tools, help keep staff from working on repetitive mundane tasks," notes David R. Lee, chief operating officer of the Kastling Group, an IT strategy and consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. He recommends that IT leaders consider using tools like Jenkins, Bamboo and Team City.
Guggemos notes that it's never been easier to automate IT operations. "There’s a number of monitoring and measurement tools you can put in place today — hundreds!" he exclaims. "The key thing to keep in mind is that most of the modern technology built within the past five or so years have pieces built in for monitoring, management and, in some cases, for self-correction."
3. Keep a close eye on performance levels
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are crucial to monitoring overall IT performance. Many IT departments, however, focus on the wrong indicators. "Select performance indicators on what is important to the business and not just IT," suggests Mark Thomas, president of Escoute Consulting, an enterprise IT governance advisory firm.
Thomas prefers sticking to critical success factors that are linked to overall enterprise goals, as well as stakeholder needs. He feels that the approach ensures that measurement tools will be tightly focused on collecting, analyzing, reporting and responding to specific key vital signs. "Many of these KPIs can also be used as key risk indicators (KRIs) that can alert IT management of emerging risks that could have a negative effect on meeting stakeholder needs," Thomas notes.
4. Monitor your team for signs of burnout
Hard work is great. Excessive work invites frustration, mistakes and declining productivity. Lee believes that the best approach is tackling burnout is to make sure it never happens. "To prevent staff burnout, there have to be easy weeks incorporated into each staff member's schedule," he says. "Having celebrations for small victories during these times could also help."
Mike Orosz, Citrix's senior director of threat and technology transformation, goes a step further. "Take a walk with colleagues, have lunch together, stop for a quick coffee break," he advises. "These simple breaks together can foster a much closer, collaborative team environment that will positively impact performance."
Realistic, fully developed project plans and schedules also play an important role in preventing staff burnout. "All too often teams are given short-notice, un-budgeted and un-forecasted projects without consideration for what they already have in their portfolios to deliver on," Guggemos explains. "This is probably one of the single biggest failures in IT leadership — and it occurs all the time."
5. Keep staff members engaged and satisfied when pursuing performance goals
One of the best-kept secrets of IT management is the lost art of goals cascading. "This technique is not new, but is a key principle in governing and managing performance in an organization,” Thomas notes.
A goals cascade is basically a method of deconstructing and translating goals from one organization level to the next. It is the manager’s task to describe the contributions that the members of his or her team can make to delivering results up to the next level. “This allows each person to recognize the value of goals achievements and how their contributions affect the realizations of benefits,” Thomas observes.
6. Resist the temptation to micromanage
Like parents with a child learning to ride a bicycle, it's almost impossible for many IT leaders to "let go of the seat" and allow their team to wobble and fall as they learn to be self-managing and empowered.
"IT leaders will say they embrace empowerment, but the first time something goes wrong they grab the reins and return to their micromanaging ways," explains Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, a firm that provides project management and agile software development services. "It is a common reaction, but if they want to create a new culture they have to demonstrate their ability to abide by changes."
"The fundamentals matter," Guggemos adds. "The leadership and management teams have to be involved in the projects, but it's critical they do so with a soft touch."
7. Encourage staff members to expand and deepen their knowledge
A successful IT leader energizes and motivates staff members by offering skill advancement opportunities. “Giving team members the opportunity to attend conferences and professional events will not only expose them to new ideas and technologies, but breaks up their routine, ultimately improving morale,” Orosz explains.
8. Consider fresh approaches and methods
The biggest boost to IT performance has been the arrival of agile methods and DevOps, which help bring business and IT teams closer together, notes Chris Fielding, CIO of Sungard Availability Services. "This gives the business team more of a say in the priority and direction of the delivery team, often leading to simpler solutions that better align with business processes and are much easier to implement."
"Organizations need to stop thinking about work as a machine that you can optimize by pulling some levers," states Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, which offers software delivery training, assessments and certification services. "Instead, think holistically about the environment that teams work [in] and how the vision of that work can be better communicated."
9. Utilize the latest proven management techniques
Many IT leaders are thrust into their roles solely on the basis of their technology expertise, receiving only limited management training. "They tend to follow Management 1.0 or maybe Management 2.0 practices," Zucker says. "They either think of their staff as resource widgets (1.0) or that management processes (2.0) like 360-feedback is the solution."
Management 3.0, on the other hand, recognizes the complexity of today's operating environment and the power of empowered, motivated individuals to solve problems. "Accepting Management 3.0 and actually implementing it requires a great deal of trust and courage from management and leaders," Zucker observes.
10. Seek outside views from a trusted advisor
IT leaders are often so close to the technology issues at hand that they can’t see or appreciate the full range of their department's impact on other business areas. "Having external eyes can help recognize these [effects], as well as offer powerful insights into industry trends and tools that could be effective in helping improve performance management," Thomas says.
"Sometimes it's good to seek external council and support in the same way a coach helps an athlete look at their performance in a different way," West adds. But a coach can only, at best, provide interesting insights into an organization's work practices. "Only the people that comprise the organization [can create] change," he advises.
It's easy to believe that by communicating a vision, analyzing clear metrics and empowering teams, an IT department will immediately begin functioning at maximum productivity. But there's more to it than that. Building a high-performance team requires patience and persistence.
"IT staff can begin to change organically," Zucker says. When given even the smallest step toward empowerment and self-management, they can embrace the opportunity. "They can also recognize that their leaders are trying to change the environment and enthusiastically follow the lead rather than being skeptical," he concludes.