Achieving magical results in IT

If you want to obtain seemingly magical results from IT - start by putting the right people in the right places and giving them the power to act unilaterally. That works, nothing else does.

In general people are happiest about their jobs when they're treated as experts within teams, are empowered to deliver on that expertise, and are trusted to control both what they actually do and how they do it.

Very small business IT is usually organized to facilitate exactly this kind of thing. Provided that the egos of the players don't get in the way, what usually happens is that Jane grows into the job over time and ends up running IT by being IT and, in that role, works directly with users while reporting only to an owner or senior manager who controls the money but neither her technology nor what she does with it.

In larger organizations, however, organizational structures intended to facilitate co-ordination in the pre-electronic age get in the way because these work processes mitigate against user contact, controls work against cross training, and the management structure completely separates decision making from actually making things work.

As a result experienced IT staff with memories of highly satisfying, user focused, jobs in larger groups usually got them by exception - often as an IT response to a senior and very unhappy user who successfully demands that IT assign someone to him and allow that person to bypass the usual processes to get the job done.

In that situation you arrive as an emissary from the enemy, someone to be tolerated and treated politely but not trusted - and it's only after you gain user trust by listening to them, by not bullshitting them, and, mostly, by delivering on promises that you become the IT expert on their team - and then your earned position as a trusted, and effective, member of their team combines with the control the assignment gives you over your own activities to make the job highly satisfying.

If you've been in this position you'll probably have noticed a very closely related reality: you were much more effective in that role than in the one you came from or went back to - and if you've moved between big organization IT jobs and jobs in which you were IT, you'll have noticed the same thing: trust, empowerment, and team focus are the keys to job satisfaction - and productivity.

Big IT organizations are hardly ever set-up to facilitate this kind of functioning - and the big reason, as I pointed out last Monday, is simply that top management's general reluctance to really understand IT has let data processing traditions govern IT's organizational positioning and structure.

You do, however, see this strategy in other areas where hundreds, even thousands, of people work on their own to achieve shared or directed goals. In the U.S. Military, for example, the devolution of decision making to the sharp end has made an enormous difference in effectiveness - thus enabling relatively small groups of citizen soldiers in both Iraq wars to trounce much larger, and more traditionally organized, units with seemingly ridiculous ease.

You see the same effect in science and engineering networks where graduate students and a few professors routinely produce amazingly effective code on genuinely complex problems - and you see it the open source world where distributed leadership is the norm and having decisions both made and implemented by the same people generally produces outstanding results.

So what's the bottom line? Simple, if you want magical results in IT: put your key people into user departments, give them the power to both make and implement binding decisions about IT use, and put the rest of your resources into ensuring that whatever systems resources they need are there when they need them.

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