If, like me, you actually enjoy reading the 100+ business books that get published every year then you are probably well aware of what I like to call “the silver bullet syndrome”. In any given business book, the author generally describes a problem, documents the approaches that had been tried to solve the problem, and then finally gets around to describing the solution that finally saved the day. You can pick your favorite management strategy: TQM, Black Belt, Just In Time, etc. and there are multiple books that basically tell the same story.
That’s why when I was leafing through the Theory & Practice section of the Wall Street Journal, my attention was caught by an article by Phred Dvorak titled “Experts Have a Message for Managers: Shake It Up”. The gist of the article was that management practices that solve a particular problem at a given point in time can eventually turn on a company. This has some significant impacts on IT teams.
The article goes on to say that if you keep doing the same things over and over, even if they made you a great department at one point in time, then they will eventually lead to problems. The reasons for this dire eventuality is because you can develop tunnel vision, start to resist new ideas, stop experimenting, start to build silos, and stop being able to adapt to new changes. Dang — I though that if I could only find & read the right book, then all of my problems would be solved.
It turns out that the experts recommend that in order for an IT department to succeed in the long term, you need to set up processes & procedures that naturally cause tension and collaboration at the same time. Having both of these conditions present at the same time will help keep the department open and able to change. You have to be careful to mange both of these — too much of either will result in a workplace that nobody wants to be a part of.
Ok you say, so how can this be done in my IT department? You have many choices: reorganizing the department is a quick and dirty way to shake things up quickly. How about telling everyone that their job descriptions are only temporary. There is the IT classic: give different managers different goals (reduce costs, produce twice as many products). Separating tasks and making mangers dependent on each other in order to complete projects will also introduce new challenges.
At the end of the day I guess we are all just a little bit like zoo animals. We can get very used to what works when it is working well. We say that friction is bad, but it turns out that we all need just a little bit of conflict in our lives in order to keep us engaged in what we are doing.