I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Restructuring IT: First Steps

In this last post in the series on restructuring IT, we'll take a look at some things we can do to get going on a restructure.

The place to start is to establish a reason for restructure that everybody inside and outside the organization can understand. Tech is inherently optimistic, and we have short memories. As a result, we don't have very good self awareness. So it's worth performing a critical analysis of our department’s success rate. That means looking at how successful we are at getting stuff into production. What is our batting average? How does it stack up against those Standish numbers? But it isn't enough to look at the success of delivery, but the impact. Is there appreciable business impact of what we deliver? Is the business better because of the solutions we put in production? These questions aren't so easily answered because IT departments often don't retain project performance history and we very often don't have business cases for our project. A critical self-assessment, while valuable, may not be all that easy to perform.

Of course, the point isn't just to assess how we have performed, but to look at how ready we are for the future. What will be expected of us in 2 years? What business pressures will build up between now and then? How ready are we to deal with them?

To properly frame performance, we need to have a very firm definition of what “success” means. I worked with a firm that had a very mature phase-gated governance system. With maturity came complexity. With complexity came loopholes and exceptions. Whenever a project was at risk of violating one of the phase gates such as exceeding rate of spend or taking too long, somebody would invoke an exception to change the project control parameters to prevent the project from defaulting. As a result, they could report an extraordinarily high rate of success – upwards of 99%. But a 99% success rate of changing the problem to fit their reality is a dubious record of achievement.

In addition to scrutinizing results, take a look at the top 5 constraints you believe your IT organization faces today. Of those top 5 things, very likely most (if not all) will be rooted in some behavioural mis-alignment with results. One quick way to get the contours of the impact of these mis-alignments is to bring business and IT people into a short, facilitated workshop to focus on the mechanics of delivery. This will reveal how people react to those constraints (working within them, working around them, or doing things that reinforce them), and subsequently the full effect that they have on delivery.

Finally, get a professional assessment of your organization, looking at the behaviours and practices behind what gets done and what doesn't get done. It’s also important to engage business partners in this process. While we very often find IT organizations that are being outpaced by their business partners, it’s been our experience that with a little bit of concentrated effort, it doesn’t take much for IT to outpace its host business. That isn’t healthy either. Ultimately, we need a firm peer relationship between the business and IT, so we need to engage business partners in this process. We’re looking to create a symbiotic relationship so that responsiveness is both mutual and durable.

Doing these things will give you the classic look in the mirror, a critical assessment of the "lifestyle" decisions that your organization is making today. That will allow you to speak in firm facts of why the organization needs to change, set the bar for what is acceptable and what is not, and define a target and a set of action items that will create change.

One parting thought.

I hope this series on IT restructure has crystallized some of the thoughts and experiences that you have had as an IT professional, that this gives you perspective on the impact of industrialization on the IT industry, particularly in the people you interview and the skills and experiences they have.

Hopefully, you’ll go back to your office and think, “yeah, I remember being in a team of professional workers, and now I’m with industrial workers.” And you might think being the lone change agent is too much. Maybe if you were more senior, you could pull it off. But as a [insert your title here], you just don’t feel you can pull it off.

Quick story to tell about a securities firm I worked with. Some years ago, the CIO was dev lead of a dozen-person team that created the next gen platform for their trading operations. He now had 2,000 people in NY and India and wondered, “why is it so difficult to get things done around here.” He stepped into a conference room at one point where he'd sequestered the team and got a bit misty-eyed about “the good old days.” Here’s the guy running the IT department - in fact, he created most of it - feeling that same sense of frustration with the industrial model. And, ultimately, he felt trapped by it.

This is coming from the CIO.

The frustration is there, from top to bottom in IT. The people to make change are the people who recognize the difference between industrial and professional IT. It will take time. It will take a lot of convincing and explaining. But it’s there to be done. The time is now. And you’re not alone.