What Is An IT Leader To Do When Winning Is EVERYTHING?

Sometimes IT Staff Can Get Too Focused On Winning At All Costs
Sometimes IT Staff Can Get Too Focused On Winning At All Costs

So here’s an interesting issue that I’m sure that most CIO’s and IT managers would love to have: how best to mange over-the-top “A-Type” personalities? Hey, we all know folks like this (put that mirror down!) These are the people in our company / department / team for which winning can become more important then the big picture. We all seek to have enthusiastic people on our teams, but what can we do when enthusiasm turns into something very, very bad?

So what’s the real problem with really wanting to win a discussion, a bidding war, or a design decision? Simple – focusing too much on winning can cause smart people to make bad decision errors. When IT managers and executives become overcome by competition, they can shift their goals from maximizing value to beating their competition at any cost.

Dr. Deepak Malhotra has done a great deal of study on such folks, and he spilled his guts in an article that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. What he found, is that there is very strong evidence that, what he likes to call “competitive arousal”, is at the root of a number of high profile business mistakes. IT is not immune to this effect.

Now this brings up a very good point: there is nothing wrong with wanting to win! We all enjoy winning, hey – it makes us feel good. In fact, we are often willing to pay a price to win. Just to make sure that we all understand it, there is often a good reason to want to win. We encounter competitive situations in which we want to win in all sorts of different forms: auctions, negotiations, legal issues, merges, acquisitions, promotions, or even when we go recruiting new talent. In some of these cases, it may be worth it to end up paying more than the fair value for what we really, really want because it will weaken our competition, etc.

Here’s the trick: if you are going to go after some prize with that much zeal, then you had better have done an upfront analysis of the situation and determined what your limits of loss that are acceptable are. Additionally, you are going to have to balance these against the benefits to your IT organization. If you don’t do this BEFORE you get involved in the competition, and you try to do it DURING the competition then that’s when your competitive arousal will end up overriding your rational decision making process.

So what’s an IT leader to do? We are going to have to provide you with a way to identify what causes this competitive arousal to show up. Once you can spot it, you are going to need some tools that will allow you to avoid or at least reduce the possibility that it will screw-up your IT department’s strategy or destroy your department’s value. We’ll do all of this, next time…

Have you ever seen someone in your department (you?) go out of control when they got into a competitive situation? How did it start – was it them against just one rival or did they face off against a group? When did you realize that they had gone too far? How did it end up? Was there any long term impacts due to this out of control competition? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.