Bob Dylan and What’s Wrong with IT Today – Busy Being Born: Self-Assessment – Part I

As a continuation for my “Bob Dylan and What’s Wrong with IT Today” (Part I available here), I’m going to jump into the “busy being born” aspects, the qualities I believe will help IT on evolving.

I’ve covered in the first article the “busy dying” portions that, of course, represent the habits, misconceptions and some of the existing problems IT departments have. Discovering and accepting those will be a key aspect to improve and getting into the busy being born.

If your time to you is worth savin’
You better start swimming, or you’ll sink like a stone
For the time’s they are a-changing
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1965)

One of the key aspects most IT organizations should start would be on being capable to do an honest self-assessment. Which should apply for the IT department, the organization they are part of, the understanding they have around their environment and the business.

Having a consistent self-assessment will set the foundation for a path moving forward. This will acknowledge the areas you need to overcome, where there’s some room of improvement and areas where you’re delivering what is required. This self-assessment can be even shared with your leadership and other areas, setting precedent about a healthy practice to implement and maintain over time.

The self-assessment set of articles will be divided in different sections:

  • Organization-wide assessment: Perspective regarding the overall organization you are part of.
  • Users understanding: Your take on how well you understand the users you are supporting and their singularities.
  • IT’s integration with other areas and leadership: Understanding how well the IT integration with other departments and the leadership connection.
  • IT’s integration with the business: Perspective on the involvement and incorporation of the business goals and strategies within IT.
  • IT and the technology industry trends: Self-assessing the technology and tools offered from IT and if those are following the latest trends.

This set of articles can serve as a clear self-assessment guide for IT organizations. Each of the questions of will have different answers with a certain weight, rated in stars, it should be self explanatory. To close each question, I’ll provide my thoughts on how to overcome if you are getting a lower rating and the aspects you should be paying attention the most. 

1. Organization-Wide Assessment

1.1 Is the current organizational structure reflecting company’s strategy and priorities?

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  • Organizational charters don’t exist.
  • Departments don’t have formal links in the org chart connecting them.
  • There are always conversations and rumors about organizational changes, but no clear strategy revealed justifying it.

  • Organizational structure is clear to all employees.
  • Department charters are published and job roles are clear.
  • Departments still work mainly separate with their own strategies.

  • Organizational structure will change when necessary to accommodate business goals.
  • There are organizational success metrics defined.
  • There are clear rules for operation within the organization to avoid responsibilities overlap or conflicts.

There are certain organizations where the first thing to do is to define the chain of command, level of centralization (functional, divisional, etc.), and who are the people that are going to be leaders. And after that, adapt your structure based on those requirements. In those scenarios, innovation activities will mainly depend on the leader attached to that area.

Speaking in a very high level, to understand if the organizational structure can be successful for the business goals (once those are defined), there are a few components that need to be present:

  • Governance plan needed to make decisions. Here a steering committee can be defined initially to develop the business plan and formalize metrics. With the leaders’ definitions, the hierarchy and organizational chart can be demarcated.
  • Rules for operation. This is where you state how formal and informal groups will operate. It is important to have some of the critical definitions to avoid confusions or conflicts.
  • Work distribution. Clear demarcation of activities and roles, answering to the organization goals.
  • Adaptability to change. The business plan will change; therefore, your organization structure should change as well. Divisions and departments should adapt as you are evolving and the company grows.
  • Simplified communications among divisions. Structures and processes that could transform the divisions into silos should be avoided. In these cases, areas not able (or willing) to communicate with other areas generate dysfunctional organizations. Formal and informal channels of communications are needed in every organization.

1.2 Can the company leaders connect strategy with the work being done across business units?

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  • Our leadership doesn’t discuss corporate direction, or if they do, it is very vague and inconsistent.
  • There are no publications or briefs around company’s strategy.

  • Each department has its own plan, which informs the projects IT takes on.
  • One or more key leaders think strategically and formalize a vision or guidelines for the future.
  • Company’s has promoted new executive and innovative positions (like Chief of Employee Experience Officer) that can feed into a strategy.

  • Strategy definition is an enterprise wide practice and can be revised recurrently if needed.
  • IT leaders are asked to actively participate in strategy meetings and ensure that IT projects are aligned with business goals.

As I mentioned in my previous article, strategy is a never-ending journey. As business and technologies are always changing, our strategy and hence our activities should adapt as well.

For giving you a concise example, in the agile framework the product backlog defines the functionalities needed for the solution that is being asked, usually translates specific use cases required by the customer into line items that need to be delivered. A sprint backlog defines activities for the team to execute within a sprint (one week, two weeks or another period defined).

A very basic principle of the methodology is that every item in the sprint backlog needs ALWAYS to be associated with an item in the product backlog. If you have items that don’t match, you are doing something that is not required to be delivered.

Talking about organization wide, the principle should stay the same. Each department and roles need to have clear activities and responsibilities, and must match with business goals, including when those change.

There’s also a common misconception about IT people that assume they were hired because they have a specific skillset/experience to execute certain type of activities (i.e. implement and operate a specific backup solution). You are being hired to support a business requirement, which can require adapting your activities and responsibilities when those business requirements and strategy change (i.e. manage a different backup solution or change how you operate the solution).

1.3 Is your company supportive of changes when they are necessary?

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  • It is safer to reject than accept an idea when someone suggests a change.
  • People can be penalized or accused of “not being compliant” if they intervene or try to change existing processes in a positive way.

  • The company has some leaders looking to implement changes, only small changes are being applied.
  • Recently leadership introduced a change that represents a big shift from the business as usual mindset.
  • A center of excellence area/team has been defined to deliver new capabilities in the organization.

  • Employees are results oriented and they are rewarded for being part of new outcomes.
  • Change and innovation are encouraged by providing resources and tools (i.e. innovation labs).
  • There was a recent disruptive change that produced good results, people associated with that initiative were recognized.

Inertia is Newton’s first law of motion, a fundamental principle of physics. He defined it as “the innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavors to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line”.

This is a very powerful force within most organizations, based on the concept of cognitive inertia. This is the tendency to stick to existing ideas, beliefs, and habits even when they no longer serve us well. It’s much easier to keep the same train of thought/opinion/course of action than to reflect on the chance that we might be wrong and update our views. It takes a lot of work to stop that inertia from happening commonly in organizations.


Inertia as the basic principle to explain objects in state of motion or stay at rest

“Business as usual” you may hear from certain leaders when there’s a significant change in the market and not encouraging employees to adapt accordingly.

It’s OK. We’ll be fine” example provided in my first article regarding the Blackberry leadership when the iPhone was released. We know the end of that story.

Not all changes or alterations would require drastic strategy modifications, but you are required to adapt. Make sure you are measuring the right metrics and rewarding results that offer innovation.

1.4 How is your company staffing projects and initiatives?

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  • Company does not qualify who works on what project, it is mainly decided on who’s available when the work is needed.
  • People with good personal relationships with leadership tend to get assigned to the most interesting work.
  • Employees stay within the area and project they get hired, moving to different areas it’s not encouraged.

  • There is certain formal delineation regarding existing talent and skills that are used to match initiatives.
  • Team collaboration occurs when there’s a specific need, no cross-team proactive assignments when the initiatives are being planned.
  • Managers with most successful projects tend to keep their staff.

  • Business strategy defines projects and suited team members to participate.
  • Employees are being measured by company and team goals.
  • Leaders right balance the assignments to make sure even people without the required qualifications can participate in new initiatives to keep them developing.

Assigning people to projects and initiatives can be very much a cultural aspect in each company, based on certain “comfort zones” and sometimes not taking risks to make changes. Looking to maintain the inertia mentioned earlier.

Matching all initiatives with only people with the required skillsets won’t be always a good idea. As an IT leader you need to make sure you are providing the right level of “discomfort” to your employees. Keep them motivated with meaningful work, which in certain cases are not going to be the activities they know how to do it.

If you have motivated and proactive employees and you want to keep them that way, why give them something to do that they know how to do it by heart?

1.5 What are, in your perception, the company’s levels of inclusion and diversity?

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  • Company leaders don’t talk much about diversity or inclusion activities.
  • The company tends to hire and/or promote people with the same educational background and personality types.
  • It is a known secret that there are pay gaps among employees with different genders, ethnicity and/or educational backgrounds.

  • Executives have begun emphasizing the importance of diversity and inclusion.
  • The existent pay gap have been detected as an issue and the leaders are acting against it.
  • HR training is being developed and occasionally provided to employees around diversity and inclusion.

  • Diversity and inclusion are visible at all levels within the company.
  • Leadership sponsors and communicates around programs for diversity, female leadership and other inclusion initiatives.
  • Diversity and inclusion are mandatory trainings for new employees. Corporate direction enforces the message of the importance and penalties that could apply if they are not met.

Diversity and inclusion are always sensitive subjects that are difficult to discuss in a company, even with peers. There’s a very important cultural factor on these topics and, if there’s an existing problem, needs to be tackled right away.

The behavior needs to be consistent across the organization. If you are leading an IT department, make sure you are doing your part. For example:

  • Rethink and redesign hiring and promotion practices.
  • Make sure team members can speak up, propose new ideas and implement suggestions.
  • Request feedback, ask your employees what motivates them, makes them happy and valued. And, of course, make use of that information.

A recent Gartner study, considering IT and technology organizations, showed that teams that are inclusive and diverse outperform the teams that are not:

1.6 Is there a clear process to determine prioritization in the organization?

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  • The person that screams the loudest (i.e. escalates rapidly) takes priority.
  • Personal relationships and politics are main factors on defining priority.
  • Disagreements about the importance of business initiatives are common.

  • Business units have roadmaps that provide guidelines with priorities.
  • Prioritization disagreements happen from time to time, but there are clear escalation paths to solve the conflict.
  • People are encouraged to accept any new requests to avoid conflict with other areas.

  • Governance informs delivery priorities and there’s a steering committee in place.
  • The prioritization process is common across business units and are tied to business priorities.

If you are an IT leader, you know there’s a recurring problem about saying yes to any new request that comes in, with the urge that some people feel the need to satisfy the person making the ask. Similar than a ticketing system, trying to solve them as they show up in the queue. There are some cases when leaders believe that saying yes to everything makes you a “business driven” department, it does not.

Organizations suffer, based on a common human behavior, that we tend to prioritize short-term tasks with faster results, than executing activities that will give us long-term outcomes.

Having an efficient and formalized governance process, integrated with the business goals, is going to be critical to solve any prioritization conflicts. Effective being one of the keywords associated to governance processes, taking weeks for a committee to define a project approval might upset stakeholders quite easily.

1.7 Is your company reaching out to partners to enrich its products and services?

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  • The company prefers not to partner with the fear of losing control by having other companies involved in the initiatives.
  • Leadership believes that all the work should be done internally.
  • Acquiring services from partner companies is usually very challenging to be able to justify.

  • Partnership opportunities are mainly opportunistic based on a specific need.
  • Partners are usually former employees that have good personal relationship with leadership.
  • There are partners in place but no centralized ownership or negotiation.

  • Company relies on partners to empower products and services.
  • Partnership network is built based on strategic definition and gaps in company’s capabilities.
  • Tiered partners are defined, including preferred partners.

A study from the CMO Council says that 85% of business owners believe that partnerships are essential for business success. But still, forming partners and alliances represents a challenging task for most organizations.

There’s an interesting aspect about partners, usually the strong and fruitful relationships transform not only on successful initiatives but also on opening new markets, attracting more clients and so on. In those cases, partners can be considered indeed as an important customer, yet they are not treated like that.

Dr. Evil informing about a new formed alliance that will benefit both companies strategically 

The main issue on having meaningful alliances resides on the lack of governance to formalize a strategy for partnerships. We must be clear that an alliance will require short-term mutual interest and a long-term compatibility. You don’t have to agree on everything; but the values, vision, financial resources and goals need to be compatible to make the relationship successful.

When you’re formalizing the strategy, consider objectives, goals, milestones, how to measure results and exit strategy for partnerships. Having those formalized will set expectations properly with your potential partners.

1.8 What is company’s position regarding Research & Development (R&D) and skills development for employees?

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  • Even though the company says they are, there is little to no investment on R&D.
  • Everyone’s replaceable, HR only needs to look for candidates with the skillsets required.
  • Performance reviews only depend on managers, there’s no formalization.

  • Company allocates time for R&D, but not consistently.
  • Job descriptions are comprehensive with clear details around skills requirements.
  • Performance reviews process formalized and consistent.

  • Company encourages the use of R&D, innovation labs and other activities to enhance employees’ skillsets.
  • Interview and review processes encourage hard and soft skills.
  • Changes are routinely made to job descriptions and measurements criteria.

This is something I’ve mentioned in my previous post. There’s seem to be a lack of sincerity in a lot of companies regarding how much time and budget is actually included in research and development.

If you are in an organization that does not include IT as part of the business and strategy planning, most likely your focus will stay around keeping the lights on, which will tend to define your activities as mainly operational and not prioritizing on innovation.

As mentioned before, IT must do their part, you need to deliver on running day-to-day activities to get leadership sponsorship to start innovating. It’s going to be challenging to obtain sponsorship if IT provides a lot of headaches around system availability or solving critical problems.

Of course, the business side must do their part as well, they cannot expect for IT to deliver excellence or brand-new technology if executive leadership is not providing the budget to upgrade old platforms that takes most of IT team to support it.

The second post of this self-assessment guide for IT organizations will focus around how well do you understand your end-users. This is probably where a lot of IT departments may be struggling the most since it represents one of the topics they feel there are no understanding gaps. And it’s hard to solve a problem you can’t fully accept. 

We are going to talk around personas, user journeys, IT capabilities for attracting talent and reducing unnecessary attrition, and the overall perception of the workplace. 

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