When two parties are in conflict, they don't have to agree in order to respect and learn from each other's perspective.
Stories by Paul Glen
The quality of business relationships is based on much more than the quality of the products and services we deliver. If we're going to improve the relationship between IT groups and the people who consume our technology, we're going to have to start thinking more carefully about their experience of us as well.
Early in my career, I prided myself on my ability to follow orders well. But eventually, I realised that truly serving my boss required more than just doing as I was told – or as I thought I had been told.
If the economy avoids a double-dip recession, I think that we are poised to experience what may seem like a sudden churn of employees, sort of like an industry-wide game of musical chairs. But it shouldn't come as a surprise. The pressures have been building for years.
The pressure has resulted from the confluence of economic reality and two distinct characteristics of technical culture. It is tied up with our collective devotion to progress and freedom.
Most of us who have chosen to devote our work lives to technology have a deep-seated faith in progress and a dedication to the idea that change can improve lives. We are compelled to find "problems" and invent "solutions", to see a future that does not exist and to create the technology that brings it into existence. We drive and accept these changes because we feel that in many if not most cases, the benefits of progress outweigh the costs of transformation.
But progress has been hard to come by in most IT organisations for the past few years. Retrenchment is more common. As the economy has stalled, projects have been cancelled, new technologies put on hold, systems consolidated and staff laid off. We've been trying to do more with less. So, collectively, we don't have a sense that we are progressing.
But progress is not merely a collective phenomenon; it is also an individual one. As a group, we work to create change, but we also harbour the desire for personal progress, to transcend our own circumstances. There are few chances to get meaningful promotions or to work on new technologies or systems. And for most people, pay has stagnated or worse.
So there's a general sense of frustration, and with that comes a desire to move on, to find somewhere where progress is taking place.
With the economy the way it is, not too many people are quitting their jobs to look for better ones. The need for relative security outweighs the desire for progress. So while anyone with a job probably feels grateful at some level, that doesn't prevent them from also feeling trapped.
This combination of feeling both frustrated and trapped is much more powerful than the sum of its parts. This doesn't mean that people don't like their jobs or managers, just that they are feeling pressured to move on. If over the next few months the economy continues to improve and the IT job market expands, this pressure is likely to be vented as people scramble to escape their feelings of stagnation and entrapment.
In other words, no matter how well you have treated people over the past couple of years, your staff, especially your best people, may now harbor a nearly irresistible urge to move on that is just waiting for an opportunity to be expressed.
The typical tools of employee retention — raises, promotions and perks — are unlikely to address the anxiety created by the confluence of economic reality and technical culture.
To combat the coming of the great employee churn, you will have to appeal to the same yearnings that gave birth to the discontent. People who stay will see an exciting future and share a sense of relief over surviving a difficult past.
The sense of stagnation and entrapment must be replaced by a vision of progress and the freedom to leave accompanied by a more powerful desire to stay, to be a part of the opportunities to come.
In the course of consulting for and coaching IT managers, the complaints I hear most often involve politics. “I’d love my job if it weren’t for the politics.” “This would be a great place to work if not for the politics.” “Politics aren’t my job. Why do I spend so much time on them?”
With the economy making a bit of progress over the past few months, many IT organisations have been adding contractors as a way of getting things done without the commitment of hiring permanent employees. And they're probably thinking that if things continue to improve, some of those contractors could become permanent hires.
As managers, we all get caught up in the daily exigencies of the job. Subordinates constantly ask for or need direction. Bosses demand status updates and results. Clients and users want us to make their work easier or even possible. When your days seem like a blizzard of interruptions, are you ever able to do anything that might make a long-term difference?
I often hear consultants, writers and managers offering advice about how to elicit passion in the workplace. They talk of strategies to help people find their passion, while they endorse weeding out people lacking the inner drive they claim is essential to success.
It has become an article of faith that projects without sponsors will inevitably crash and burn. However, unexamined beliefs can lead us astray and we need to be thoughtful about how we apply any maxim. In the case of project sponsorship, more is required of us than checking a box on a form and holding monthly status meetings.
In these difficult times, lots of projects are getting cancelled, postponed or mothballed. Although these are perfectly normal occurrences in IT, they seem more frequent, swift and stinging now.
When a project is killed, we like to think that its fate is entirely due to external forces – the swirling, uncontrollable winds of the economic hurricane happening outside. It's not that we're doing anything wrong, we reason; it's just a response to the crisis.
However, we know better. Many of those projects weren't selected for cancellation just because of sudden shifts in priorities. Some of them were cancelled because there were problems. They were judged unlikely to ever be completed. Or they were expected to exceed time or budget constraints, or to fail to offer sufficient business value even if they did deliver a product.
So in these austere times, it's more important than ever to recognise project problems early. Thus you can correct them or at least cancel the project before wasting too many resources.
Yes, we all know that something's wrong with the project when we blow a budget or miss a major deadline, but how can we know before it's too late to do something about it? Here are five early warning signs that your project is in trouble:
• Management direction is inconsistent or missing. If project leadership has gone AWOL, chances are that things are starting to go in a bad direction. Or, even worse, if the directives you get from management (or feel compelled to give if you are management) change frequently, there's a problem. If a project either lacks direction or can't maintain a reasonably consistent course, it's unlikely to get to any desirable destination.
• Project management and business management seem disconnected. Even if a project does get consistent direction, if that direction seems to be at odds with business management's desires, there's a problem brewing. In political battles between IT and business management, business management usually wins, even if it takes a while. I don't hear too many stories about the great political triumphs of IT managers over their users or clients.
• The team lacks a commitment to clearly articulated and commonly understood goals. Every project has a goal or two. They may be clearly stated or only vaguely discussed, but it's rare for any business to shell out lots of money for something that genuinely has no purpose. That said, it's common to presume that the purpose of a project is so obvious as to not be worth articulating. That's unfortunate. It typically leads to misunderstandings and inconsistent presumptions about priorities. Eventually, poor and inconsistent tactical decisions undermine project progress.
• Team members don't listen to one another. Even when teams get along personally, team members don't always listen well to one another. This tends to lead to chaos as people fail to coordinate activities and make the compromises necessary to enable projects to move ahead.
• The team is in a state of discord. Teams sometimes break into competing camps. These can form around honest-to-goodness differences over project direction. They can also form over petty loyalties and personality clashes. Sometimes teams just descend into chaos, with multiple factions or an every-person-for-himself ethos. The state of discord is destructive to progress. It needs to be rooted out. Sometimes, as a manager, you can engineer a reconciliation. Other times, you need to pick winners and losers.
If you notice any of these things happening on your projects, the time to act is now. Don't wait until it becomes obvious that the project is a disaster in the making. By intervening at the first sign of trouble, you may be able to save both projects and careers from the swift executions going on today.
With the job market tanking, vendors laying off staff, and IT departments cutting contractors, employees and projects, IT managers, at best, are going to be under a lot of pressure to improve productivity.
If you want to really help your organisation, one of the more subtle things you need to learn to do is to change the subject.
A common question for IT professionals thinking about the future is whether to pursue a career in management. It’s a good time to think about this if you’ve been purely technical for a long time, because the coming wave of baby boomer retirements will leave plenty of management jobs available.
When I first joined the workforce, I naively believed that workers supported their bosses and that bosses were generally deserving of respect, since they had been promoted by the sages who went before them. These were the days before Dilbert alerted the pre-career young about the messy realities of the workforce.
As a consultant, I regularly get calls to help rescue struggling projects. These rocky initiatives usually involve at least a million dollars of direct cost, if not tens of millions, but more important, future business prospects and personal careers are often at stake.